When Oregon QB Darron Thomas led the Ducks to their fist Rose Bowl victory in 95 years this past January over Wisconsin with a phenomenal three-touchdown performance, there was immediately talk about Thomas winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy and the Ducks winning a national championship this fall.
But to the surprise of everyone, Thomas flew the coop in Eugene to leave early for the NFL draft with running back LaMichael James and compared himself to Cam Newton, who Thomas outplayed a year before in the BCS title game: “I saw what Cam Newton did this year (in the NFL). He took his raw talent and made a spark. I can do those things, too.”
Unfortunately, NFL scouts disagreed. Seen as a system quarterback in Chip Kelly’s spread offense that struggled with accuracy, Thomas’ stock dropped even further at the NFL combine when he ran a sluggish 4.80 in the 40-yard dash.
Thomas went undrafted in April while watching James get picked in the second round and former Oregon CB Cliff Harris – who was kicked off the team – sign as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Stints at minicamps with the Cardinals, Steelers and Browns for Thomas were unsuccessful. Now the AFL and CFL loom as fallback options but Thomas has his sights squarely on an NFL roster spot. The problem is, training camps start next week and Thomas is still without a team.
So how has Thomas handled all this? Just ask his high school football coach.
Bob Jones makes a point to stay in touch with his former players long after they leave and is keeping tabs on Thomas, who has declined recent interviews.
“We talked right before July 4th, around my birthday,” Jones says. “I called him to see where my present was. He and his dad said they had a surprise for me. (Laughs) I’m still waiting on it.”
Thomas returned to Texas two days after the draft to meet up and work with Jones, his old coach at Aldine High School in Houston.
“He spent the whole week before Pittsburgh’s mini-camp with me and my son Alex,” Jones says. “They worked out twice a day, throwing and running.
Since then, Thomas has worked out with old high school teammates in Houston while his agent, the infamous Drew Rosenhaus, gauges the interest of potential NFL teams.
The question remains: Why didn’t he return to Eugene?
“His mom, Chip [Kelly] and I all wanted him to stay,” Jones says. “But he made great points about why he should leave.”
No. 1: Thomas’ body of work. A 24–3 record as a starter, two Pac-12 championships and the school record for career touchdown passes (66).
“He asked, ‘How much better can I get as an NFL quarterback doing what we’re doing at Oregon?’ ” Jones said.
No. 2: Thomas had already graduated, according to Jones.
“He didn’t walk in his high school graduation since he left to be an early enrollee,” Jones says. “He told me, ‘Coach, I’ve been in school forever.’ ”
No. 3: Thomas wanted his due. He played in the shadows of Andrew Luck both years he started. If he stayed, Thomas would have been overshadowed by Matt Barkley.
“If Barkley would have come out, Darron would have stayed,” Jones says.
Being undervalued is nothing new for Thomas.
He wasn’t invited to the 2008 U.S. Army All-American Bowl despite pleas from Jones, the head coach of the West team. At Oregon, Thomas was the fifth-string quarterback in 2008 before leading a near-comeback in a loss to Boise State that put the Ducks coaching staff on notice.
Things have worked out for Thomas before. And his high school coach is certain it’ll happen again.
“It may be 2-3 teams down the line before he gets a real opportunity,” Jones says. “But Darron has all those intangibles. It’s just going to take someone willing to take a chance.”
But if that doesn’t happen soon, Thomas might be watching the Ducks he could have led to a national title this fall from his living room couch.