Let’s face it: the Oregon Ducks are loaded with talent. They return two of the top players in the country in Marcus Mariota and De’ Anthony Thomas. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Mariota was one of the most prolific passers in the country, throwing for over 2,600 yards and 32 touchdowns. He completed an incredible 68.5 percent of his throws and had a gaudy 163.2 quarterback rating. He also showed off his dual threat capability in 2012, as he was Oregon’s second leading rusher with 752 rushing yards. Mariota received honorable-mention All-American honors, and he became the conference’s first freshman quarterback in 23 years to receive first-team all-conference honors. Mariota is on many experts Heisman-watch list as he enters his sophomore campaign.
If you have paid any attention to college football in the last two years, chances are that you have seen “the human highlight reel” that is junior running back De’ Anthony Thomas. This all-purpose running back is a nightmare for opposing teams when he is on the field. In 2012, Thomas became the first Oregon player in 47 years to score touchdowns rushing, receiving, returning punts and kickoffs in the same season. Thomas was also one of only two players in the country to accumulate more than 700 rushing yards, 400 yards receiving and 600 yards in kick returns in 2012. He was also a first-team All-American kick returner and was a Maxwell Award semifinalist.
Oregon returns their entire secondary of defense, with the unquestioned leader being junior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (say that five times fast). If he decides to forego his senior season, Ekpre-Olomu is projected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore called him “the best defensive back in the country.” In 2012, Ekpre-Olomu led the conference in passed defended and forced fumbles. He also added four interceptions on the season, including a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown against Washington. He was a first-team all-conference selection and was also a third team All-American.
All in all, Oregon returns 16 of its starters on both sides of the ball (9 on offense, 7 on defense). And even though Oregon still has a wealth of talent and speed on both sides of the ball, they still do have some question marks going into the 2013 season.
1. Will De’ Anthony Thomas be able to be the premier running back?
In last year’s matchup with Oregon State, senior running back Kenjon Barner left the game late in the second quarter with an injury. Thomas proceeded to step n and carry the ball 17 times for 122 yards and three touchdowns in the 48-24 win. Seventeen carries was the most that Thomas had in a game in his entire career at Oregon, and it gave fans hope that he could be the feature back in the 2013 season. But could Thomas do that for an entire season without getting injured? At 5 foot 9, 176 pounds, Thomas is one of the smallest backs in the country and it is unknown if he could take the brutality of carrying the ball over 20 times a game. Most of Thomas’s runs are on jet sweeps where he is running off-tackle. He has yet to prove that he could run in between the tackles. Look, there are plenty of small running backs who have had success at the college and pro level. Barry Sanders, Chris Johnson, and Darren Sproles, just to name a few. But Thomas is so versatile, and he plays such a big role in the passing game and in special teams, that it might not be worth the risk for first year coach, Mark Helfrich, to have him as the premier running back. Especially because Helfrich has a couple viable running backs behind Thomas.
Sophomore running back Byron Marshall rushed for 447 yards in 2012 and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. He impressed fans and coaches with his “angry” running style and his will to get the extra yard. Coaches are looking for more consistency out of Marshall, but he is believed to be a solid running back if he does get the starting nod. Then there is incoming freshman back, Thomas Tyner. From Aloha High School, Tyner was one the most electrifying and highly recruited backs in all of high school football. Oregon usually likes to have three running backs get consistent carries so Tyner should get a chance to shine during the 2013 season.
2. How will Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost do with their new roles?
It is an understatement to say Mark Helfrich has big shoes to fill. Former head coach Chip Kelly built the Oregon to new heights and put them on a national stage each year he was there. He took Oregon to four straight BCS bowls and had three straight 12-win seasons. He coined terms like “Win The Day” and “Fast. Hard. Finish”, staples of the Oregon program. But he is probably most known for bringing the read option offense to Oregon. The offense runs at an incredibly fast pace and is a daunting task to prepare for and almost impossible to defend. It also made him a household name around the football world, which is why the Philadelphia Eagles made him their new head coach.
The good thing for Helfrich is he doesn’t have to rebuild a program or find a new way to do things. He just inherited the best job in the country and he just has to keep the system that Kelly built, in place. Helfrich’s situation is very similar to David Shaw’s situation at Stanford back in 2011. He was taking over for the incredibly successful Jim Harbaugh, who took the San Francisco 49ers job in 2011. Shaw didn’t make any drastic changes to the Stanford program. He kept the system that Harbaugh had built and just implemented his own things into the program and Stanford continued to have success. Helfrich knows he is not Chip Kelly, and he doesn’t have to be. He just has to keep the values that Kelly has set in place and then put his own little wrinkles in place, which is more than okay because as great as Kelly was, he had his share of mistakes and failures at Oregon.
One thing that Kelly really struggled to do at Oregon was beat teams with a physical front seven on defense. Whether it was Stanford in 2012, LSU in 2011, Auburn in the 2011 National Title Game, or Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl, Kelly really struggled to have success against teams that were more physical than the Ducks. He was often criticized in those games for poor play calling, changing up the offense, and going away from what had been working. In 2012, against Stanford, he was also criticized for only giving De’ Anthony Thomas 7 touches and not having him on the field enough in the 17-14 loss. Then there was the debacle against USC in 2011 where his incredible misuse of timeouts and the game clock led to a 38-35 loss and cost them a chance to get to the national title game.
