Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas Is a Touchdown Waiting to Happen
Small Ball Makes a Comeback
Cup Contenders Call on Every Resource for That Extra Mile per Hour
Jeff Saturday Has Been the Fulcrum of Two Teams’ No-Huddle Offense, the Most Dynamic Attacking Scheme
(NEW YORK – September 19, 2012) – Having breezed to a 3-0 start and a #3 ranking in the AP poll, the Oregon Ducks are off and running. Much of the team’s quickness can be attributed to sophomore running back De’Anthony Thomas, whose lightning-fast speed and Heisman potential land him on the cover of the Sept. 24, 2012, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands now. This is the first time Thomas has appeared on the cover, and the first time an Oregon player has appeared since LaMichael James on Dec. 13, 2010.
Like countless other college stars, Thomas got his start in a youth football league. But the man who discovered him wasn’t just any suburban dad: Thomas’s Crenshaw Bears were one of the first teams organized by Snoop Dogg’s youth league in Los Angeles. In the fall of 2005, Thomas caught the rapper’s attention when he fielded an opening kickoff six yards deep and brought it out for a touchdown. Snoop Dogg immediately rushed to the press box, grabbed the P.A. microphone and hollered, “The Black Mamba!” Thomas’s nickname was born. The rapper told senior writer Lee Jenkins (@SI_LeeJenkins): “I think it took him seven seconds to get to the end zone. He was like a snake in the grass” (page 46).
At 5’ 9”, 176 pounds, the Ducks are protecting Thomas like a vintage sports car. Yet he is making the most of limited playing time, averaging one touchdown for every 4.4 touches and 76 yards per carry. Though technically listed as a running back, Thomas’s speed – he runs a 4.38-second 40-yard dash – makes him a threat as a wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner and gunner on special teams. Says Oregon left tackle Kyle Long of his teammate’s blazing speed: “You watch the NFL, you watch college, there’s no one like him. He’s the next generation of position. He’s not a running back or a receiver. He’s a bullet.”
On the Tablets: Heisman Watch: De’Anthony Thomas video.
The general decline in home runs across major league baseball over the last few seasons has been mirrored by a rise in stolen bases, and that is having an impact on pennant races in both leagues. Offenses are scoring at their lowest rate since 1992, and batters are getting on base at the lowest percentage since 1988. The value of speed players such as the Braves’ Michael Bourne and the Angels’ Mike Trout hasn’t been this great in nearly 20 years. Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “You need to get a lot more creative in scoring runs against better pitching. You need to steal bases; you need to take the extra base; you need to put pressure on opposing teams” (page 40).
All this makes Reds prospect Billy Hamilton even more intriguing. Hamilton obliterated baseball’s professional record for steals this season, with 155 in the minors. His legend seems to grow every day: the phenom who steals bases on pitchouts, scores from second on sacrifice flies and catches fly balls on the warning track. (He’s a shortstop). Most important though, when they are on base, he and other speed players make pitchers think differently. Former infielder Delino DeShields, who managed Hamilton in the minors in 2010 and ’11 said, “Baseball is coming back to its natural state. It was always meant to be about speed. It was always meant to be played fast.”
On the Tablets: Slideshow of baseball’s most disruptive base stealers.
CHASING VELOCITY – LARS ANDERSON (@LarsAndersonSI)
With the race for the Chase Sprint Cup under way, the most valuable player is not the driver. It’s the crew. Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson understands better than anyone that his crew chief, his team and above all a well-thought-out plan give him a better chance of winning (page 54).
Johnson, who took second, 3.171 seconds behind Keselowski in Sunday’s race, explains, “There’s just so much that goes into winning a race. The technical aspect of our sport now rivals NASA’s.”
Jeff Saturday may be the NFL’s luckiest center. For 13 years, Saturday worked with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. As a Colt, he snapped more footballs to the same quarterback than any other center in NFL history and picked up a Super Bowl ring along the way. Now in his first year with the Green Bay Packers, Saturday is coupled with another passer who seems destined for the Hall of Fame: Aaron Rodgers (page 58).
In the era of high-tempo passing games and no-huddle offenses, a quick-thinking and clearheaded center—who can also block a 350-pound nosetackle—is essential. Once considered too small for the NFL, Saturday has proved the value of leverage and quickness. Through the Packers first two games, Saturday’s pass blocking has been nearly flawless, allowing just one QB pressure. Former Colts guard Ryan Lilja, who played with Manning and Saturday in Indianapolis from 2004 through ’09 said, “His hands are like meat hooks, and he plays with no gloves, gets in there and locks on a guy’s chest and the guy is finished. Never loafs for a single play. Never makes excuses. Plays hurt.”
On the Tablets: Podcast with Peter King and Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.
There are a lot of fast guys in football, but how does their speed compare with Usain Bolt’s? Titans running back Chris Johnson has suggested he could beat Bolt, and a handful of football players have competed as Olympic sprinters (page 49).
Even given the differences between running on a football field and running on a track, renowned biomechanist and director of USA Track & Field’s elite sprint-and-hurdle program Ralph Mann thinks Bolt could blow away a 40-yard dash field: “All things considered, I would guess he may just be able to break four seconds. It would be close.”
Human error is a redundancy, and imperfection makes life and baseball interesting. On Saturday, September 16, 2012, Jose Reyes made the 500,000 (that’s right, half a million) error in major league history. For SI, it was an occasion to meditate on human fallibility and baseball (page 12).
In a world obsessed with speed and instant gratification, it is no surprise that we apply the same expectations to sports. Can you shoot the ball fast enough? Is it a quick or no-huddle offense? In these speedy times, we have to stop and take a look at the nuances of the sport. The knuckleball is one of those nuances. Former knuckleballer Phil Niekro said, “All the managers and G.M.’s say they want guys who know how to pitch. They say location and movement are more important than velocity. I love what guys like R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield have done, proving that velocity is not the answer to everything” (page 68).
THIS WEEK’S FACES IN THE CROWD
- Chioma Ubogagu (Coppell, Texas/Stanford) – Soccer
- Christian Arroyo (Brooksville, Fla./Hernando High) – Baseball
- Christine Hardin (Elizabethton, Tenn./Elizabethton High) – Soccer, Football
- Robby Shelton (Wilmer, Ala./St. Paul’s Episcopal) – Golf
- Kayli Barker (Las Vegas/Mountain View Christian School) – Auto Racing
- Alex Brill (Madison, Wis./Wisconsin) – Cross-Country
To submit a candidate for Faces in the Crowd, go to SI.com/faces. Follow on Twitter @SI_Faces.
INSIDE THE WEEK IN SPORTS
- NFL (page 26): Brains of the Bay – Greg Roman, San Francisco’s mad-scientist schemer, has reanimated the 49ers’ offense with a scary array of bodies. (@SI_JimTrotter)
- Soccer (page 30): Judging Jurgen – World Cup qualifying wasn’t supposed to be this hard – or look this ugly. After a Jamaican scare, it’s time to evaluate the man in charge of the U.S. men’s national team. (@GrantWahl)
- Boxing (page 31): Middle Men – The landscape between 160 and 168 pounds is crowded with hungry, exciting and talented fighters. Here’s a look at the roster and some potential matchups including Daniel Geale and Gennady Golovkin. (@chrismannixsi)
- College Football (page 32): Primed to Plummet – To gain an idea of which unbeaten teams are primed to lose, take a deeper look at the most telling number: yards per play. – Ed Feng
- College Basketball (page 34): The Case for …Jim Calhoun – Sports gives us cool personalities, and they give us hot ones. Jim Calhoun was a hot one. (@alexander_wolff)