No. 2: Oregon
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 31, 2012
Whizz. Bang. Boom. I’d tell you to keep your eyes on Oregon, but the Ducks are already gone – long, long gone, past you at breakneck speed into the end zone, good for six, and back to the sidelines. The Ducks do everything fast: Chip Kelly talks fast, rat-a-tat-tat-tat through silly question after foolish query; the team’s station-to-station practice work is a blur; the school changes uniforms like Superman, stepping out in green-yellow-grey one Saturday before opting for green-white-winged-gold a week later; the offense goes up, comes back, hikes and hustles unlike any other unit in the history of college football. The entire program has long been different, especially to those outside the state, and under Kelly’s direction, Oregon has completely and utterly embraced its unique qualities – and what makes Oregon different is what makes it great. They’re moving fast, but let’s stop and catch our breath for just one quick statement: the Ducks are awesome. Whizz. Bang. Boom. And they’re off.
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
at Washington St.
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 18
at Arizona St.
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
at Oregon St.
Last year’s prediction
So I don’t think Oregon is going to earn a second straight berth in the B.C.S. National Championship Game. I do think Oregon will lose the season opener to L.S.U., which for all intents and purposes ends its national title hopes. It’s unfortunate, but no one-loss team outside the SEC is going to play for a national title. So really, why here? Because I think this team is due to take a subtle step back. Part of this is thanks to some uncertainty along the offensive line. Another concern is a linebacker corps that lost two productive senior leaders. Basically, I think Oregon is just a little worse than it was in 2010 — enough of a drop to go from 12-0 to 10-2, if not 11-1 and atop the Pac-12.
In a nutshell It’s interesting to consider: Were Oregon’s national title hopes really dead in the water after the loss to L.S.U. in the opener? I thought they would be, way back in the days prior to kickoff, but today, I imagine that a few voters would have made a case for the Ducks and Tigers, part two, in early January. As it was, Oregon had to settle – tongue in cheek – for one of the finest wins in school history, a 45-38 victory in Pasadena that handed the program its first Rose Bowl win since 1917. While Oregon did not play for the championship, it’s possible to view last season as one of the two most impressive in school history, joining the 2010 squad that went undefeated before bumping up against Auburn.
High point The Rose Bowl, first and foremost, followed by a 53-30 stomping of Stanford – on the road, no less – on Nov. 12. The win was vintage Oregon football. Any chance U.C.L.A. had against this team ended the moment the Ducks stepped off the bus.
Low point The loss to L.S.U. or the loss to U.S.C. – and I’d go with the former. Losing to the Trojans was more symbolic than crippling; what the win did for U.S.C. was set the table for a rematch this November, likely followed by the rubber match a month later.
Tidbit Oregon is the only team in the Pac-12 North to enter the 2012 season on a winning streak. The Ducks capped last year with three straight wins: Oregon State, U.C.L.A. and Wisconsin. In comparison, California ended its season with a bowl loss to Texas, Oregon State with a loss to the Ducks, Stanford to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, Washington in the Alamo Bowl to Baylor and Washington State to Washington in the Apple Cup.
Tidbit (magic numbers edition) Oregon’s magic numbers: 300 and 100 – rushing yards gained, rushing yards allowed. Under Kelly, the Ducks are 14-0 when gaining 300 or more yards on the ground; the Ducks reached this mark eight times last fall, including a 345-yard showing in the Rose Bowl. Oregon is also 13-0 when allowing less than 100 yards on the ground, something it did four times last fall. What was the most impressive showing by the run defense? Try the Civil War, when Oregon State gained 21 yards on 16 carries.
Tidbit (conference title edition) Oregon and U.S.C. are the only Pac-12 programs to have won three straight outright conference titles since the league added the two Arizona schools in 1978 – the Trojans’ titles in 2004 and 2005 have since been vacated. The Ducks and Trojans are the only two Pac-12 programs to win three straight championships since the league was founded in 1959: Oregon from 2009-11 and U.S.C. from 1966-69, 1972-74 and 2003-5.
