EUGENE, Ore. - In the weeks leading to the national championship game, the quarterback chatter will naturally focus on Auburn's Cam Newton, who certainly earned the Heisman Trophy.
That said, Oregon QB Darron Thomas has a way of getting noticed.
Just a sophomore, Thomas has capably led the No. 2 Ducks through an undefeated season and into the Jan. 10 title game against the top-ranked Tigers.
"Darron's special," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "He keeps getting better each game."
While Thomas has not put up gaudy numbers like Newton, he is so important to the Ducks' success that the players voted him one of the three most valuable members of the team, along with running back LaMichael James and linebacker Casey Matthews.
Thomas has completed 195 of 321 passes for 2,518 yards and 28 touchdowns, four shy of Akili Smith's 1998 single-season school record. Thomas also has run for 563 yards and five scores.
More important, he has been able to secure the trust of his teammates. "He is a leader every week. He leads our team every day. When he throws a pick, he bounces back," James said. "The thing about him is that he is happier when someone else scores a touchdown than when he does."
After Jeremiah Masoli's messy departure from the Ducks during the offseason, all signs pointed to fifth-year senior Nate Costa as the starter. Costa, an intern in the Springfield Police Department, was strong on leadership skills. But as more of a pure passer, he did not quite fit the mold of recent Oregon QBs like Masoli and Dennis Dixon.
While Thomas was at first compared to Dixon, he has a style all his own, marked by fast feet and quick decision-making - a perfect fit for the spread option.
"He's a great athlete. You can tell he really has a great grip and feel for this offense," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "Their running game is what most people would say 'Wow' and pay a lot of attention to, but their passing game is tremendous, and it gets you at the right times."
Thomas, a Houston native who graduated high school early and arrived in Eugene at age 17, had limited exposure to the job as a freshman in 2008, when he was pressed into duty against Boise State because of injuries. With the Ducks down 24 points, he nearly orchestrated a comeback over the final 15 minutes, throwing for 210 yards and three TDs in the 37-32 loss.
Last year he redshirted, and as a sophomore, appeared to be Costa's understudy. But Thomas surprised many when, after the team's final scrimmage, he won the starter's job. "Darron understands he doesn't have to make it happen, he just has to let it," Kelly said.
Costa proved to be a more-than-capable backup, and has still been one of the team's most vocal leaders, despite going down with a knee injury in November that required surgery and ended his college career.
Thomas, while confident in his own abilities, is quick to credit others - from James and fellow running back Kenjon Barner to receiver Jeff Maehl and his offensive line.
"I'm getting better each game," Thomas said after Oregon's regular-season finale, a 37-20 victory over Oregon State. "There's room to grow and room to clean up."
Thomas was already fielding Newton questions after that game, facing the inevitability that comparisons would be made.