Ducks open spring drills

Published Apr. 4, 2012 1:16 a.m. ET

The Oregon Ducks have opened spring practice without an audience and a couple of familiar faces from last year's Rose Bowl-winning team. But their speed is still there.

''Kids had great energy,'' coach Chip Kelly said Tuesday about the first of 15 practices this month. ''Everybody was out there early running around.''

This is the first year that Oregon has closed drills to supporters, as well as the media. While some fans weren't happy with the new decree, Kelly said recently that spring practice didn't draw that many onlookers, anyway.

Also different this year was the absence of running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas, who decided to skip their senior seasons and make the leap to the NFL.

Kenjon Barner, James' backup for the past two seasons, said he's happy he decided to stay for his senior year and is looking forward to carrying a greater load. He ran for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while pulling down 17 passes for 184 yards and three scores.

Joining Barner on Oregon's speedy offense will be De'Anthony Thomas, who broke out as a true freshman last season and is listed as both a running back and wide receiver. Thomas set an Oregon freshman record with 18 touchdowns: seven on the ground, nine via the pass and two on kickoff returns.

Running back Tra Carson, who would have been a sophomore this season, has decided to transfer to be closer to home in Texas, Oregon announced on Monday night.


Meanwhile, Kelly said last week that the competition at quarterback is wide open between Bryan Bennett, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and true freshman Jake Rodrigues, an early enrollee at Oregon.

Bennett is the most experienced of the group, having started a game last season when Darron Thomas was injured.

Thomas surprised many when he announced he was declaring for the draft. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior passed for 2,761 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns last season despite missing a game because of an injury. He also ran for three scores.

In contrast, James' decision had been widely anticipated. The All-American who was a Heisman finalist his sophomore season rushed for a school-record 1,805 yards as a junior despite missing two games with a dislocated right elbow. He led the nation with an average of 150.4 yards rushing per game.

Over the weekend, James was one of those who weighed in on Oregon's decision to close the spring practice.

''I feel as Oregon fans should be allowed to watch Oregon spring practice I mean it's not like they're playing some1,'' he posted on Twitter.

When asked about closing practice in a conference call with reporters late last week, Kelly never really offered a concrete reason for the decision.

''I would say we analyze everything we do here as a football program, and look at the pluses and the minuses. And if the pluses outweigh the minuses, then that's the direction we go in,'' he said. ''There's a lot to be made of it, but I don't know if we've ever had more than 15 people at practice, so it's not like we've told thousands that they can't come to practice.''

Among those at practice Tuesday were new recruits Rodrigues, tight end Evan Baylis and defensive end Arik Armstead - especially imposing at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds.

Kelly's advice to Armstead?

''Jump in the deep end and start swimming, son,'' he joked.