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Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas key to limiting Anthony Barr

Where exactly does the returning De'Anthony Thomas fit into the Oregon offense?

Sophomore running back Byron Marshall has rushed for at least 112 yards in each of the last four games, including the win over California on Sept. 28, when Thomas sprained his ankle returning the opening kickoff. Marshall has seven rushing touchdowns over that stretch, and true freshman Thomas Tyner has come along nicely with 306 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Bralon Addison has been a breakout star as a return specialist and receiver, and paired with Josh Huff, they form one of the better pass-catching tandems in the Pac-12. Daryle Hawkins and Keanon Lowe don't put up much in the way of statistics but are reliable veterans and fine run-blockers as the third receiver.

That would seem to leave Thomas, as versatile and explosive an offensive weapon as can be found in college football, as a man without a place on the field.

"We'll have to wait and find out from a game plan standpoint how everything shakes out," Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich said Tuesday during the Pac-12 coaches teleconference. "Your personnel groups are obviously dictated by what you can do."

But Thomas, who is averaging 8.0 yards per carry this season and has caught 94 passes for 1,108 yards and 14 touchdowns in his college career, is a rare game-breaker, leading UCLA linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich to compare the Black Mamba to Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears.

"He plays running back kind of like a returner at times," Ulbrich told the Daily News. "The beauty of Devin, like the beauty of No. 6 (Thomas), is the fact that the play is always alive and the blockers know that. When you have a belief as a blocker that your guy’s always alive, you block harder, you block longer, you finish."

Thomas (5-foot-9, 169 pounds) can also dictate matchups and give quarterback Marcus Mariota an indication of whether the defense is in man or zone coverage by moving in and out of the backfield. More important this week against UCLA, Thomas could occupy outside linebackers Anthony Barr and Myles Jack.

Despite being a true freshman, Jack has been outstanding operating in space, with one interception and a team-high six pass breakups.

Barr, the brilliant senior pass-rusher that sits atop NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt's Hot 100 list, has such remarkable athleticism that the Bruins have even had him cover slot receivers this season.

"He is showing really what he can do this year," UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley said. "People thought he couldn't pass coverage or anything like that, but he can do it all. In one-on-one man coverage, we'll have our slots out there and he'll be covering them and have them on lockdown. This game is going to fit his strength and show what he can do as a full defensive player."

"They are equipped to stop a lot of people," Helfrich said.

Oregon, however, thrives on creating favorable matchups and forcing the opposing defense into making unpalatable choices. Thomas does that better than anyone else on the roster. And if Thomas can take Barr, who leads the Pac-12 with 11 tackles for loss and ranks fourth with four sacks, away from the line of scrimmage for even a handful of plays, that means everything for UO.

"He deserves all the hype he's getting," UO defensive end Tony Washington said of Barr. "It's the total package. He's great at causing havoc."

Thomas might not have a major statistical impact in his return from injury Saturday, but wherever he fits in, he could well be the piece that determines how the game unfolds.

Follow Dan Greenspan on Twitter @DanGreenspan.

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