EUGENE, Ore. -- After the disappointment of sitting out the opener -- but with the understanding of why he had to -- Oregon running back LaMichael James looks forward to returning to football on a grand stage at Tennessee.
The No. 7 Ducks visit the Volunteers this Saturday, making a rare foray into SEC country. James will make his season debut after a one-game suspension because of offseason trouble kept him out of Oregon's 72-0 rout of New Mexico.
"I really wanted to be with my teammates, you know," he said. "But you have to deal with consequences with everything in life. I'm just eager to get back out here this week."
James is the Pac-10's leading returning rusher. He ran for a Pac-10 freshman-record 1,546 yards last season and was named the league's freshman of the year. Among his highlights was 183 yards rushing in Oregon's 47-20 upset over then-No. 5 USC on Halloween night.
Oregon went 10-3 and earned its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1995, and James was a sensation in Eugene. Considered a good kid, it was a shock when he was suddenly arrested on domestic violence charges on Feb. 17.
James got into an argument with an ex-girlfriend that turned physical. The woman claimed he grabbed her by her neck and shoved her to the ground.
James spent two days in jail. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge and Ducks coach Chip Kelly suspended him for the opener.
Kenjon Barner took his place last Saturday against the Lobos, rushing for 147 yards and four touchdowns in his debut as a starter. He added a reception for another TD to tie Oregon's modern scoring record.
"It's probably going to give a little fear to Tennessee to know that Kenjon comes out and scores five touchdowns in the first half and that's our second guy," Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl said. "So getting LaMichael back is going to help us out a lot and it's going to open a lot of things up for everyone else."
Because of Barner's breakout, there were rumblings that perhaps the Ducks should be making a switch at starter. Kelly nixed the notion and even seemed a bit peeved that it came up.
"We play both those guys just like we always have. I don't know if this is new, Kenjon Barner has 225 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl so we've been playing two running backs here for a long time," Kelly said. "[In] 2007 it was Jonathan Steward and Jeremiah Johnson, 2008 we had 2,000-yard rushers in LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson.
"Now we've got two quality backs, 1A and 1B, in LaMichael and Kenjon. They both played a ton in the Rose Bowl and they're both going to play a ton in Tennessee," he said.
It is likely that Oregon will use both at times in their spread-option offense.
"These guys are going to be extremely fast, and they hit the holes hard," Tennessee linebacker Austin Johnson said. "They try to find the openings in the holes. So as long as we try to close down the gaps between us, we should stop it."
Oregon is 3-4 all-time against members of the SEC but has a two-game winning streak after consecutive victories over Mississippi State in 2002 and 2003.
While the Ducks pride themselves on the hostile environment of Autzen Stadium, they certainly are not used to the sheer size of Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, capacity 102,455.
"I'm really excited. Anytime you get to play in front of 100,000 people and play in an SEC stadium, it really is a big deal," James said.
The Ducks were doing their best to prepare, practicing this week in their indoor facility with the heat and humidity cranked up.
After Oregon's big victory against New Mexico, the Ducks jumped from No. 11 in the preseason rankings. But even as the defending Pac-10 champions, they're still striving to get the recognition of the top-tier programs while under the radar in the Pacific Northwest.
"It doesn't matter who we play, we're going to treat it like a national championship game," James said. "But a little more hype does go into this game and we're really practicing hard and we really know what's at stake."