Oregon Ducks: Oregon Ducks

Duck tales. Duck tales.

RUNNING BACKS
  • After Saturday's performance it's no surprise that the backs were a big topic of conversation on Monday. Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman combined for two touchdowns and 229 yards on 29 carries against South Dakota. Running backs coach Gary Campbell said that he thought they did well but that they need to get better -- so there's the obvious note of the day.
  • On where the backs must improve: "One-on-one, I think we need to be able to break tackles and one-on-one be able to avoid guys," Campbell said. "We have to make plays one-on-one and avoid getting tackled."
  • Campbell was happy with Freeman's performance (10 carries, 75 yards, two touchdowns). "Obviously he made a few mistakes, freshman mistakes," Campbell said. "But, physically he played pretty well. I expect him to be more physical and I think that'll come along with maturity."
  • The backs were also involved largely in the pass game. Marshall led the way for all receivers with eight catches. Tyner recorded three catches and Freeman recorded one. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost complimented the running backs' versatility. "I think all three of our backs have exceptional hands," Frost said. "It gives us an ability to use them in different ways."
  • QB Marcus Mariota said that he has worked on his chemistry in the pass game with Marshall. "He has had great hands out of the backfield," Mariota said. "We needed to find ways to get that guy on the field and he has done a great job. He's still learning out there and he's getting better every day."
SOME MARIOTA QUOTES
  • He stressed communication up front so that the Ducks will be able to take their shots downfield. Mariota referred to Michigan State's defensive backs as some of the best in the country. Though the Spartans' "No Fly Zone" lost a few big names from last year, their secondary still looks very strong.
  • His evaluation of the receivers in the South Dakota game: "They did a great job," Mariota said. "For young guys, some of those guys playing in their first game, they handled their emotions well and they were able to get some catches in."
  • On whether he's concerned about going up against an experienced MSU defense with his young receivers: "These guys, even in practice today, they did a good job of understanding our game plan and making sure they're in the right places. For those guys, I think they're excited."
  • He said the MSU defense doesn't really remind him of any Pac-12 defense.
  • On recovery from actually playing in a game: "It was good to get the first hit -- that's always nice to kind of get those jitters out of the waym" Mariota said. "But I feel good. My body feels good."
  • He was impressed with the freshmen, saying they did an unbelievable job (though, during the postgame news conference on Saturday he did make a joke about some of the freshmen being a little overeager and putting on their pads three hours before game time). "We applaud those guys," Mariota said. "They came in wanting to make an impact, and that's what they did."
  • On where the offense needs to improve going into Week 2: "The tempo -- I think we can play a lot faster," Mariota said. "We understand our tempo is one of our greatest assets and if we continue to push that, push the potential of that, it'll really be a weapon for us."
BONUS NOTES FROM MARK HELFRICH'S SUNDAY CONFERENCE CALL
  • On freshman offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby getting some snaps. The good: athleticism, explosive. Helfrich also said that he did a lot of good things as well as a lot of bad things, so basically what you'd expect from a freshman with a high talent ceiling. "It's a little bit of a mixed bag," Helfrich said. "I think ideally you're going to redshirt those guys, but as we've experienced if those guys are ready to go we're going to play them."
  • Oregon played 70 players on offense and defense (not including special teams), 10 of those were freshmen.
  • On what Mariota could improve on from Week 1 to Week 2: "He had a couple odd plays for him -- he had one ball that just kind of flubbed out of his hand, he tried to kind of run the route for the receiver and it's hard to do that with a quarterback trying to redirect mid pitch. That's something that happens. Another time he was kind of off balance. … I thought he coached the young guys up when he was out of there and did a good job in that regard."
  • Was he happy with how the Ducks tackled in space? "No." So, another obvious point to end the day.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Every Sunday through the season we’ll be giving out a handful of helmet stickers to deserving Ducks. After Saturday’s 62-13 blowout win over South Dakota, when really everyone and their mother could’ve gotten one, it was tough to narrow down, but here are the three big winners (and one honorable mention).