Former players in the N.F.L.
33 OG Mark Asper (Buffalo), DE Brandon Bair (Kansas City), RB LeGarrette Blount (Tampa Bay), S Jairus Byrd (Buffalo), S Patrick Chung (New England), QB Kellen Clemens (St. Louis), WR D.J. Davis (Atlanta), TE Ed Dickson (Baltimore), DE Ra’Shon Harris (Houston), RB LaMichael James (San Francisco), RB Jeremiah Johnson (Denver), LB Josh Kaddu (Miami), WR Jeff Maehl (Houston), LB Casey Matthews (Philadelphia), DT Haloti Ngata (Baltimore), TE David Paulson (Pittsburgh), LB Spencer Paysinger (New York Giants), S Eddie Pleasant (Houston), DE Nick Reed (Minnesota), TE Dante Rosario (San Diego), LB Kenny Rowe (San Francisco), OG Geoff Schwartz (Minnesota), C Adam Snyder (Arizona), RB Jonathan Stewart (Carolina), CB Walter Thurmond (Seattle), DT Matt Toeaina (Chicago), WR Lavasier Tuinei (Seattle), DT Will Tukuafu (San Francisco), OT Fenuki Tupou (New Orleans), C Max Unger (Seattle), S T.J. Ward (Cleveland), OT Darrion Weems (New England), WR Demetrius Williams (Jacksonville).
Arbitrary top five list
Big Three athletes born in Eugene, Ore.
1. Danny Ainge.
2. Jerry Smith.
3. Harold Reynolds.
4. Kailee Wong.
5. Elbie Schultz.
Chip Kelly (New Hampshire ’90), 34-6 after three seasons as the Oregon head coach. Let’s see: 10, 12, 12 – wins, that is. He inherited an enviable position: a program still in its prime with a deep, talented roster well suited to his offensive system. But with this position came high expectations, thanks to his predecessor’s level of success. Still, a large portion of Oregon’s success even prior to Kelly’s amazing run as head coach (29-10 from 2007-9) must be attributed to the job Kelly did with the offense, which rose from merely explosive to the most dangerous dual-threat attack in the country. Each of the past three years has seen Oregon set new school records in scoring, and the 2008 Ducks set new school marks in rushing touchdowns (47) and total touchdowns (71). The 2007 season, however, may have been Kelly’s best work; the Ducks went through four starting quarterbacks over their final four games but still managed to finish sixth nationally in rushing and lead the Pac-12 in scoring and total offense. The following year’s unit showed just what the offense is capable of with the proper personnel; ditto with 2009, ditto with 2010 and 2011 – particularly last fall. Kelly’s experience prior to being hired at Oregon came at New Hampshire, of the F.C.S., where he began as running backs coach before moving to offensive coordinator in 1999. Like at Oregon, the results at his alma mater were spectacular. The Wildcats averaged at least 400 yards of total offense in seven of his eight seasons as coordinator (1999-2006) and scored more than 30.0 points per game in each of his final four years. Were eyebrows raised when Kelly was tabbed by Bellotti as his next offensive coordinator? Not by those aware of what Kelly had accomplished at New Hampshire, nor by those intrigued by how his offense would play on the F.B.S. level with top-tier athletes. The results, as stated, have been nothing short of stunning. Kelly has been superb since day one.
Players to watch
The Ducks didn’t expect to be in this position. The plan: Oregon had a would-be senior, Darron Thomas, who had just led the program to its first Rose Bowl win in nearly a century; Oregon knew it was losing LaMichael James at running back – that was obvious – but planned on having a steady, game-tested upperclassmen leading the way under center; over the spring and summer, the staff could rebuild elsewhere while paying little attention to the situation under center. Then Thomas, in one of the more foolish early-entrant decisions of the offseason, opted to forego his final season of eligibility. What did that do to this offense? In the big picture, it will have no major impact; Oregon’s going to roll whomever starts at quarterback. But it did provide a distraction throughout the offseason, even up to this past week, and that was entirely unexpected.
