“I have still never figured it out,” Kiffin said in November 2011, more than nine months after Thomas signed with Oregon.
A local star at Los Angeles Crenshaw, De'Anthony Thomas' decision to flip from USC to Oregon was a stunner.
And he’s not the only one.
Now one of college football’s most electrifying big-play threats as a running back and return man for the Ducks, Thomas grew up in Southern California during the height of the Pete Carroll era at USC, and like almost every other local kid, he was a Trojans fan. Having originally gained notoriety after being given the moniker “The Black Mamba” by none other than Snoop Dogg when he was playing in the rapper’s youth football league, Thomas eventually moved on to Los Angeles Crenshaw, where he developed into the No. 1 athlete in his class.
Clearly, Thomas and USC seemed like a perfect fit, so it came as no surprise when he committed as a junior. Becoming a fixture at USC home games, he immediately took on a leadership role in the Trojans’ recruiting class, even after NCAA sanctions were handed down.
For Kiffin, who was in his first year as USC's coach, Thomas was the last player he figured would flip.
But with less than a week to go until signing day, Thomas made a surprise visit to Eugene. A day or two later, a picture popped up on message boards showing Thomas wearing Ducks gear.
And when it came time to put pen to paper, Thomas announced he was headed to Oregon.
Just like that, in the span of a couple of weeks, Thomas went from the most solid of the Trojans’ verbal pledges to a signed, sealed and delivered Duck.
Soon, every theory under the sun arose as to why he made the switch -- some bordering on bad fiction -- but Thomas has indicated it was more about simply getting away and finding a better fit than anything else.
For the Trojans, it was a blow on a number of levels.
Thomas brought a unique skill set as a game breaker not possessed by any other prospect in that year’s class, so there was no way of replacing him, even if he had decommitted earlier in the process.
And although one argument always has been that Thomas would have had his offensive playmaking ability hidden at cornerback at USC, Kiffin has since stated he had every intention of getting the ball in his hands.
But perhaps more than anything, the loss of Thomas was a huge symbolic defeat. When a talent develops right in the shadow of USC -- especially one with such star potential -- it’s almost always assumed that he’ll end up in cardinal and gold.
But this time, the hometown hero bolted.
To the USC coaching staff’s credit, however, the rest of the 2011 class would remain virtually intact. Even as rumors spread during those final hectic hours leading up to signing day that several key commitments might follow Thomas’ lead, the staff worked overtime to keep everyone on board, ultimately finishing with the nation’s No. 4 ranked class.
Still, it’s safe to say that for Kiffin, Thomas will always be the one who got away. And even two years later, it’s hard not to wonder how things would have turned out had he opted to stick with the Trojans.