QB Marcus Mariota
The redshirt junior completed 14 of 20 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns. He took off six times and picked up 43 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown, his final play of the day. With 23 yards against Michigan State next weekend, Mariota will take the top spot for overall offensive yards at Oregon. The best part of his performance might’ve been the chemistry he showed with his receivers and running backs. Though he only connected with three receivers, there’s definitely promise in the young group and Byron Marshall proved to be a sure handed pass-catching running back that Mariota will be able to rely on this year.

RB Royce Freeman
The freshman lived up to his hype as he accounted for two touchdowns on 10 carries (he also caught one pass for 11 yards). Mariota said that he knew Freeman was going to be special earlier this summer during a 7-on-7 session after he juked some linebackers. “He stepped onto campus with kind of a confidence that you could tell right away that he believed in himself that he could do whatever he needed to do,” Mariota said. “For a guy his size to be that elusive and to be able to have the ability that he has, it’s special for us.”

Injury gods
Too often we see some player go down with some freak injury in a cupcake or gimme game. And with Michigan State coming to Autzen Stadium next weekend, the Ducks needed to make sure they go into that weekend firing on all cylinders. And whether it was the strength and conditioning staff (most likely) or the injury gods that kept the injury bug away from the Ducks in the opener, they deserve some credit. Props to them.

Honorable mention
Any fan in Autzen Stadium who stayed to watch the whole game, especially when most of the starters exited after the first half. Give yourself a pat on the back. Nothing like doing the wave at 10:43 at night when your team is up 49 points.
Five things to know as the Oregon Ducks take the field for their season opener against South Dakota (10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network):

1. Chances are this is going to be a blowout win (though, yes, I cautioned against being cocky earlier this week because anything can -- and sometimes does -- happen). But it will be the first chance to see the 2014 version of the Ducks and in the first year of the College Football Playoff, Oregon is going to want to leave no stone unturned. The best way to get to the playoff is to go undefeated. And the first step in that is beating South Dakota. According to the ESPN Power Football Index, the Ducks have a 6 percent chance of going undefeated this season -- third-best chance in the nation. Florida State has the best shot (38 percent) and Marshall has the second-best shot (10 percent).

2. Keep an eye out for how fast the Ducks are able to score. Speed is a part of their DNA and they will be the bigger, faster, stronger team on the field. If all goes to plan, Oregon should have a multiple-touchdown lead by the end of the first quarter. The Ducks are one of the fastest scoring teams in the country and it has been that way for quite a while. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since the start of the 2009 season, Oregon has 88 one-minute TD drives (tied for No. 1 in the country), 208 two-minute TD drives (No. 1 in the country) and 77 three-play TD drives (tied for No. 1 in the country).

3. The statistics really aren’t going to tell that big a story this game, so don’t get too excited about macho numbers. They don’t really mean that much. But keep an eye on how the Ducks O-line moves together. With the Tyler Johnstone injury and the recent shuffling along the line, it’ll be interesting to see if they’re moving as a unit. They’ll be going up against smaller defensive linemen, and certainly none of the caliber of Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, but if they’re looking out of sorts on Saturday, that will be a big red flag.

4. The only real position battle happening right now is at running back, where it’s a three-man race between Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. The three are listed as co-starters and chances are, just to keep the questions coming, we’ll see a multi-back set for the first play (and chances are it will be Marshall and Tyner, just because they won’t want to throw a freshman in for the first down) so they don’t have to differentiate a true starter. However, running backs coach Gary Campbell said that game production will begin to weigh heavily the longer this battle goes. And again, the South Dakota run defense isn’t the greatest test, but if one guy absolutely separates himself against the Coyotes, there’s a good chance that “OR” could be removed from the Week 2 depth chart at running back.

5. Week 2 opponent Michigan State is playing Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET against Jacksonville State. The game airs on the Big Ten Network. If you feel like checking out the Week 2 opponent (and I recommend you do), follow the @ESPN_BigTen twitter account. They’ll be tweeting about the game and providing great insight.
Some notes and quotes from Oregon Ducks 's media access on Monday. Feel free to turn on the theme to Duck Tales if you feel so inclined.