It’s an intangible: Will the quarterback competition bring out the best in this offense, or was it an unneeded distraction? The one reason is will not negatively impact this offense is because of, well, the offense itself – the Ducks know that it’s not about the triggerman, but rather Kelly’s fool-proof system. And it wasn’t as if Thomas’ departure left the cupboard bare, not when Oregon returned sophomore Bryan Bennett, who was great in a reserve role last fall, and a redshirt freshman like Marcus Mariota. It was this pair that went toe-to-toe all offseason, dueling in the spring, battling in the film room over the summer and recommencing the competition during fall camp.
Mariota was named the starter earlier this week, ahead of the Ducks’ more game-tested option. Why? Partly due to potential – the higher ceiling, if you will – but also due to the fact that Mariota showcased a slightly more well-rounded game to the staff. That left Bennett with a decision: stay or go? That he opted to stay not only speaks volumes about the sophomore’s mental makeup but also gives Oregon superb depth at the position. What else? Don’t be silly: Mariota is going to deliver at an all-conference level. To say I’m not worried about Oregon’s ability to land superb play at quarterback is a massive understatement – I’m more worried about what I’m going to have for lunch. Mariota will start, play wonderfully, and Bennett will make an impact either as the backup or in certain packages.
The Ducks lose a legend in James, who I would rank as the greatest offensive player in school history, but there’s a bigger issue facing this backfield: depth – a lack thereof, rather. Senior Kenjon Barner (939 yards and 11 touchdowns) will replace James, not just in the lineup but also in terms of production, though Barner won’t quite match the former starter’s 1,805-yard junior season. Where you’ll see the biggest decline is in the number of big plays, as Barner does not possess the same straight-line speed as did his predecessor. If all goes according to plan, Oregon will spell Barner – who is still an all-conference lock – with sophomore Ayele Ford (176 yards) and true freshman Byron Marshall. If there is a question, it’s whether an option like Marshall can serve as the short-yardage back, if push comes to shove. And remember this: Oregon is going to get much, much more production in the running game from the quarterback position.
Have I forgotten anyone? Oh, right: De’Anthony Thomas – one of my five leading Heisman contenders heading into September. His Heisman run began, fittingly enough, on a run: Thomas finally became a household name with his 91-yard touchdown scamper in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. That score was merely another high point in a freshman season defined by high moments, following a poor debut; our first image of the sophomore was his game-changing fumble against L.S.U. in the season opener. When the dust cleared, Thomas was everything Oregon expected and more – he led the team in receiving (46 catches for 605 yards), was explosive as a runner (595 yards, 10.8 yards per carry) and was just silly as a return man.
There is no more electric player in college football. No other player can change games with one single play – and no other player can change a game in so many different ways. He’ll see more time in the backfield this fall, but he’s not a 15-carry back; Thomas will break your back with eight carries, one of which will travel 50-plus yards. He’s a threat for six every time the ball touches his hands, whether coming off the edge on a sweep, running a deep post, catching a screen or returning a kickoff. Thomas is absolutely, positively, terrifyingly dynamic. How do you stop him? You don’t. All you can do is close your eyes, say your prayers and hope that he trips. In Thomas, the Ducks have one of the best players in college football.
With the vast majority of last year’s two-deep back in the fold, all Oregon is waiting for up front is the healthy return of senior Carson York, who is still working his way back from a knee injury he suffered in the third quarter of January’s Rose Bowl. When he does return – and he’ll be held out of at least this Saturday’s game – York will give the Ducks some terrific experience up front. His return will also alter the line’s current makeup, which is shuffled due to York’s absence. At some point in September, York will slide into his old spot at left guard; that should push senior Ryan Clanton out to left tackle, where redshirt freshman Tyler Johnstone will start the opener – or push Clanton to right guard, senior Nick Cody from right guard to right tackle and senior sophomore Jake Fischer from right tackle to the blind side. You follow?
