Big payoff for Barner, Oregon on return gamble

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — This time a year ago, Oregon running back Kenjon Barner was dodging more questions ahead of the Rose Bowl about whether or not he would return for his senior season than about the opposing defense. This year, it’s been all football.

Barner ultimately took a gamble on one more season at Oregon and is now seeing a payoff even greater than he thought possible.

“I couldn’t have imagined that the time I spent at Oregon would go as well as it did and that I would learn as much as I did,” Barner said. “Oregon’s been good to me.”

Barner has been as good to Oregon as the school has been to him. The Riverside, Calif., native will leave Eugene as the second-leading rusher in Ducks history, with 3,480 career yards currently. He’s been part of four BCS games and this season has compiled 1,624 yards and 21 touchdowns to help Oregon go 11-1 and reach Thursday night’s Fiesta Bowl.

Things might have gone a bit differently this season for Oregon had Barner decided to cut his college career short and follow good friend and fellow Ducks running back LaMichael James into the NFL Draft. Barner admits that there were days last year when he was certain he was going pro.

“In my mind, I was leaving,” Barner said. “I felt like I had accomplished what I came to Oregon to accomplish, which obviously wasn’t the case, but in my mind last year, that was it.”

The decision to leave would have made some sense for Barner. He had already tallied 1,856 yards as James’ backup, had just won a Rose Bowl and would have begun collecting an NFL paycheck.

Coaches advised Barner to do whatever he thought was best for himself and his family, but all agreed that the then-junior needed another season of college football, one in which he could be the featured back.

“I think he needed more carries,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “He needed an opportunity to really show — and I think we knew as a coaching staff — what a great player Kenjon is.”

Added offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich: “I think that’s a great example of a guy that needed that seasoning, needed to be a more multi-dimensional guy, prove that he could be ‘the man.'”

And prove it he did. Barner entered the season at the heart of the Heisman Trophy conversation. He slid right into the hole James left via his early departure, and the Ducks’ powerful offense didn’t miss a beat.

Barner had a record-setting campaign, breaking the school’s single-game rushing record with a 321-yard performance against USC and finishing the regular season with the fourth-most rushing yards in a single season at Oregon. He could move up that list again with a big day against Kansas State.

While the coaches believed Barner needed more seasoning as the team’s starter, they were not the least bit surprised with all he accomplished.

“What you saw out of Kenjon this year, honestly, we expected out of Kenjon,” Kelly said. “Every time he had an opportunity to go into a game, to play, to contribute, he’s done it since he was a redshirt freshman.”

Barner remained in the Heisman conversation most of the season but was not named a finalist. Still, he excelled enough to position himself as perhaps the top-ranked running back in this year’s draft class.

Barner said he has “no regrets whatsoever” about returning for his senior year but knows that’s easy to say after a successful season. He knows he risked having a mediocre season or suffering an injury that could have ended his season or career.

“Playing this game of football is a gamble,” Barner said. “Every game is a gamble, because there’s no guarantee that you’re going to walk off that field without a season-ending injury or anything like that. The next play is never guaranteed.”

Barner says he’s also gained a greater appreciation for the camaraderie and the brotherhood of college football after having almost given it up. From talking to James and other former teammates, Barner has gained an understanding of the different, more individual nature of life in the NFL, where players play as much for their next contract as they do for a Super Bowl.

Once Barner is gone, the Ducks have a ready-made replacement in sophomore De’Anthony Thomas, who rushed for 686 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in all of college football.

Thomas says Barner has been “like a big brother” to him. Barner hopes his decision to return for his senior season might serve as an example for Thomas should he face the same choice next year, but he knows every players’ situation is different.

Helfrich doesn’t recall the conversations he had with Barner about whether to return or what expectations they discussed. It wasn’t about awards or stats, he says. But returning, Helfrich said, did wonders for Barner’s development and erased any doubt about his potential to thrive at the next level.

“His best interest was to prove to people that needed to be proved to that he could carry the load, so to speak,” Helfrich said. “I think he’s answered that question.”