2012 Oregon Preview – Offense
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CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Oregon Ducks Offense
Preview 2012 - Offense
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What you need to know: There are changes galore on offense for the Ducks, but as long as Chip Kelly is the coach, no one seems particularly frazzled by the challenges ahead. QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, top receiver Lavasier Tuinei and a couple of starting linemen … all gone. Still, Kelly has now been in Eugene long enough to establish a dynamic plug-and-play system that’ll reload rather than rebuild. The big storyline throughout the season has been the nip-and-tuck battle between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota to fill Thomas’ shoes. Bennett played well in relief last year, but Mariota was otherworldly at times in the spring as he continuously channeled his inner-Dennis Dixon. Even without James, Oregon shouldn’t have many problems breaking the back of opposing defenses with bursts through the secondary. RB Kenjon Barner is through being one of the nation’s premier backups, and is eager to showcase his talent on a full-time basis. Second-year playmaker De’Anthony Thomas is one of college football’s most electrifying players, completely changing the momentum of games as a runner and a receiver. After him, WR Josh Huff is ready to emerge, provided a March 3 arrest and subsequent trial doesn’t shorten his season. Although three starters return to the offensive line, the unit still needs to locate a rhythm around vets Carson York and Nick Cody. Jake Fisher, who played some guard a year ago, is running with the ones at left tackle.
Star of the offense: Sophomore SB De’Anthony Thomas
Passing: Bryan Bennett
25-46, 369 yds, 6 TDs, 0 INTs
Rushing: Kenjon Barner
152 carries, 939 yds, 11 TDs
Receiving: De’Anthony Thomas
46 catches, 605 yds, 9 TDs
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore QB Bryan Bennett or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore TE Colt Lyerla
Best pro prospect: Senior RB Kenjon Barner
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Thomas, 2) Barner, 3) Senior LG Carson York
Strength of the offense: The ground game, big-play backfield, quick-strike ability,
balance, red-zone scoring, speed
Weakness of the offense: Inexperience at quarterback, wide receiver, depth
The bad news? Just before the deadline to file, two-year starter Darron Thomas shocked everyone by declaring early for the NFL Draft. The good news is that the Ducks believe that they can adapt on the fly. When spring camp began, sophomore Bryan Bennett was believed to be the prohibitive favorite to succeed Thomas. And why not? The 6-3, 199-pound dual-threat responded better than even the staff might have imagined, guiding the offense to at least 41 points in three consecutive wins following an injury to Thomas. Heck, there was even a brief debate over which Duck was best suited to run the offense. A healthy Thomas eventually regained the job, but Bennett left an impression, especially with his legs, rushing for 200 yards on 23 carries, while throwing for six touchdowns and 369 yards without a pick on 25-of-46 passing. A terrific athlete, with underrated passing skills, he possesses the ideal skill set to operate the spread-option system.
Just about everyone was handing the ball to Bennett in April ... except head coach Chip Kelly and his heralded redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. The 6-4, 196-pound product of Honolulu chose a most opportune time to deliver a breakout moment, stealing the spotlight in the spring game. Cool in the pocket and fluid as a runner, he appears to have the right demeanor to win this job, even at such a young age. Compared to Bennett, Mariota appears to be a little rawer as a thrower, something he’ll be working on in the summer.
Watch Out For .... Kelly to keep everyone in suspense throughout the month of August. The coach is in no hurry to anoint a starter, and quite frankly, is overseeing a competition that’s split right down the middle. Bennett, Mariota and even four-star rookie Jake Rodrigues were recruited explicitly to run this attack, so the skills are in place. Kelly and his staff need to figure out which of the young athletes has the best make-up to guide the Ducks in the Sept. 1 opener and beyond.
Strength: Running ability. In Bennett and Mariota, Oregon houses a pair of thoroughbreds behind center. Both are long and lean, using a fluid gate and quick moves in the open field to navigate through opposing defenses on the ground. If given the snaps, either player is capable of rushing for at least 500 yards and eight scores this season.
Weakness: Consistency and experience . Terrific athletes? Yes. Ready to lead the three-time defending Pac-12 champs in the year that USC rejoins the league race? We’ll see. The Ducks are fortunate that Bennett earned valuable reps last fall, but the Ducks are still going to be very light on experience at the most important position on the field. There isn’t an upperclassman in the hunt for snaps, which is cause for concern for a team looking to defend its crown.
Outlook: As young and inexperienced as the quarterbacks may be, Kelly has proven to be a master at maximizing the talent of his point man under center. Whether Bennett or Mariota gets the nod, he’s going to make plenty of big plays out of the spread, especially on the ground. While Oregon will continue to get the numbers from the spot, does it harbor a championship quarterback? Therein rests the key question that’ll define the state of the position in the aftermath of Thomas’ departure.