In the meantime, the only player who is cemented into his current role is sophomore Hroniss Grasu, a returning starter at center. The Ducks are playing a bit of a waiting game with York, but when he steps back into the mix, this line will have experience, all-conference talent and outstanding depth. It’s this depth that separates Oregon’s line from the line at U.S.C., giving the Ducks the Pac-12′s best offensive front.
In summation: the offense is going to be one of the five best in the country. Surprise, right? I could talk about this offense all day – and I have, it feels like. Mariota is going to be fantastic; if he’s not, or if he’s injured, Oregon has to feel very confident in Bennett’s ability to lead this offense. Barner is going to be one of Pac-12′s top two rushers. The line is very strong. The receiver corps will be better than it was a year ago, as I’ll touch on below. Thomas… there’s not much to add to what I wrote above. The offense is otherworldly. Kelly has created a juggernaut.
There are no weaknesses on this defense. And that’s important to keep in mind, for one key reason: Oregon’s defense doesn’t need to be dominant, just steady and opportunistic – the defense can’t be like it was in the Rose Bowl, when he it simply allowed one touchdown less than the Ducks scored, but with this offense in place, the defense simply needs to make things difficult for opposing offenses inside and out of Pac-12 play. But don’t think for a minute that this is all the defense can do: Oregon can do much, much more, likely moving from middle-of-the-pack status in this league into one of the Pac-12′s top two units.
What’s immediately noticeable is the depth along the defensive line. It’s at the highest level than I can remember in program history; Oregon will go at least nine deep – and perhaps even deeper, though that’s a stretch – along the four starting positions. Where this is going to come in handy is inside, where defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti will have a five-lineman rotation at his disposal. On the nose, Oregon will again use junior Wade Keliikipi (25 tackles) and Ricky Heimuli (22 tackles) in tandem, as was the case a year ago. Alongside this pair, the Ducks have senior Isaac Remington (31 tackles, 4.0 for loss) and junior Jared Ebert. Behind this quartet you could see true freshman Alex Balducci, one of the Ducks’ three sterling recruits along the defensive front.
Having Keliikipi and Heimuli on the nose is huge for this defense. For both players, extensive game action yields diminishing results. So having this pair split snaps, nearly down the line, will keep both fresh for the fourth quarter. And the Ducks have a sixth option inside in junior Taylor Hart (44 tackles), a former starter at tackle who moves outside to end to replace Terrell Turner, the one lost piece up front. Hart will anchor the strong side at end, moving inside, I think, on passing downs. Behind him are the other two true freshmen linemen: Arik Armstead, a major pull for this program, and DeForest Buckner. At the hybrid end, a spot that demands production in the pass rush and an ability to play in coverage, the Ducks have one of the Pac-12′s best linemen in senior Dion Jordan (42 tackles, 13.0 for loss, 7.5 sacks), who took wonderfully to this role last fall. In total, this line is terrific.
There are a few changes along the second level, where the Ducks are retooling – but only very slightly – without Josh Kaddu on the strong side and Dewitt Stuckey in the middle. Most of all, the Ducks return senior Michael Clay (102 tackles, 8.5 for loss) on the weak side, and that’s big news for this defense as a whole. While the league’s number of gifted linebackers might squeeze Clay out of first-team all-conference honors, it’s obvious that the senior is one of the best at his position in the conference.
And Oregon isn’t short on experience by any stretch: senior Kiko Alonso (46 tackles, 6.0 for loss) and junior Boseko Lokombo (33 tackles), the new starters in the middle and on the strong side, respectively, were key cogs in last year’s rotation. If there’s an issue, it’s the lack of experienced depth. Heading into the opener, the Ducks’ top backups are a sophomore and two redshirt freshmen. These youngsters will get better as the year wears on, but the Ducks hope that the top three avoid any major injuries.
