The Oregon football team will don ?anthracite-colored? Nike Pro Combat uniforms Saturday in the latest of the Pac-10 power?s week-to-week fashion statements.
There was a time quarterback Darron Thomas figured to sport purple and gold.
As a four-star prospect at Aldine High in the Houston area, Thomas seemed like the kind of player who would wear LSU well.
His mother?s side of the family is from Louisiana. His cousin, Dominick Davis, starred at running back for the Tigers during the Nick Saban era.
?They?d always been my favorite team,? Thomas said of LSU.
In August 2007, just before beginning his senior season, Thomas committed to LSU, seemingly closing the book on a short-lived recruitment.
But it wasn?t over.
In the coming months, LSU received commitments from two more quarterbacks (Jordan Jefferson signed with the Tigers; D.C. Jefferson eventually signed with Rutgers), and Thomas saw recruiting websites begin changing his position from ?quarterback? to ?athlete.?
The final weekend of November, Thomas ? who planned to enroll at LSU in January ? joined his high-school coach, Bob Jones, in Tiger Stadium for the LSU-Arkansas game. Aware his quarterback had grown concerned about a possible position change, Jones said he warned LSU coach Les Miles about referring to Thomas as an ?athlete? on their the visit.
During a face-to-face before the game, Miles apparently slipped up.
?I wasn?t there for that conversation, so I don?t know if Les actually said that or how he said it and what context he said it,? Jones said. ?But I know it was one of the most exciting football games I?ve ever seen, and Darron would have rather been anywhere but there.?
Two days later, Thomas walked into Jones? office and said he was ready to re-open his recruitment.
One of the first calls Jones made was to then-Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who had expressed interest months earlier.
You still interested? Jones asked.
?I?ll be there tomorrow,? Kelly told him.
Thomas visited Oregon the following weekend, liked what he saw and felt like he?d have a chance to play quarterback.
Weeks later, when Thomas made his commitment to the Ducks official, the quarterback?s mother asked him what she was to do with all the purple and gold in her closet.
?She cried when I told her,? Thomas said. ?She was big on LSU.?
Asked why he made the switch, Thomas, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, skated around the athlete-vs.-quarterback dilemma like he does around so many Pac-10 defenders.
The conversation with Miles before the LSU-Arkansas game? True story?
?A little bit of it is true,? Thomas said, ?but coach Miles gave me an opportunity. He told me I was going to be able to play quarterback there ? he was going to give me a shot. It was just like here. If I didn?t do good at quarterback, I was going to go somewhere else. It wasn?t really on coach Miles; it was my own decision. Coach Miles gave me the opportunity just like all the other coaches.?
At his weekly media luncheon, Miles gave a puzzling response when asked about the recruitment of Thomas.
?We looked at him coming out of high school as a very talented quarterback,? Miles said. ?Considering that we had just recruited Russell Shepard in that same class and if Russell Shepard really took hold at quarterback, we would have to have the ability to move either Russell Shepard or Darron Thomas, because certainly we weren?t going to allow a logjam with two guys as talented as that. It didn?t turn out to be an issue.?
Shepard helped highlight LSU?s ballyhooed 2009 signing class; Thomas would have been part of the 2008 signing class. By the time Shepard committed to Miles in March 2008, Thomas had already enrolled at Oregon and was preparing to start spring practice with his new team.
In other words, neither player affected the other?s recruitment.
?Right, wrong or indifferent,? Jones said, ?Darron?s perception was that he wasn?t sure that he was going to stay ? or start out ? at quarterback at LSU.?
Thomas has played nothing but quarterback at Oregon and was a smash hit from the start.
Early in the 2008 season, then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti burned the 18-year-old?s redshirt after Jeremiah Masoli suffered a concussion in the Boise State game. Thomas threw three touchdown passes in the final 11:06 of a 37-32 loss, nearly leading the Ducks all the way back from a 24-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Thomas took his redshirt a year later and was in line to spend last season as Masoli?s backup.
But when Masoli ran afoul of the law and was booted from the team before his senior year, Thomas became Oregon?s triggerman as a third-year sophomore.
All the Texan did was lead the Ducks to a 12-0 regular season and a spot in the BCS championship game. He passed for 2,881 yards and rushed for 486 more while operating the highest-scoring offense in school history.
?Even had Jeremiah Masoli not been thrown off the team, I always said Darron Thomas would beat him out,? Jones said.
Thomas enters 2011 as one of Oregon?s seven returning offensive starters and a potential Heisman Trophy contender. He will get a crack at LSU in the opener Saturday night with a chance to torment some of the players he once envisioned as teammates.
At some point down the road, Thomas surely will be an NFL prospect.
The whole athlete-vs.-quarterback scenario will likely play out again thanks to the junior?s dual-threat abilities.
?If I get a chance to go to the NFL, that would be great,? Thomas said. ?But right now I?m doing my best to show everybody I?m a quarterback and that I want to be a quarterback till the end.?