The 16th-ranked UO football team has now lost its biggest star on offense, defense and special teams.
And the losses aren’t going to affect the Ducks as much as they probably should.
Two big-time playmakers done for the season — first running back LeGarrette Blount, who started the season on the Doak Walker Award watch list after scoring a school-record 17 rushing touchdowns last season, and now cornerback Walter Thurmond III, a preseason All-American and 40-game starter who was a threat to score whenever he came up with a turnover or fielded a kick.
Blount’s shoes have been filled admirably by a committee of running backs, headed by redshirt freshman LaMichael James, since Blount was suspended for the rest of the year for his meltdown after UO’s season-opening loss at Boise State.
Despite dismal statistics in that game — he carried eight times for minus-five yards and had two receptions for six yards — the prospect of winning games without one of the 2008 team’s biggest highlight-reel producers had Ducks fans worried.
And yet Oregon has won three in a row since.
James has put together an 87-yards-per-game average with 348 yards and two touchdowns, including a breakout performance against No. 18 Utah, when he finished with 152 yards and a TD on 27 carries in a 31-24 win. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has rushed for 166 yards and four TDs, and redshirt freshman Kenjon Barner has 88 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
The Ducks might be missing the total package that was Blount, version 2008 — the athleticism to leap over defenders and the power to bowl over them — but they’ve gotten along just fine without him thanks mostly to the two young tailbacks.
Those same two will also pick up the slack on special teams, where Thurmond was an exciting punt and kickoff returner who was second among Pac-10 Conference punt returners this season with a 15.0-yard average through three games and fifth among kickoff returners with a 27.7 average.
Thurmond injured his knee on the opening kickoff return of the Ducks’ 42-3 win over Cal, and the team revealed Tuesday that the senior will have to undergo surgery, ending his UO career. A week prior, Thurmond’s first special teams play was a whole different story as he fielded Utah’s first punt at the 22-yard line and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown.
Thurmond is second on the team with 377 all-purpose yards, even after missing all but the opening kickoff against Cal, which he returned 13 yards before the helmet of Golden Bears cornerback Chris Moncrease drilled Thurmond in the knee.
James, Barner and Talmadge Jackson III have all returned kicks for the Ducks. But only Thurmond has returned a punt this season; Cal punted seven times on Saturday and not one was returned. Barner is listed as the punt returner on the UO depth chart for this Saturday’s home game against Washington State. James and Barner are listed as the kick returners.
Willie Glasper, who has eight total tackles, is listed as Thurmond’s replacement on defense, where he’s expected to start at left cornerback. It was on defense that Thurmond made his biggest mark for the Ducks, tying a school record with three interceptions returned for touchdowns and finishing ninth on the UO all-time list with 12 interceptions. He finishes his UO career with more touchdowns (five) than any other non-offensive player in school history.
Big shoes to fill indeed. Glasper is not as skilled in coverage as Thurmond was, but he did tie for second on the team with four total tackles against Cal, including one for loss. And the UO secondary has been good this season, despite playing much of it without hard-hitting free safety T.J. Ward. Redshirt freshman free safety John Boyett and sophomore rover Javes Lewis have shined in the secondary and have been making plays all over the field, tying for second on the team with 24 total tackles each (linebacker Casey Matthews has 35).
Working in the Ducks’ favor is they’ll be going against a struggling Washington State team that will feature a true freshman making his first career start on Saturday.
Cougars coach Paul Wulff announced Tuesday that Jeff Tuel will get the start in Autzen Stadium after senior Kevin Lopina and sophomore Marshall Lobbestael combined for six interceptions and the team averaged 314.3 yards with 13 turnovers in a 1-3 start.
The Ducks have already shown they can win without Blount. And they’ll have an opportunity Saturday to work on filling the void left by Thurmond without a great deal of pressure, as they go into the game 31-point favorites. If the defense continues to play the way it has, and the offense clicks like it did against Cal, I see Oregon beating that spread.
Prediction: UO 52, WSU 17.
Photos courtesy of goducks.com