The one silver lining to last year’s attrition issues in the secondary – injuries, the dismissal of Cliff Harris – was that it gave Oregon’s young cornerbacks a significant taste of game action, and this group will be better for it come September. Take sophomore Terrance Mitchell (45 tackles, 2 interceptions), who will use last season’s experience as a springboard towards an all-conference performance. He’s ready, in my mind: Mitchell played well beyond his years for most of last fall, especially over the season’s final month and change, and should step into the season opener with an extremely high level of confidence. On the other side, the Ducks will start a second sophomore, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (34 tackles) – and back this pair up with another pair of sophomores, Dior Mathis and Troy Hill.
The leadership in the secondary comes from senior free safety John Boyett (108 tackles), a multiple-year starter and an all-American candidate. Having Boyett along the back end greatly diminishes the chance of a breakdown in the passing game. The Ducks must fill Eddie Pleasant’s shoes, but in junior Brian Jackson (27 tackles), sophomore Erick Dargan and junior Avery Patterson, the defense has options. In all, the secondary simply needs the young cornerbacks to take a step forward in order to handle receivers like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. If that group’s ready, and if the line is good as expected, this defense will be tough to handle.
Even without James on punt returns, the Ducks’ special teams rank among the nation’s best. There’s Thomas, for one, and he’s going to score multiple touchdowns in the return game. There’s Jackson Rice, a favorite for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter. The Ducks will also have a healthy Rob Beard, which should help the team improve upon last season’s spotty kicking game. Where’s the weakness? You’re not going to find one. And while the new kickoff rules might hurt the Ducks a tad, seeing that it will cut down on Thomas’ touches as a return man, it will be a huge bonus for Beard and junior Alejandro Maldonado, who struggled getting touchbacks last fall.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver You know when you’re looking good? In Oregon’s case, it’s when the receiver corps can be viewed as the biggest question mark on the team – because, as noted, I am not worried about the lack of experience at quarterback. And it’s almost silly to quibble about what the Ducks bring to the table out wide, seeing that Thomas will most certainly fill a huge role in the slot, both as a pass-catcher and a game-changing running threat. But consider one idea: I think it’s safe to call last year’s group a bit of a disappointment – fairly inconsistent and not terribly strong enough in the blocking game, which almost prevented last year’s offense from reaching full capacity. This year’s receiver corps isn’t just deeper but also slightly more experienced, even if Oregon must replace Lavasier Tuinei and Justin Hoffman. The Ducks will get more out of their receiver corps.
There are two levels to this group. The first is the experienced returning targets, like junior Josh Huff (31 catches for 430 yards), senior Rashaan Vaughn (14 for 184) and junior Daryle Hawkins. Huff is ready to break out: I think he’ll lead the team in grabs, especially if Thomas spends more time in the backfield. Hawkins and Vaughn will find roles in the passing game due to their size, which separates them from the rest of the pack. The second level of this group is defined by its youth: sophomore Eric Dungy, true freshmen Bralon Addison and Dwayne Stanford and redshirt freshmen Keanon Lowe and B.J. Kelley. This group has experience tinged by youth and speed interspersed with size – and will do a better job than a year ago.
The only position that gives me the slightest concern is tight end, where the Ducks must replace a steady, multiple-year contributor in David Paulson. Eventually, sophomore Colt Lyerla (7 for 147, 5 touchdowns) will give this offense yet another flexible piece with the ability to create mismatches along each level. But after being slowed early in fall camp with an off-field issue, Lyera enters the opener listed as the co-starter with redshirt freshman Koa Ka’ai and true freshmen Pharaoh Brown and T.J. Daniel. Eventually, Lyera is going to be a huge weapon for Mariota to work with in the passing game. But look for all four to see the field during non-conference play.
