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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

January 6, 2014 at 12:19 PM

Hundley’s return a huge boost to Bruins, but DAT, we hardly knew ye . . .

The last 24 hours have brought major go-or-stay NFL decisions by a couple of Pac-12 football standouts, and it’s a split decision (though one with far more upside than down for the league): UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is returning for 2014, and Oregon’s flashy runner/receiver/returner De’Anthony Thomas is gone to the League.

UPDATE: Ducks cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, an All-American, is returning in 2014, and that’s a big one for Oregon. (I’m guessing that if you asked Oregon coaches whom they’d rather have back if they could only pick one — Ekpre-Olomu or Thomas — they’d have gone with the corner, especially since fellow corner Terrance Mitchell has declared early for the NFL.)

First, let’s concede that the decision to leave is always a personal one for the athlete, geared around financial considerations, readiness and comfort level around coaches and teammates. We shouldn’t bag on those who choose to take their craft out to make a living, especially in a brutal sport like football.

That doesn’t prevent us from applauding the decision of Hundley, if solely from the standpoint of appreciating the fact we get to see him another year as a collegian. Hundley is a severe running threat — did you see his 86-yard jaunt for a touchdown in the Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech? — and my sense is that he could benefit from another year of polish as a passer, even as he completed a robust 66.8 percent of his throws this year.

Hundley ranks third in UCLA history in total offense, touchdown passes and completions. His decision prompted UCLA publicists to trumpet his return with a cover page on the Bruin website, touting him as a Heisman candidate in 2014, and he obviously is.

It’s also a coup for the league, giving it, in combination with Marcus Mariota’s choice to come back to Oregon, two front-and-center Heisman contenders for next season. Their decisions to return continue a tradition of quarterbacks in recent years opting to stick around — Jake Locker, Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley. Next up is a decision by Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, and my hunch is, he also sticks around.

I’d think it also might vault UCLA into the conversation as a possible national-title contender. This was a very young team in 2013.

As for Oregon’s Thomas, his move wasn’t entirely unexpected. He had an injury-marred, relatively tame junior season that reached a nadir in November when he was quoted that the prospect of the Rose Bowl was “not a big deal at all. We already won a Rose Bowl, so it feels like, ‘Whatever.’ ”

Not a good comment. You can understand the frame of mind that might have led Thomas to that observation, but on the West Coast, the Rose Bowl is sacrosanct, and the words didn’t shine a good light on either Thomas or Oregon. And more than that, it further clouded a season in which he was an on-again-off-again proposition with an injury, causing some to question whether he was trying to stay healthy to skedaddle to the NFL.

No doubt, he was a rare athlete. But he always left me wanting more. Thomas was a Ferrari that you took out of the garage only occasionally.

Some of his numbers were both modest and spectacular. As a sophomore, he rushed 92 times — for a 7.6-yard average. He caught 45 passes, but as a receiver, he was mainly employed on shorter routes. That sophomore season, he returned 13 punts, for a 17-yard average.

The stats dropped off this year, partly because of the injury, although the rushes nosed up to 96 attempts.

Will be interesting to see how Thomas is projected in the NFL. He’s listed by Oregon at 5-9 and 169 pounds.





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