DEPTH CHART NOTES
  • Obvious note: Marcus Mariota is the starting quarterback. His knees looked fine today. No word on whether he has received his letter from Hogwarts. Onto more serious things.
  • The running backs are listed as an "OR" situation between Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. Each is pretty similar but brings something different to the table according to running back coach Gary Campbell. You can read more about the running back situation here.
  • Other "OR" situations -- WR: Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington, RG: Jake Pisarcik and Cameron Hunt, TE: Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis, No. 2 DE: T.J. Daniel and Stetzon Bair, S: Tyree Robinson and Reggie Daniels, No. 2 PR: Keanon Lowe or Carrington.
  • As far as wide receivers go, chances are both Stanford and Carrington are going to get good reps. "It's tough to decide because both deserve to play. … We're going to play a bunch of receivers just because we run so much and play so much." Frost said that Carrington has come a long way and that Stanford is really consistent. He also said the top three guys on the outside are going to play about equal and that this wide receiver group is the most depth they've ever had.
  • Devon Allen is listed as one of the starting wide receivers. According to Frost, Allen did "everything right. ... The best thing that we can hope for is that his best days have been in scrimmages and games when the competition is hot so I hope that carries over to the football field for him." He's definitely one of the players that I'm most intrigued to see this spring. I watched him win the 110-meter hurdle race at the NCAA Track & Field Championships and then follow that up with his "Yep, football is still No. 1" talk. If he wins national and world titles in track, what is he going to be able to do on the field?
  • Cornerback Dior Mathis got the nod in the spring game, it seemed but the depth chart lists Troy Hill as the starting CB opposite Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
OFFENSIVE LINE SHUFFLE
  • With Tyler Johnstone's injury, it was unsure where exactly the Duck O-line would go from here. Andre Yruretagoyena had emerged as the front runner initially, just because he had taken many of Johnstone's reps in the spring while Johnstone was still rehabbing. However, the depth chart now lists Jake Fisher as the starting left tackle (in the spring he was at right tackle). Yruretagoyena is listed as the starting right tackle. Hamani Stevens and Hroniss Grasu are still listed as starting left guard and center, respectively. And then -- as stated earlier -- the right guard spot is listed as an "OR" battle. This shuffling definitely leaves some question marks. Coming into the fall the O-line was thought to be a huge strength with five returning starters. Now, there are position battles with a week to go and new starters on both sides of the line.
ON HOW MUCH THE OFFENSE HAS CHANGED
  • Frost said that the offense has evolved a bit, by necessity. "We definitely have some new wrinkles and we've evolved. We've done a good job around here that we've had enough things in that we could keep other people guessing a little bit and we've definitely tried to make a few changes this year to do the same thing." He said that they have looked outside the program for a few wrinkles, but that a lot of the ideas have come from coach Mark Helfrich.
MARIOTA SPEAKS
  • His thoughts on the three running backs: "Any one of those guys could come in and play for us right away. We have all the confidence in the world in each of those guys and each of them are preparing as if they are the starter, so whoever it may be, we have all the confidence in them."
  • On what he wants to know about the team after Saturday's game: "I want to be able -- as an offense -- execute it to the best of our abilities. Go out there and start fast. We had a tendency last year to kind of start off a little slow, including myself."
  • On the national publicity. Does he like it? "Not at all. To be honest, for me I like to keep my personal life private. With more media, bigger media coming in, that's getting tougher. But at the same time, I just like to keep myself low-key, out of the spotlight. This is a team sport."
  • Oregon doesn't start classes until Sept. 29 whereas many of the Ducks opponents will begin shortly or are already in session. Mariota said that it's a "huge" advantage because it allowed the Ducks to spend much of the first month of the season just focusing on football. "It gives us an opportunity, like right now, right when we're done with practice, to go watch practice film. You can lay low and relax a little bit."
EUGENE, Ore. -- It can be tricky to make too many assumptions during fall camp, especially when all the practices happen behind closed doors.

One coach’s thoughts might be to ramp up the attention for a less-prominent guy, someone who has shown flashes but likely won’t get consistent playing time during the season. With the media unable to see anything, it has to go off the coach’s word, so why not give some pub to a guy who won’t get it later?