Game(s) to watch
Your eyes leap to Nov. 3, and for good reason: Oregon, U.S.C., the Coliseum. It’s one of the marquee games of the coming season, right alongside another date between L.S.U. and Alabama, and like most, I’d be shocked if that game doesn’t serve as a preview of the Pac-12 title game. One major difference between this year’s slate and last season’s schedule is the fact that the U.S.C. game comes on the road; another is that the Ducks slide into the year with Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech, not a squad from the SEC. The only team that could potentially give Oregon any trouble prior to U.S.C., the Huskies, come to Autzen. If the Ducks get past the Trojans? Then it’s time to stay focused, beating teams like the rival Beavers, and prepare for a rematch.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Oregon is the best team in the Pac-12. The difference between the Ducks and U.S.C. isn’t seen along the first level, as you could make the case that the Trojans are more talented along their starting 22 – but even that isn’t entirely correct. The Trojans have the Ducks beat at quarterback; the Trojans have everyone beat at quarterback. U.S.C. is also ahead of Oregon at wide receiver, as is the case with nearly everyone else. But I give Oregon the edge along the offensive line, in the backfield and in the secondary – most of all, Oregon has a huge, West Coast-sized advantage along the defensive line. Where the Ducks are truly above U.S.C., however, is in wall-to-wall depth: Oregon has U.S.C. beat in this area. Looking at all the Ducks can do and where U.S.C. is lacking, I wonder how the Trojans plan on beating Oregon once, let alone twice. Oregon is going to win yet another Pac-12 title.
Can this team win the national championship? Oh, you better believe it. Oregon is simply outstanding on offense, whether or not Kelly’s breaking in a new quarterback and changing running backs. Mariota is going to excel – and as noted, Oregon has Bennett in reserve if the redshirt freshman is injured or hits a wall. Thomas is the most electric skill player in the country. The offensive line is strong today, stronger tomorrow once York retakes the field. The receiver corps is better than last year’s group. And the defense? The entire unit will takes its cue from a defensive line with SEC-like depth. At its worst, this secondary will match last year’s production. At its best, it’s the top defensive backfield in the Pac-12. The Ducks excel on special teams. This team is just special.
I have the Ducks rolling through the regular season undefeated, taking care of business against the weaklings and dealing U.S.C. its lone regular season loss in early November. I then see Oregon repeating that feat a month later in the Pac-12 title game. From that point, it’s another date with the winner of the SEC West – as in 2010, when the Ducks met Auburn. Could Oregon beat L.S.U. or Alabama? We’ll see when we get there. The important fact: Oregon is talented enough, experienced enough, deep enough and has the sort of coaching needed to get a second shot at the national championship in three years. Here come the Ducks – and don’t blink, or you’ll miss ‘em.
Dream season Whizz: Ducks 41, Trojans 28 – November edition. Bang: Ducks 38, Trojans 30 – Pac-12 title game. Boom: Ducks 24, L.S.U. 20 – B.C.S. title game.
Nightmare season The Ducks beat everyone but U.S.C., which wins both meetings. That means no Rose Bowl, even.
In case you were wondering
Where do Oregon fans congregate? Those looking for message board chatter and a helpful dose of recruiting can find both in spades at Ducks Sports Authority and eDuck. For a blog’s take, check out Addicted to Quack. Additional coverage can be found at the Web sites of The Eugene Register-Guard and The Oregonian. And Duck Sports Now has all the links you’ll find above in one convenient place.
Oregon’s all-name nominee WR Ben Butterfield.
Through 123 teams 509,828.
Who is No. 1? It’s those guys from Baton Rouge.
Tags: Arik Armstead, B.J. Kelley, Bryan Bennett, Byron Marshall, Carson York, Chip Kelly, Colt Lyerla, Daryle Hawkins, De'Anthony Thomas, Dion Jordan, Hroniss Grasu, Isaac Remington, Jackson Rice, Josh Boyett, Josh Huff, Keanon Lowe, Kenjon Barner, Kiko Alonso, Marcus Mariota, Michael Clay, Nick Aliotti, Oregon, Pac-12, Ricky Heimuli, Rob Beard, Ryan Clanton, Taylor Hart, Terrance Mitchell, Wade Keliikipi
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