Rodgers, James ready for Pac-10 run
No, unlike you and me, Rodgers, the diminutive slasher from Oregon State, and James, the speedy comet from Oregon, don't have any interest in comparing themselves to each other and announcing their superiority after said comparison.
In fact, they respect each other. And if you promise to keep it quiet, these Texans sharing a great Northwest adventure at rival schools admit that they actually are pretty good friends.
"You've got two pretty good running backs from the state of Texas who've come to Oregon; people are going to try to compare us to one another," Rodgers said. "I've talked to him about it. When people ask him about it, he says, 'Man, I just tell them I worry about the defense. I don't worry about the offense. I worry about who I'm playing against.' But it's great to have another running back playing great in the conference, who represents the conference well."
Rodgers, a 5-foot-7, 188-pound junior, ranked third in the Pac-10 in 2009 with 1,440 yards rushing and ranked second with 78 receptions for 522 yards. He scored 22 touchdowns. He's durable -- 24 career starts, including 14 in a row. And reliable: His one attributed fumble in 640 career touches came in last season's Las Vegas Bowl on a poorly thrown backward pass that wasn't his fault.
James, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound sophomore, set a Pac-10 freshman record with 1,546 yards rushing -- breaking Rodgers' mark set the previous season -- which ranked second in the conference. His 118.92 yards per game ranked ninth in the nation. His 6.7 yards per carry ranked No. 1 among conference backs with at least 100 carries. Explosive? He led the nation last season with 21 carries of more than 20 yards, including four of more than 50.
Fine. Impressive numbers. But between Ducks and Beavers fans, there is only one issue: Who's better? It's an Internet message board obsession. Although it often takes on the feel of an endless "tastes great" versus "less filling" shouting match, it's an itch that requires constant scratching for these two rival sets of fans whose teams played for a Rose Bowl berth last year and may well do so again on Dec. 4.
So to make an evaluation, let's bring on some folks who don't have a horse in the race.
"They're a little bit different," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "James is a pure speed guy. He can flat fly. Jacquizz, he breaks tackles. He gets in there and makes runs that most people can't make. But I'm glad I'm not the guy who has to make the decision on who the best back is. They're both great players."
So Erickson wants to sit on the fence. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel is slightly more willing to establish a pecking order.
"This is no slight to LaMichael, but when you're playing Oregon, you're playing a system," he said. "With [former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah] Masoli holding the ball, it's like having another great tailback running the option offense. With Jacquizz, you know he's getting the ball, but you've got to find him and try to take him down. I'd say he's ahead just because of experience, but LaMichael certainly has a lot of time to prove he's as good."
Those are the best grounds for a distinction: Rodgers has done it two years in a row, and more than a few coaches wonder whether James will be hurt by the Ducks' loss of Masoli captaining their spread-option. Neither Darron Thomas nor Nate Costa -- the two candidates to step in for Masoli -- will stress a defense on the option as Masoli did, which means more focus on stopping James.
How does James think his numbers will be affected by the loss of Masoli?
"Honestly, I have no idea," he said. "We'll have to see how it is when the games start."
But James also has some things in his favor. For one, he and explosive backup Kenjon Barner are likely to be on the field together a lot this season. So there's your second distraction for a defense. Further, James himself sees the experience distinction. Only he has some now.
"The one thing you really can't coach is game experience," he said. "My biggest key was reps. If I would've known some of the things I knew at the end of the season, I would've been a better player."
"Getting up the field and trusting my speed," James said. "That was a big thing for me at the beginning of the season. I was kind of running laterally and not really getting up the field. By the end of this season, I gained a little confidence breaking tackles."
Further, not unlike Rodgers, who became a threat in the passing game as a sophomore, James will figure more heavily in the Ducks' passing game this fall. And James with the ball in space could be scary. His speed is real: He placed fifth in the Pac-10 at 100 meters while posting a personal-best time of 10.52 in the semifinals.
As for Rodgers, he's already a complete player. He's an outstanding runner, receiver and blocker -- and 2010 should just show more of the same. He owns 2,693 career yards rushing and 32 touchdowns. (Both totals rank fifth on the Oregon State career list.) If he opts to stay all four years and continues his current rate of production, he would finish second all time in the Pac-10 with 5,386 career rushing yards behind USC's Charles White (6,245).
Rodgers got to know James through his brother, James, the Beavers' All-American receiver. He calls him "a cool guy."
But really: What does he say when Oregon State fans insist he make his case?
Said Rodgers, "I just say he's a great running back. I would never say I'm better than the next man."
Ted Miller is ESPN.com's Pac-10 football blogger. Send your questions and comments to Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the Pac-10 blog.
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