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
AP Photo/Eric GayCan Royce Freeman go from starring in high school last season to starting at Oregon?
And other coaches might downplay a younger, less-experienced player. Why put the limelight on him before he even takes one significant snap as a college player? Could that harm his overall development if he gets too big of a head?

But if depth charts are to be believed, then Oregon running back Royce Freeman is in neither of those categories. All fall the freshman was talked up by players and coaches, and on Monday, the Ducks’ depth chart backed that up. He’s listed in a three-way battle for the top running back position for the Ducks, alongside sophomore Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.

“We don’t plan on redshirting anybody -- every guy we bring in here we’re preparing to be a starter,” Oregon running back coach Gary Campbell said. “And he came in with that attitude.”

Marshall rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Tyner was right there, improving consistently through the season and finishing with 711 yards.

And Freeman? Well, he rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns … but it was against high school competition.

Try searching for Freeman on Google. The first handful of links go to recruiting profiles. The images that pop up of Freeman are him in his red and white Imperial High School (Calif.) Tigers uniform.

Even in the past when the Ducks have had abundant talent in the backfield, they’ve listed it out as a first, second and third string. In 2011, on Oregon’s fall camp depth chart, La’Michael James was listed as the top back, Kenjon Barner was next and De’Anthony Thomas came in third.

And that’s exactly how the season played out. James led the way with 1,805 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Barner finished second with 939 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, and Thomas concluded the season with 595 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.

Last year, Thomas was listed as the first-string back, Marshall was listed as second and Tyner was third. It played out that way as well.

Now, just five days from the Ducks’ season opener against South Dakota, the Ducks have a freshman, sophomore and junior all on an even playing field. The word “or” is acting as the public equalizer of all three.

The one starting Saturday will be the one who’s practicing best and from there on out, game production will weigh more heavily. Campbell said the players can tell who’s making progress and who’s not, so presumably the practices this week are going to be heated for the backs.

He said all three players are pretty similar but that Marshall has the advantage of experience, Tyner has the advantage of speed and Freeman has the advantage of strength.

Put all three of those together and the Ducks would have the best singular running back in the nation by far. Instead, they have a three-headed monster.

Is that a good problem to have?

“It’s a great one,” Campbell said.

The depth chart has backed up the fall talk. Now, it’s the waiting game until Saturday to see if the on-field play backs up the depth chart, and if this freshman -- who has been the talk of the town -- is as good as we’ve heard and seen (on paper).

“We never are sure what we’re going to get with our freshmen until they get here,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “You can look great in high school but if you don’t come in mature it just takes longer for you to pick it up. … You never know what you’re going to get with freshmen, but you can tell the guys who can do it almost from day one because they come in in-shape with the right attitude and they start learning right away.”

Could Freeman be that guy? Saturday will reveal at least some of the answer.
[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesCornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu says practicing against Marcus Mariota lets him prepare for all the other experienced Pac-12 quarterbacks.
EUGENE, Ore. -- If the Pac-12 is a quarterback league this season, then it must also be regarded -- at least a bit -- as a league for opportunistic cornerbacks. Given the depth of talent at quarterback, there will be plenty of chances for cornerbacks to make big plays against bigger names.

And that idea is exciting a few Oregon Ducks defensive backs.

"I'm ready to play against all the best people," cornerback Dior Mathis said.

And yes, every college football player says that, but not every one actually gets to play against the best.

The Pac-12 cornerbacks, however, do.

With 10 returning starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12, cornerbacks are going to be tested by experienced, talented signal-callers.

Last season the Pac-12 passed more frequently than any other Power Five conference. On average, each Pac-12 quarterback attempted 386 passes through the season. That works to be just a bit more than 32 passes per game. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday's numbers do skew the average a bit. But if even if we exclude Halliday, the average Pac-12 signal-caller still threw about 30 passes.

Compared across the other four power conferences, that's quite the jump. The Big Ten led the rest of the power conferences with each quarterback averaging 309 passes through the season.