As expected, LaMichael James gave up his last year of eligibility, creating an opportunity in one of the nation’s most effective ground games. Senior Kenjon Barner could have bolted for the NFL as well, but was instead compelled to take care of some unfinished business by returning to school for his final year. He’s had a unique career with the Ducks that’s included 25 touchdowns and a three-year average of 6.1 yards a carry, yet not enough touches to become a household name. That ought to change this fall now that James’ departure has created a clear path to the top of the depth chart. Barner hits the hole quickly, accelerates through traffic and will make people miss in space. As the backup a year ago, he still jetted for 939 yards and 11 scores on 152 carries, adding 17 receptions for 184 yards and three more touchdowns. He’s a sure-thing to again pile up big numbers, and amass quite a following as one of the focal points of an offense designed to create wide lanes for the backs to navigate. No. 24 is set to step outside of James’ long shadow, and into the lexicon of fans far outside the confines of Pac-12 country.
Is sophomore De’Anthony Thomas a running back or a slot receiver? Does it really matter? The hybrid at Oregon’s “tazer” position, he’ll go wherever he gets an opportunity to get the ball in his hands, preferably out in space. The Pac-12 co-Offensive Freshman of the Year did a little bit of everything in his debut, rushing for 595 yards and seven scores on only 55 carries, catching 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns and returning two kicks for six. He is jackrabbit quick, with the straight-line speed to parlay even a sliver of daylight into a back-breaking eruption through the secondary.
Graduations and transfers left the Ducks a little light on scholarship backs in the spring. They’ll once again lean on former walk-on Ayele Forde who showed flashes in his debut on the field. The 5-7, 177-pound sophomore is small and quick in the mold of other Oregon backs, and rushed for 176 yards on 36 attempts in 2011.
Watch Out For … the assimilation of four-star recruit Byron Marshall. The Ducks are cautiously optimistic that their latest gem out of the backfield is ready to hit the ground running in August. He’ll be needed to eat up some carries in the fall. The 5-10, 195-pounder is yet another playmaker in the Oregon stable, one who’ll get a shot to supplant Barner in 2013.
Strength: Homerun hitters. Barner is averaging more than six yards a carry for his career, and has ripped off a slew of 50-yard bursts over the last three seasons. Few players in the entire country can get from 0-60 faster than Thomas can. Oregon boasts a pair of big-play backs who are capable of authoring the kinds of short drives that generate six points and plenty of oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Weakness: Depth. Gone are the days when Barner was one of college football’s most lethal running backs off the bench. Thomas plays a completely different position out of the slot, so the new backup is going to either be a rookie or a one-time walk-on. Barner has had a concussion during his playing career, which is worth noting since the situation is very thin behind him.
Outlook: Only at a school like Oregon can a team lose James to the NFL, and Lache Seastrunk and Tra Carson to transfers, yet still be in great shape in the backfield. Barner is poised to make the most of his feature role, with a ceiling of 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns well within reach. Thomas will continue to build on his debut, vexing opposing defenses with his speed and unique versatility. The only way the Ducks might get in trouble is if Barner is lost for any length of time. It remains in doubt whether or not there’s another 25-carry-a-game back on the roster.
Unit Rating: 9.5
The Ducks will be looking for a couple of new targets now that WR Lavasier Tuinei and TE David Paulson have used up their eligibility in Eugene. And while the program doesn’t rely on its hands as much as other Pac-12 teams, it will be no less eager to develop playmakers in the passing game. It’s about time for 5-11, 200-pound junior Josh Huff to put it all together, on and off the field. One of the most gifted all-around athletes on the roster, he battled legal issues in the spring, and nagging injuries last fall. Still, he has dynamic qualities, and will climb the ladder to pull the ball down. Despite missing a couple of games in 2011, he caught 31 balls for 430 yards and two scores, netting another 214 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
There’ll be a heated competition for playing time at the other wide receiver position. Senior Rahsaan Vaughn is bucking for an expanded role in his second year since transferring from College of San Mateo (Calif.). He started four games in 2011, making 14 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown. At 6-2 and 193 pounds, he has the measurables to make a quantum leap now that he has a season of experience behind him.
Challenging Vaughn will be junior Daryle Hawkins, the former quarterback still getting more comfortable in his new position. Although he’s an exciting all-around athlete, and well-sized at 6-4 and 198 pounds, he’s also has a long way to go before becoming consistent at the position. Hawkins, who dropped too many balls in 2011, caught five for 102 yards and a touchdown, adding 18 runs for 93 yards and another score.
Taking over for Paulson, an underrated weapon in this offense, will be sophomore Colt Lyerla. He impressed as a true freshman coming off the bench, appearing in 12 games, and making seven receptions for 147 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-5 and 238 pounds, he’s tough to miss for the quarterbacks, and is eager to unleash an uncommon blend of field-stretching speed and agility on opposing Pac-12 linebackers.
