Oregon’s star running backs

Photos courtesy of Jill Lycett/Jack and Jill Photography

EUGENE — There was a time when Gary Campbell had a nice view of Autzen Stadium’s interior from his office in the Casanova Center.

Gary Campbell

Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell.

That was before the scoreboard was super-sized and the bowl’s two southern corners were raised up to accommodate more fans.

Now, Campbell looks out his second-story window and sees the back of a ginormous green JumboTron emblazoned with a lightning-yellow “O,” and the extended cement wall of the stadium’s southwest corner, with merely a sliver of Autzen’s insides visible.

Chalk up the obstructed view to the price of success and progress.

And blame Campbell as much as anyone for that, because the running backs coach has been one of few constants throughout Oregon’s rise to national prominence, and the players under his tutelage have been among the program’s biggest stars along the way.

Gary Campbell’s Oregon running backs

The list of talented running backs who have played under Campbell is staggering, really.

Including LaMichael James’ yet-unfinished 2010-11 campaign, the Ducks have had running backs top the 1,000-yard rushing mark 17 times in program history.

Campbell has overseen 15 of those.

That’s 15 1,000-yard rushing seasons by 12 different players since the former UCLA fullback joined the Ducks’ coaching staff in 1983.

Tony Cherry. Derek Loville. Ricky Whittle. Saladin McCullough. Reuben Droughns. Maurice Morris. Onterrio Smith. Terrence Whitehead. Jonathan Stewart. Jeremiah Johnson. LeGarrette Blount. LaMichael James.

These are guys who have made history at Oregon, and many of them have gone on to successful careers in the NFL.

I asked Campbell if he ever takes a moment to reflect on the sheer talent he’s had during his UO career.

“I don’t really think about it that much,” he said. “I realize that those guys were all great players. I’m constantly in contact with all of them. And I think more about our relationships than I do about their accomplishments as players, because they all became very close to me; they were like my sons, and they still are.

“Those guys did some pretty remarkable things, and they’re all very, very good athletes … and they’re good people.”

Campbell’s first 1,000-yard rusher at Oregon was Cherry, who ran for 1,006 yards in 1985. Loville covered 1,202 yards in 1988, and Whittle, McCullough and Droughs each topped 1,000 during the 1990s.

Then came the first decade of the 2000s, when Campbell had a 1,000-yard rusher nearly every season.

Morris kicked things off with a 1,188-yard season in 2000, and he and Smith each rushed for more than 1,000 in 2001. Smith broke the threshold again in 2002, and Whitehead did it in ’04. Stewart busted loose for a school-record 1,722 in 2007, followed by both Johnson and Blount in 2008, then James in 2009 and 2010.

“All those guys … they were all just fabulous players,” Campbell says, “and today, I’d play with any of ‘em. If somebody said, ‘you get one of those guys, which one will it be?’ I’d say, ‘flip a coin, I’ll take any one of ’em.”

Oregon’s best running back ever?

It’s an amazingly talented group, these Gary Campbell-coached running backs. And yet, one player in particular stands out from the rest.

“LaMichael is completely different than any of those other guys,” Campbell says.

Oregon running back LaMichael James.

“LaMichael may be the best guy I’ve ever coached.”

That’s a big-time endorsement, considering both the talent Campbell has had and the relationships he’s forged with his players.

“Jonathan Stewart was probably the greatest-looking, the strongest,” he says, “but pound for pound, LaMichael is probably the best guy I’ve had.

“He’s probably the fastest … probably the quickest. He combines power with speed even though he’s not very big. I just think he does more than anybody expects him to do.”

With two games left in the 2010-11 season, James is on every college football follower’s short list for the Heisman Trophy, the annual award given to the nation’s best player. He’ll have to overtake Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in the minds of voters to win the award, but James is certainly in the conversation.

The Heisman, however, is not a part of his conversations with Campbell.

“It’s something that we don’t ever talk about,” Campbell says. “Our goal is for him to be the best football player he can be. … What I tell LaMike is, ‘you’ve got to keep getting better,’ and that’s his goal. He wants to be the best player in the country. Well, that award is what you get for being the best player in the country. So the award is kind of incidental.

“But it’s not like he’s playing to try to get the Heisman Trophy. He’s playing to win, because we want that trophy that’s for the team — that national championship trophy. And that we do talk about.”

With one regular-season game left — Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. Civil War against Oregon State in Corvallis — the Ducks are ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 polls and No. 2 in the BCS standings. Beat the Beavers, and Oregon is a shoe-in for a spot in the national championship game in Glendale, Arizona, on January 10, 2011.

It’s the first time since 2001 the Ducks have had a realistic shot, this late in the season, of reaching the title game. And James has played a huge role in Oregon moving into position to vie for that trophy.

James’ 1,548 yards with two games left — the Civil War and a bowl game — have him within range of Stewart’s school-record 1,722 rushing yards, and his 19 rushing touchdowns have already broken Blount’s 2008 record of 17. In less than two full seasons at Oregon, James already has rushed for 3,094 yards, the second-best career total in UO history, and he could very well top the 3,296 yards Loville put up from 1986-89 by the time the 2010-11 campaign is finished.

“At this point, I think he’s headed for being, maybe, the best guy that’s ever played here,” Campbell says. “Obviously he’s still got some time to go, and he’s got a lot more football to play, so we’ll see how that all plays out, but he’s already one of the greatest that’s ever played here, I believe … and he could be the one.”

Oregon’s 1,000-yard seasons under coach Gary Campbell:
1985: Tony Cherry — 1,006
1988: Derek Loville — 1,202
1995: Ricky Whittle — 1,021
1997: Saladin McCullough — 1,343
1999: Reuben Droughns — 1,234
2000: Maurice Morris — 1,188
2001: Onterrio Smith — 1,058
2001: Maurice Morris — 1,049
2002: Onterrio Smith — 1,141
2004: Terrence Whitehead — 1,144
2007: Jonathan Stewart — 1,722
2008: Jeremiah Johnson — 1,201
2008: LeGarrette Blount — 1,002
2009: LaMichael James — 1,546
2010: LaMichael James — 1,548*
* — with two games left to play in the 2010-11 season

LaMichael James’ 72-yard touchdown run against Tennessee on Saturday, September 11, 2010:

1 Comment

  1. An EXCELLENT article, Adam…a very enjoyable and enlightening read

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  1. UO Coach Campbell: “LaMichael may be the best guy I’ve ever coached.” « Duck Nation - [...] Oregon coach Gary Campbell, speaks of the running back pipeline he has created at the Oregon program... [...]

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