That means that per game, Pac-12 defensive backs will get about 11 more chances at a pass than a Big 12 defensive back. It works out to be nine more opportunities than DBs in the SEC and ACC and about six more chances for Big Ten DBs.

But Oregon isn't getting cocky just because there are more opportunities. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu knows that all 10 of those returning starters have gotten better than they were last season when he collected three interceptions and six pass break ups.

"Playing in the Pac-12 you pretty much know you're going to play against some pretty good quarterbacks," Ekpre-Olomu said. "But at the same time, you play against the same guys for three years. Just like they improve, we improve."

But the one advantage that Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis have over other cornerbacks, across the conference and country, is that they face Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota every single day in practice.

There might not be better practice for facing a Halliday or Sean Mannion or Taylor Kelly or Kevin Hogan, than going against Mariota.

"Going against him every day and seeing how he progresses and seeing his accuracy when he throws to receivers, going against him, it's cool," Mathis said of Mariota. "You get the best quarterback in the country, in my opinion. [We're] going against him every single day. It's doing nothing but making us better."

"Going against Marcus you have to be smart and you have to be on your toes really," Ekpre-Olomu added. "To get a ball thrown at you, especially playing against somebody like that, you have to outsmart the quarterback."

And if Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis can find a way to outsmart Mariota, the Duck defense might be taking a huge step forward when it plays teams with quarterbacks-not-named Mariota.
Fall camp is underway but there's still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. This week and next, we'll be outlining a few storylines to keep track of as the month wears down and the Oregon Ducks' opener on Aug. 30 against South Dakota approaches.

On Monday, we looked at the running backs and who might emerge at that position, and today we're moving on to receivers. If the problem at running back is one of abundance -- a problem that most coaches welcome with open arms -- then the one at wide receiver is quite the opposite. The coaches say there's a lot of talent in the room, but it's untested, unproven talent. Which, until it's proven this season is really just a bunch of words.

[+] EnlargeKeanon Lowe
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsSenior Keanon Lowe should provide leadership for a Ducks' receiving corps that enters the 2014 season as a rather young and unproven group.
"We've got a lot of inexperienced guys," wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator Matt Lubick said. "So it's a good opportunity for guys to get experience and we're trying a lot of different combinations."

But one of those guys -- or preferably for the Ducks, many guys -- needs to step up, and step up fast, because the Ducks' season (as well as quarterback Marcus Mariota and any Heisman hopes he might have) completely rest on that.

On Monday, Mariota pointed out Keanon Lowe (referring to him as a "proven veteran" despite the fact that he only caught 18 passes last season), Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Chance Allen as receivers that have stood out to him through fall camp.

"They've all made a lot of plays," Mariota said. "Now we just have to get these guys lined up in the right positions, lined up in the right formations and get our offense rolling."

Lubick is convinced the offense will roll. He's quick to admit how young his group is, but he also believes it's one of the deepest.

"Last year we played four guys because four guys were ready to play and then there was a big drop off," Lubick said. "This year, we feel pretty good. … If we played tomorrow, we would be able to play seven, eight guys."

Here's a closer look at some of those eight guys. Keep track of them as this depth chart works its way out.

Keanon Lowe
2013 statistics: 18 catches, 233 yards, 3 touchdowns
What Lubick says: "The thing that he does such a great job of -- through example that other guys are starting to do -- is the way he prepares. No one out-prepares that guy. And what I mean by that, any situation he's in, he's going to do the best that he can and if he's in the meeting room, he's going to sit in the front row and take notes. He's going to pay attention to every single word. He's going to know the spots. He's always going to be early. He's going to be the first in every drill so he can get extra reps. Our young guys see that and they're trying to do the same thing."

Devon Allen
2013 statistics: redshirted
What Lubick says: "Devon's attitude has been awesome. He was a guy who had tremendous success on the track that everyone knows about, but he never used that as an excuse to get out of anything that we required of him in spring football. And in spring football, we required everything out of him. He balanced track and football unbelievably. … Very mentally tough. He's one of those guys, never count him out from doing anything because he's always proving he can do it. And if you challenge him -- intellectually or physically -- he always rises to the occasion."

