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"When it comes to everything else," he says, "I like things kind of slow." Despite his flashy moves and celebrity connections, Thomas is excruciatingly shy, a self-described mama's boy forced to become the man of the house. As he looked ahead to a future at USC, he grew daunted by all his hometown entanglements. "In L.A. there was so much family, so many distractions, so many people seeing what I was doing," he says. "I needed to be on my own and grow up."
A week before signing day in 2011, Garrett called Oregon linebackers coach Don Pellum and told him that Thomas was still interested in the Ducks. Campbell was on the East Coast and immediately caught a flight to Eugene. Barner was tabbed as the host for Thomas's visit. Oregon has traditionally siphoned players from Southern California, but it had almost never beaten USC for a local gem like Thomas. "Most guys on their visit want to go to parties," says Barner. "He was different from anybody I've ever had. He was almost childlike. He just wanted to hang around and play video games all night."
Barner had expected Thomas to be arrogant and aloof, given the mania that surrounded him. "I'm nobody," Thomas told him. He committed to Oregon before he left, and against Campbell's warnings he strolled through LAX in green. During a tearful announcement, he vowed to return to Crenshaw and coach.
Everybody has a theory as to why Thomas reversed field so suddenly. Barner thinks he wanted to be the little brother for once. Campbell thinks he was weary of the hoopla. Another Ducks coach claims USC asked him to play defensive back. "We'd have let him play anywhere he wanted," Orgeron counters. "To this day I don't know what happened or why. It was a hard one to take. I'm still puzzled by it."
Orgeron can't help but wonder what the USC offense would look like with Thomas alongside quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
Snoop wears a USC windbreaker, but even his crew acknowledges that Oregon provides the best system for Thomas. Eugene is known as Track Town U.S.A., and the Ducks fit neatly into the city's endorphin-laced ethos, with a speed-freak offense that doesn't waste time on huddles. "You may be fast," says Oregon right guard Nick Cody, "but this is where you come to get faster."
Thomas's grandfather, Rayfield Dupree, taught him proper running technique by the time he was in kindergarten, and to this day Thomas adopts a sprinter's posture, holding his head so still that you could balance a Gatorade bottle on his helmet, and pushing the balls of his feet deep into the turf, turning it into a spongy springboard. While most running backs slow down to make their moves, Thomas accelerates into every cut, planting the right foot when he's turning left, the left foot when he's veering right.
"To propel yourself forward, you have to apply force into the ground," says Oregon track coach Robert Johnson, for whom Thomas was a member of the 4 × 100 relay team that finished second at the Pac-12 championships last spring. "Guys in other sports aren't always efficient at that. De'Anthony brings elements of the track world to football."
Thomas has a new nickname, DAT, which inspires DATMAN T-shirts at Autzen Stadium and cries of "Look at DAT!" In the opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1, almost every time Thomas went in motion, half the defense shifted. None of Oregon's 2012 opponents have dared kick off to Thomas. Of course he would prefer a feature role, but he doesn't mind that he is being preserved as carefully as Stephen Strasburg. "He's the most selfless kid I've ever been around," says Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "He never asks for more touches. He's more pissed when we take him out as a gunner."
Thomas still can't bear to watch his highlights, and on the day after games he still grabs his fishing pole. He's found a patch of dirt behind Kowloon restaurant in Eugene, along the Mill Race, a tributary of the Willamette River. Surrounded by cottonwood trees, he casts for trout while his girlfriend reads a book. There he can sit still for a few precious hours, before the whistle blows and it's time to get suited and booted.