True freshman De'Anthony Thomas is an instinctive football player with phenomenal natural ability. He's made a huge contribution to Oregon this season, accounting for 12 touchdowns in nine games. But he's not on the Ducks' two-deep depth chart.
See, there's a problem. Where would he go?
"To be honest, I'm not really sure what position," said Thomas, a 5-foot-9, 173-pound Los Angeles native. "I just do whatever I can to contribute to the team."
Contribute? Oh, he's done that. Thomas is 18th in the nation in all-purpose yards with 150.67 per game. He's third on the Ducks in rushing with 351 yards and five touchdowns. He averages 8.5 yards per carry. He's the Ducks' No. 2 receiver with 25 receptions for 362 yards and six touchdowns -- averaging 15.3 yards per catch. He's returned punts -- on three attempts his long was 48 yards -- but he's become the No. 1 kick returner, averaging 26 yards per attempt with a 93 yarder for a touchdown against Washington State.
He's also a gunner on the punt team.
So Chip Kelly, what position does Thomas play?
"Diverse," the Ducks coach said. Kelly expanded by saying that Thomas' role has evolved.
"He's really quick in picking things up football-wise. So we've kind of brought him along," Kelly said. "He's got a really good football mind."
Of course, the first impression wasn't that great. Thomas made a number of impressive plays in the season-opener against LSU, but he punctuated two of them by fumbling. Those fumbles in Ducks territory played a major role in that game transforming from tight to a decisive Tigers victory.
After the game, Thomas bemused reporters with a seeming obliviousness to his miscues. They wanted some level of chagrin. Thomas didn't provide it.
Turns out the Thomas was pretty much over it. Fumbling hadn't been an issue before and he remained confident it wouldn't become one. And it hasn't. Thomas' solution was to work a little harder in the weight room.
"[The LSU game] gave me a feel for college football and the things I need to get better at," he said. "Things happen. I feel like I've gotten better throughout the season."
While the nation hasn't seen much of Thomas since then, it likely will see plenty of him Saturday against Stanford in a national broadcast on ABC. If you're looking for an X-factor on the Ducks' offense, he's it. If the Cardinal obsesses too much about LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, it might suddenly see Thomas with the ball in space. And Thomas with the ball in space isn't a good thing for a defense.
"He's a complete football player," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He can do a little bit of everything. He's got ridiculous speed. But he can stop and start and change direction. He's not just a straight line guy."
James agrees. He started praising Thomas early in preseason camp and hasn't stopped.
"He does everything right," James said. "He's a phenomenal player."
The skinny on Stanford is it lacks across-the-board speed on defense. It plays an aggressive, sound, physical scheme and the Cardinal doesn't make mental mistakes. But brains won't tackle Thomas in the open field.
Expect Kelly to get creative with James, Barner, Thomas and receiver Josh Huff, another burner, spreading them out across the field. That's a lot of speedy playmakers to account for, and that taxes a defense.
Said Kelly, "We have ways to get all of those guys on the field at the same time."
Thomas is ready for his encore on a national stage. It remains to be seen if Kelly's position for Thomas -- "Diverse," -- catches on.