Chance Allen
2013 statistics: 5 catches, 98 yards, 1 touchdown
What Lubick says: "Allen has gotten a lot better. Another guy that the one thing he's really lacking is experience. He did a great job in the offseason conditioning himself. He's a very smart football player. He has taken a lot of reps, even though he hasn't had a lot of game reps, he has taken a lot of reps in the practice field and that shows. He's in the right place at the right time, which is very important for a receiver."

Dwayne Stanford
2013 statistics: redshirted
What Lubick says: "He has put a tremendous amount of time in off the field. All of our guys are here in the summertime, but we also give them breaks. He decided to not even go home on those breaks we do give them, because he wanted to stay here and get better. It's very important to do well. He's his own worst critic. He takes this very serious. … If there's a weakness, he wants to know what it is and he's going to do his best to improve it. He doesn't want to avoid it."

Jonathan Loyd
2013 statistics: DNP
What Lubick says: "It's a hard situation when you haven't played football for four years. … His effort is unbelievable. He has put a lot of time in on his own to catch up to speed. In the spring, he was kind of thinking through things which when you think you can't play fast. Now he knows what he's doing and he's playing a lot faster."

Other storylines to keep track of:
EUGENE, Ore. -- As the Oregon football players filed into the annual media day last week, one thing was visibly clear from the start: One of these things was not like the other ones.

Yes, each player sported his green uniform. And all -- except one -- wore matching green shorts with their number on the thigh.

That one, redshirt senior Johnathan Loyd -- who will play as wide receiver on the 2014 team after exhausting his basketball eligibility at Oregon after last season -- was wearing black Jordan basketball shorts. He got the Nike part right, but the sport part wrong.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Loyd
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJohnathan Loyd is shifting his focus from basketball to football as he prepares to line up at wide receiver for Oregon.
“It’s a part of me,” Loyd said. “It’s my personality.”

And though he’s not going to be playing any real basketball at all during the season, he’ll certainly still have that basketball part to his play and personality. But the more time he spends playing football, the smaller that part will be.

And he certainly noticed the basketball to football difference between day one of spring ball and day one of fall camp.

“When I came into spring, I was more in basketball mode,” Loyd said. “It’s definitely a different type of pace you have to play at. Because football, you play as hard as you can, then stop, as hard as you can, then stop. Basketball is more constant movement, you have to tempo yourself so you’re not out of control.”

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he saw that kind of trepidation out of Loyd in the spring.

“The guy had a great attitude in the spring,” Helfrich said. “But you could tell that he hadn’t played football for five years and it’s not like he’s showing up and playing intramural flag football. He’s showing up and playing elite-level, Division-I football. There’s rust. There’s uncertainty, which then makes him slower than he really is in how he plays.”

Loyd said that what he needed to get rid of that rust was just a lot of repetition in order to build the football muscle memory and get rid of the basketball mentality. That point never hit during spring ball, but after two weeks of being thrown to by quarterback Marcus Mariota in the summer, it finally just became instinctual.

“I was able to play football rather than just think about playing football,” Loyd said.

With more free time in the summer, Loyd was able to get more film study in. He and fellow wide receiver Keanon Lowe watched Oregon tape as well as NFL film -- mostly Steve Smith and Wes Welker.

Loyd attributed much of his summer growth to Lowe, who helped remind him to exert total energy on each route because he’d get a break soon. Unlike basketball, there was no turn-around fast break or zone to retreat into. And while that might’ve taken Loyd a bit longer to grow accustomed to, he is used to it now and ready to fight for a spot at wide receiver, a spot he legitimately has a shot to earn some important reps at considering the lack of experience as a whole in the unit.

That’s not too bad for a football player who stills wears his basketball shorts.
Byron Marshall, Thomas TynerScott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall and Thomas Tyner will give the Ducks two potent options at running back this season.
Fall camp is underway but there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. This week, we’ll be outlining a few storylines to keep track of as the month wears down and the opener against South Dakota approaches.

Today, we start off with one of the more heavily discussed topics of the summer: the situation at running back.

