FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2012, file photo, Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, right, holds off Oregon State defender Anthony Watkins during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Eugene, Ore. Oregon coach Chip Kelly always used to talk about Kenjon Barner as the Ducks' first option behind No. 1 LaMichael James because both running backs were so talented. This season, with James off to the NFL, Barner becomes Oregonis No. 1 running back. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
EUGENE, Ore. -- For the past two seasons, Oregon coach Chip Kelly always described Kenjon Barner as option "1A" behind starter LaMichael James because he felt both running backs were so equally talented and integral to the Ducks' success that it was unfair to differentiate them in any broader terms.
With James off to the NFL, Barner is poised to become Oregon's No. 1 for the upcoming season.
"Right now, I think (with) Kenjon coming back for his senior year, he's going to be one of the top running backs in the country," Kelly said.
The Ducks, coming off a 12-2 season capped by a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, started spring practice this week. The season opener at home against Arkansas State on Sept. 1 is still a long way off, but Barner says he's ready to be the spotlighted back.
"Absolutely," he said with a smile.
Barner was the Ducks' second-leading rusher behind James, his good friend, for the past two seasons. He ran for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and caught 17 passes for 184 yards and three scores. In three seasons at Oregon, the 5-foot-11, 188-pound back has rushed for 1,856 yards, leaving him 354 yards away from 10th on the school's career list. He has 26 touchdowns.
James, a Heisman trophy finalist as a sophomore, announced in early January that he was going to skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft. He is projected by many to be selected in the second or third rounds.
A 5-foot-9, 195-pound All-American, James rushed for a school-record 1,805 yards last season despite missing two games with a dislocated right elbow. He led the nation with an average of 150.4 yards rushing per game.
James finished his career as Oregon's all-time leader with 5,082 rushing yards. He is the first Pac-12 player to have three straight 1,500-yard seasons.
There had been talk that Barner might himself bolt for the pros, following James. But he announced in mid-January that he was going to stay.
It's only spring, but Barner said things really haven't changed now that's he's a first-teamer.
"You got to come out and you got to work," he said. "Coach Kelly is going to push you to the limit. You have to have the same mindset. The approach may be slightly different, but it's the same thing."
Barner expects his body may feel differently than his head does once the season gets going and he's an every-down back.
"That's what I'm anticipating, seeing how that feels," he said. "I know how it felt last season."
The Ducks will need him. This week, Oregon announced that sophomore running back Tra Carson had decided to transfer to be closer to home in Texas. That leaves the Ducks with only two scholarship players at that position.
Besides Barner, Oregon has dynamic playmaker De'Anthony Thomas, who took on several roles last season as a freshman and led the team with an average of 159 all-purpose yards.
Thomas set an Oregon freshman record with 18 touchdowns: seven rushing, nine receptions and two on kickoff returns.
Thomas is listed at both wide receiver and running back this season.
With limited options at this point, Barner will be shouldering a great deal of the load at running back. Kelly said the fine line is not running him "into the ground."
Barner needs 1,441 yards to take over for Derek Loville (3,296) as the program's second all-time leading rusher behind James.
"You never know how it's going to play out," Kelly said. "but I know Kenjon is capable of being a 25-carry guy if need be."