The rumors trickled out early Saturday morning.
By the afternoon, several Twitter luminaries, fan blogs and message board discussions bandied the then unsubstantiated news of a high-profile Duck making plans to announce his intentions to leave the Oregon football program. With University of Oregon Assistant Director of Media Services Andy McNamara already declaring last Friday that running back Kenjon Barner would return to Eugene for his senior season, the groundswell of speculation surrounding this new, unidentified player grew and grew, as focus became concentrated on a handful of names. Finally, around 5:30 p.m. Saturday evening, McNamara confirmed the contemplations of many fans and members of the media throughout the day: That Darron Thomas would indeed forego his senior season and declare for the upcoming 2012 NFL Draft.
Thomas' departure leaves precocious sophomore-to-be, Bryan Bennett, as the expected heir apparent to the quarterback position. Bennett, who earned his first collegiate start at Colorado in place of Thomas (knee) and who had seen considerable action throughout last season, possesses the kind of athleticism and arm strength that had many fans seriously pining in 2011 whether he should be the rightful starter, even as Thomas rapidly recovered from a mid-season injury. A true dual-threat weapon, Bennett might be the closest thing Oregon and head coach Chip Kelly have had to Dennis Dixon since Dixon's injury-shortened final season in 2007.
True freshman Marcus Mariota -- a redshirt in 2011 -- is highly touted and had an impressive year of development, according to coaches, and will likely contend for the No. 2 quarterback position with incoming freshmen Jake Rodrigues (who has already enrolled for winter term) and Jeff Lockie, who won't arrive on campus until summer.
Certainly, Thomas' decision to leave early was and will continue to be met with considerable skepticism. Besides dismissing preconceived notions that college spread quarterbacks have a sharper learning curve in acclimating to NFL offenses as opposed to pro-style passers, Thomas will have to answer legitimate questions from professional scouts who will frown upon his elongated throwing motion and below average footwork in the pocket, among other things. While his 23-3 ledger as a starter and numerous passing records at Oregon won't be completely discredited when evaluating his "draftability", Thomas, by many educated accounts, is leaving prematurely.
Considering the surprising nature of Thomas' seemingly abrupt decision, it's natural to wonder whether there was more at play behind the scenes. Did the ongoing NCAA investigation into Oregon's relationship with former Texas-based scouting service owner Will Lyles and potential subsequent sanctions influence Thomas' decision to leave? If so, why is Barner -- whose draft evaluation was reportedly quite favorable compared to Thomas' -- opting to stay? Was the emergence of Bennett a threat to Thomas maintaing his role as starting quarterback going in to next season? Hard to fathom, especially given Thomas' proven leadership qualities, experience, and impressive aforementioned accolades.
The only one who truly knows is Thomas, who suggests that foregoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft is nothing more than a business decision; one primarily motivated by family and his ability to not only have an opportunity to provide for them, but to do it immediately. Thomas' documented background acceptably reinforces his reasons. The product of a single-parent household growing up in Houston, Texas, Thomas witnessed first hand the day-to-day struggles his mother Latina had in raising him and his sister, Alexis.
Indeed, sticking around another season would have likely helped Thomas improve his draft stock. He could have used his senior season to feature improved throwing mechanics, pocket awareness, and decision making, while potentially leading what expects to be a loaded Oregon team capable of contending for a 2013 BCS National Championship and fourth straight conference title.
But at what risk?
Injuries and football go hand-in-hand and at Oregon, catastrophic injuries to quarterbacks have historically come with the job description. That, coupled with a comparatively weak draft class at quarterback (outside of Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III) and Thomas' belief that he has accomplished everything he set out to do at Oregon, and it becomes even easier to acknowledge why Thomas went with what he reasonably determined to be a safer bet.
Bob Jones, Thomas' former high school football coach, supports his former pupil's decision, citing Thomas' "underdog" mentality and work ethic as reasons you should bet on the quarterback who will go down quietly regarded as one of the most successful in Oregon history.
Are those attributes enough though to avoid Darron Thomas from conceivably becoming another name in the draft annals of those who risked big by declaring too early and lost?
The odds are no doubt stacked against Thomas as he suddenly closes one chapter of his career in order to begin the next.
For his sake, you hope his business decision is a shrewd one.
Follow Chris Courtney on Twitter at eDuckCCourtney
For Thomas, It's All About Business
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