The top dogs in the race are Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Though, there are names mentioned outside of those two as a possible tempo change throughout the game -- Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit, Tony James. But don’t get too distracted. This is a two-man game right now.

Marshall has the experience factor -- he was the only 1,000-yard rusher on the team last year as he led the Ducks with 168 carries and 14 rushing touchdowns. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said that Marshall’s next step would be “cutting it loose.”

There shouldn’t be any hesitation considering he knows his main competition is coming off strong year-end performances. Last week, Helfrich spoke about how Tyner took more time to grow accustomed to the college game, but Helfrich was happy with the progress he made during the season. Tyner ended up toting the ball 115 times for 711 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. So, there’s definitely a benefit to getting 50 extra carries, but there’s also a benefit with year-end momentum, which Tyner had.

But to think that the Ducks could only have one special running back would be shortsighted, especially considering the obvious lack of experience the Ducks have at wide receiver. Helfrich has made no bones about the fact that the team is looking for whatever offensive formation works best for the Ducks. If that means two running backs, then so be it. And if these two backs are as good as everyone is lauding them to be then two backs could be the way the Ducks go.

“I like that we have two running backs because all the pressure isn’t on either one of them,” left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. “I think they’re just as talented, either one of them. They can platoon. If we have two running backs of their caliber, they’re always going to well rested and they’re always going to be explosive.”

Plenty of teams have had success going with a tandem at running back and experienced success. In 2005, USC used Reggie Bush and LenDale White to amass 3,042 rushing yards. Two seasons later at Arkansas, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones rushed for more than 3,000 yards in a season. This season, Texas could employ something similar with Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown and Georgia may do the same with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

But what none of those teams have is Marcus Mariota.

Throw Mariota into that equation and the Oregon run game gets pretty difficult to stop. Could run game coordinator Steve Greatwood get really creative this season? Absolutely. Could either Tyner or Marshall explode so much during fall camp that they force the hand of the coaching staff into choosing a featured back? Absolutely. It's still early, but it's something to keep track of.

Realistically, this story line won’t play itself out for the public until the Michigan State game. The Ducks aren’t going to give too much away in the season opener, knowing that Mark Dantonio and his staff are going to see that game tape. In 2013, the Spartans finished in the top three nationally for rushing yards per game (86.3), yards per rush (2.84) and rushing touchdowns (8).

So come week two, we’ll get a much better sense of what the Oregon run game will actually look like this fall. If anyone truly believes we’ll know anything much sooner, they’re overreaching. Helfrich is going to keep his cards close to his chest and only show them when he must. And he’s going to need to against the defending Rose Bowl Champions.

Either way, it’s something to keep an eye on this fall camp to see if any hints are dropped regarding what exactly the Duck run game will look like this fall.
Last week at Pac-12 media days, the media poll was announced and the resounding response was that the media believes the Ducks will win this year’s Pac-12 championship game.

When it came to the breakdown of where teams would finish, again it was a pretty clear agreement: most media had Oregon and Stanford as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the North Division and UCLA and USC as their counterparts in the South Division.

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Which will be the matchup in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship game?

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    40%
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    23%
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    10%
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    6%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,594)

We didn’t need a media poll to start thinking about the Pac-12 championship game, but this just gave us even more reason to explore it. Yes, these four teams seem to be a step ahead in personnel and game plan for the season, and have some favorable matchups here and there. But, it’s college football and craziness happens, so there is certainly a chance that a team not in this group jumps into the lead in the North or South and ends up playing in Levi’s Stadium at the end of the season.

So, we wanted to ask you: which matchup do you think you will be watching when it all comes down to it on Dec. 5?

Will it be:

Oregon-UCLA: This would be a rematch of an Oct. 11 game that would match up (what could be) an explosive and dynamic Oregon run game against some of the best linebackers in the country -- Myles Jack, Eric Kendrick, we’re looking at you, can you handle Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner? It would be great to be able to see Mariota and Brett Hundley on the same field twice this season as they battle it out for NFL draft status, top quarterback in the Pac-12/nation, etc. etc.