Watch Out For … Lyerla to quickly become one of the most dangerous young tight ends in America. Not only is he immensely agile for a player his size, but he plays in an offense that creates huge swaths of room for receivers in the middle of the field. If the quarterbacks look for No. 15 even occasionally, he could catch eight touchdown passes this fall.
Strength: Athleticism. There are no doubts that the Ducks will have access to a collection of gamebreakers in the passing game. From Huff, Vaughn and Hawkins on the outside to Lyerla at tight end, the Oregon pass-catchers are capable of turning short hitches into big gains with just one timely block downfield.
Weakness: Consistency. As it stands right now, Oregon doesn’t have a true go-to guy in the receiving corps, that sure-thing that the quarterback can target on third-and-seven. Huff could become that guy in the fall, but first he needs to prove that he can be a leader on offense, both on Saturdays and every other day of the week.
Outlook: The wide receivers and tight ends are very long on potential, but will still have plenty to prove this fall. Collectively, they’ve got to run crisper routes, drop fewer balls and generally show up big when the offense requires it. While De’Anthony Thomas is certainly going to beef up the group’s overall production, the hybrid slotback will be doubly dangerous if he receivers more help from the likes of Huff and Lyerla.
Unit Rating: 7
The graduations of Mark Asper and Darrion Weems have left the Ducks searching for a pair of new starters, the top priority this offseason for line coach Steve Greatwood. Ready or not, it appears as if sophomore senior Jake Fisher is set to take over on the left side. After spelling the veterans at right guard as a true freshman in 2011, the staff felt as if he had the necessary footwork and quickness to survive on the outside. The former high school tight end has grown to 6-6 and 279 pounds, and has the long frame to pack on more muscle during the offseason.
The Ducks are hopeful that 6-7, 297-pound Kyle Long, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long—and brother of St. Louis Ram Chris Long—can have an immediate impact at tackle. Since leaving high school in Virginia, the middle of Howie’s kids has been drafted by the Chicago White Sox, signed by Florida State to play football and apprenticed at Saddleback (Calif.) Junior College. He’s tall, powerful and very athletic, a natural fit to protect the pocket from the tackle spot. He has a year of eligibility remaining, and will do no worse than provide depth and veteran leadership up front.
The veteran among the tackles will be 6-5, 309-pound senior Nick Cody, who started the final 13 games of the season on the right side a year ago. More steady than spectacular, the 6-5, 309-pounder is a heady, no-nonsense blocker, with a complete grasp of the offensive system. He’ll provide leadership for a front wall looking for the seasoned members to step up.
The new rock in the middle of the line will be sophomore Hroniss Grasu, who performed beyond expectations as a rookie starter a year ago. The 6-3, 284-pounder was poised beyond his years in 2011, showcasing the athleticism, aggression and work ethic that Greatwood demands at the position. Grasu has the look of a four-year starter, with all-star honors within reach before too long.
The Ducks’ most accomplished offensive lineman heading into 2012 will be 6-5, 284-pound Carson York, the returning starter at left guard. He’s coming back from major offseason knee surgery, and is hoping to be fine in time for the start of the season. He’s a no-nonsense, physical run blocker, with a boatload of intangibles, ranging from his poise and leadership to his knowledge of the Oregon system.
When York was injured in the Rose Bowl, junior Mana Greig took over, and is once again expected to serve as a backup guard. An explosive 5-11, 297-pounder, he plays with the pad level needed to excel as a north-south run blocker.
The favorite to round out the starting five is senior Ryan Clanton, the Ducks’ projected right guard. The 6-5, 296-pound former transfer from City College of San Francisco was one of Oregon’s primary reserves at both tackle and guard in 2011. As one of the strongest members of the line, he’s hoping to provide an assertive presence for the ground game.
Watch Out For .... York’s health. The knee injury he suffered in Pasadena was severe, raising concerns about how quickly he’ll return to form in the summer. The senior is not only the closest thing that Oregon has to a star, but he’s also an integral part of the leadership team in Eugene. Fingers are crossed that No. 77 can recapture his old form, or else the offense is going to feel the impact.
Strength: Run blockers. If there’s one thing that the Ducks know how to do well, it’s opening holes for the program’s speedy backs. All of the blockers are well-schooled in the nuances of the spread-option, getting out of the gates—and into the second level—extremely quickly. They were the selfless, blue-collar cogs of a ground game that averaged just under 300 yards a game in 2011.
Weakness: Depth. The graduation of three key players has left the Ducks a little light off the bench, especially at tackle. Greatwood does a fantastic job of rotating and cross-training his linemen, but will have his back against the wall if a backup or two is forced on to the field in September.
Outlook: When it comes to the offensive line in Eugene, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. Although the Ducks aren’t going to roll out any sure-fire next-level blockers, they’ll continue to do a fantastic job of providing support for one of the country’s most potent rushing attacks. The Oregon linemen will maintain their anonymity, helping bolster the profile of the stars at running back and quarterback.
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