It will be interesting to see how Helfrich, who is a first time head coach, handles similar situations in the upcoming season. It will also be interesting to see how first-year offensive coordinator Scott Frost handles the play calling duties this season. Frost, who had an incredibly successful career as a quarterback for Nebraska in the mid-90’s, spent his first four years in the Oregon program as the wide receivers coach. Even though he is a highly regarded assistant coach in the Pac-12, he is also unproven as an offensive coordinator, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the new role.
3. Will Oregon finally have a go-to-guy in the passing game?
The Ducks have had a plethora of great running backs come through the program in the last several years. Jonathan Stewart, Jeremiah Johnson, LaMichael James, and Kenjon Barner all had tremendous success in their years at Oregon. But not since the years of Keenan Howry, Sammie Parker, and Demetrius Williams have the Ducks had a legitimate go-to wide receiver. I’m not saying Oregon doesn’t have talent at the wide receiver position because they do. Oregon returns their entire receiving core and they definitely have potential. Senior Daryle Hawkins, sophomore Bralon Addison, and junior Keanon Lowe all had some quality contributions in their first year as starting receivers. Addison looked tremendous in the spring game, catching 8 balls for 136 yards. Sophomore receiver B.J. Kelley didn’t get a lot of playing time as a freshman but looked great in the spring game and during fall camp and is poised to make an impact in the 2013 season. However, the Oregon receiver that looks to have the biggest impact is undoubtedly Josh Huff.
Huff has all the physical tools to become one of the best receivers in the Pac-12. He runs a 4.4 40-yard dash, is very physical, and a great blocker. Even though Huff has made an impact in each of his first three years as a Duck, many would say that he has underachieved. He was a running back in high school and there are times when he looks like he hasn’t quite made the jump to receiver. There have been many instances over the last three years where he would make amazing plays. But there were other times where he didn’t look comfortable catching the football and his routes would not be very crisp and despite his blazing speed he was often unable to get separation. Part of that is due to that Huff has been dealing with nagging injuries he has dealt with since his sophomore year. But in the latter part of the 2012 season, he appeared to turn a corner. Huff caught 6 balls for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 62-51 victory over USC. He then came back the next week and caught 5 balls for 109 yards and 3 touchdowns. Five of his seven receiving touchdowns in 2012 were over 30 yards, solidifying himself as the Ducks main deep threat weapon. Huff has all the capability to put up monster numbers in his senior year, but he is not the only Oregon pass-catcher that looks to put up daunting numbers in this explosive Oregon offense.
Junior tight end Colt Lyerla is one physically gifted athletes in the entire country. His 6 foot 5, 250 pound frame has NFL scouts drooling over him. However, Lyerla is very mistake prone. He was kept off the field too often in 2012 because of false starts, missed blocking assignments, and not knowing the plays. If he is mentally in the game and knows what his assignment is in each situation, he has the ability to be the top tight end on the country.
4. How will Oregon do replacing their offensive lineman and linebackers?
One of the biggest question marks for the 2013 Oregon Ducks is the offensive line. Oregon lost Ryan Clanton and Nick Cody, as well as losing Kyle Long, arguably the Ducks best lineman (Long was drafted 20th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft). Senior Mana Greig and junior Hamani Stevens will fill in the two guard positions. Both players have been regular backups for the last two years; the unfortunate thing is that Greig has been struggling with a knee injury and it is unknown how healthy he will be going into the season. The Ducks are really just an injury or two away from having to use inexperienced incoming freshmen to fill spots. But offensive line coach Steve Greatwood has proven that he prepares young kids well and he will have to do so this upcoming season. The good news for Oregon is that they return three quality offensive linemen in juniors Jake Fisher, and Hroniss Grasu, and sophomore Tyler Johnstone. Grasu will be entering his third year as the starting center and was named to the preseason All-American team.
The linebacker position might be the biggest issue on this Oregon football team. Inside linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso and hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end Dion Jordan all went to the NFL. To make matters worse, potential starters Tyson Coleman, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick all were forced to sit out in the spring due to injuries. Coleman, who was voted the team’s most improved player in 2012, will likely get most of the reps at middle linebacker while Malone will likely get the majority of reps at outside linebacker. The good news for the Ducks is that the return the experienced Boseko Lokombo at outside linebacker. He started every game for Oregon last season and has seen playing time in each of the Ducks’ 40 games over the past three seasons. He will be the unquestioned leader of the linebacker core as he enters his senior season.
5. Who will win the kicking job?
It’s not a huge question for a lot of teams, but it is a huge question for Duck fans. Saying that Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado cost Oregon the national title the last two years is an overstatement, but it reigns true for many Duck fans. Over the course of his career, Maldonado has shown that he is a good short-distance kicker, but his range doesn’t go outside of 35 yards and he has continuously choked under pressure. His miss to end the game against USC in 2011 was heartbreaking for those in Eugene, but his two misses against Stanford in 2012 was a knife in the heart of Duck fans. But someone that has Duck fans excited is incoming freshman kicker Matt Wogan. Wogan was ranked as the #2 kicking prospect in the country coming out of high school. He has a monster leg, with his kickoffs reaching lengths of 80 yards and his field goal makes being up to 57 yards. It will be intriguing to see how much playing time he receives and if he can handle the pressure of the college game.
Despite all the questions surrounding this Oregon football team, this team is great and they are poised to make another run at the national championship.