Oregon-USC: These teams don’t play during the regular season, and if you can say that you don’t want to see USC defensive end Leonard Williams get after Mariota and the Oregon offensive line, then you are probably the kind of person who doesn’t like puppies, apple pie or happiness. This could be one of the best battles-within-a-battle to watch all season, regardless of conference. No doubt football fans all over the country would tune in to see what could be the best defensive lineman and the best quarterback battle for 60 minutes.

Stanford-UCLA: Could we see two teams play in back-to-back weekends? If Stanford wins the North and UCLA wins the South, that would be the case. They would close out the regular season on Friday, Nov. 28 in Los Angeles and then meet again a bit further north at Levi’s Stadium the following weekend. If you are not completely trusting of Oregon and its ability to close out a season, maybe this is the pick to make. Stanford has been the underdog before and has done pretty well.

Stanford-USC: This would be a great rematch. These teams play in Week 2, but can you imagine how different they would be by the championship game? The growth that happens between Sept. 6 and Dec. 5 would just be ridiculous, and it would be fun to compare these two games side-by-side and say, “Yes, this is where this team has grown the most over a season.” A Steve Sarkisian-David Shaw dual-duel is completely conceivable and would be fun to watch.

Other: Those are the front-runners in the conference, but could we see some surprises? Trap games exist for all four of those teams, and with coachs like Chris Petersen or Todd Graham, you can't completely count out their teams. Could Washington sneak into a matchup with UCLA or USC or someone else? Could Arizona State appear in the championship game for the second season in a row? It’s all possible. But is it probable? You decide.
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Pac-12 lunch links

July, 1, 2014
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So hold on to the ones who really care. In the end they'll be the only ones there. When you get old and start losing hair, can you tell me who will still care? Can you tell me who will still care? Mmmmmmmmm bop.
Oregon and UCLA are generally the preseason picks as the Pac-12's best candidates for the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff, which also indicates they are the favorites to win their divisions and play for the Pac-12 championship.

That doesn't mean they are a sure-thing. Far from it. In fact, Phil Steele, who likes both Oregon and UCLA, says folks should watch out for USC. He rates the Trojans as one of the potential surprise teams of 2014.
The Trojans are one of just five teams in the country that have each of their positional units (QB, RB, etc.) rank in my top 40. Scholarship limitations have really limited them as of late, but they have some depth at key positions. There is no disputing a talent like defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. The Trojans also have my No. 6 defensive line in the country, No. 5 linebackers and No. 3 defensive backs, giving them my No. 2 overall defense

ESPN.com's Insider also takes a look at several Pac-12 teams playoff chances here, including Washington, Arizona State, USC, UCLA and Stanford.

Still, the Ducks are the preseason Pac-12 front runners. Their chances of making the playoff are rated at 48 percent by Brian Fremeau with a projected record of 11-1.

ESPN analyst Brock Huard presents a detailed look at Oregon here. What he likes about Oregon isn't not surprising: QB Marcus Mariota, a favorable schedule and the Ducks recent track record.

He does, however, see some issues, starting with the Ducks front seven on defense. He writes:
... while Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner have each seen plenty of snaps, they must both make significant strides to be the forces at the point of attack that BCS champs have wielded over the last decade.

That's entirely fair, though the defense looks a lot stronger and experienced at linebacker than it did a year ago. It's also notable the Ducks are rebuilding their secondary after you get past the return of All-American CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

Huard also notes that the injury to No. 1 WR Bralon Addison hurts, making the Ducks typical offensive explosiveness a question.

Finally, he points out that navigating the Pac-12 schedule -- not to mention a nonconference matchup with Big Ten favorite Michigan State -- will be rugged and challenging on a week-to-week basis, even with pair of favorable misses (USC and Arizona State).

Bottom line: Oregon is 57-9 over the past five years, a span during which their being in the national title hunt has been the standard not the exception.

Barring anything exceptional in 2014, the Ducks should again be in the thick of things.

Pac-12 lunch links

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Ancient Greece was the beginning of Western civilization. You see in Greece, they didn't have professional sports or Wheaties boxes, so the athletes competed for another reason. Anybody?

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