Oregon Ducks: Pac-12
And other interesting notes and quotes from Oregon coach Mark Helfrich's Sunday teleconference following Oregon's 48-14 win against Wyoming.
- On Tyree Robinson, Reggie Daniels and the rest of the young players who are getting major reps: "They're coming along. We had some moments in every phase, not only the DB's but offensively, the young wideouts had a few kind of moments that we need to improve upon in a hurry, where it was a misalignment or a miscommunication. That's what happened on a couple of the third-down conversions, just a simple matter of confirming communication and whether it's the safety to the corner or vice versa, we miscommunicated, missed a couple signals at wideout that would've had huge plays each time. Those are the kind of things that absolutely cannot happen."
- Are the young players ready for conference play? "Absolutely. We're to the point now, there's not freshmen and sophomores and juniors and seniors. It's if you're in there, you're our No. 1 guy. Period. And we expect those guys to play like it and play great, if they've been here for three games or three years."
- Helfrich gave some props to freshman offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby. Said he did well finishing plays.
- Oregon played 67 players on offense and defense versus Wyoming.
- Helfrich referred to Washington State's 59-21 win against Portland State as a breakout game that really showed how Cougars QB Connor Halliday is really getting on the same page as his receivers. He said Halliday is putting up "Playstation numbers." Against Portland State, the senior QB completed 41 of 62 passes for six touchdowns (two interceptions) and 544 yards.
- On the challenges of entering conference play: "They know you a little bit better, you know them a little bit better. You might know their personnel a little bit more in terms of recruiting and crossover that happens in our conference."
- Regarding the number of big plays the Ducks have given up: "When everybody has done their job and fits where they're supposed to fit and takes care of their business, like anything, we've been great. There were some breakdowns [on Saturday], just gap-wise, turned into huge plays. … Part of that is on us as coaches and part of that is execution."
- As far as the big plays, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Oregon has given up 51 plays of 10-plus yards, and 15 of those were 20-plus yard plays. Obviously, some of those plays happened when third or fourth string guys were in, but that is still a number to pay attention to. Giving up 51 plays of 10-plus yards through three games is nothing to be proud of. On a national scale, it puts the Ducks at No. 111, tied with Troy and Washington.
- On how they get the offensive linemen to be so versatile: "We try to start from the beginning in spring ball, make everyone as versatile as possible, whether that's tackle and guard, right tackle and left tackle. Center is a little more nuanced -- a guy can snap or not, sort of. You can teach that a little bit. But having those guys rotate as much as possible. Hroniss [Grasu] played both guard spots. Everyone in there has played every position except for center, without exception. … Always have the ability to plug in your next-best play, not your next back up."
- Grasu has practiced at every position, Helfrich said. Would they move him? "Anything is possible."
- Regarding Marcus Mariota's dive and Oregon's guidelines as to reaching the ball for a TD: "It has got to be fourth down or the last play of the game. Secure the ball. We'll take first-and-goal at the 1 or third-and-inches rather than a touchback."
GENERAL NOTES/NEWSY NOTES
- Chance Allen is still a part of the Oregon football team per Helfrich. He didn't play in last weekend's win over Michigan State nor did he practice on Monday.
- The coach of this week's opponent, Wyoming's Craig Bohl, has won more games in a row as a head coach (26) than the total number of games that Helfrich has been a head coach (15). "That's pretty impressive," Helfrich said. "You're talking about multiple national championships." Bohl previously coached at FCS-level North Dakota State. This is his first year at Wyoming.
- Right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena won't be available Saturday. He injured his leg during the third quarter of the Michigan State game. Helfrich said that it does effect the offensive line rotation -- it'll change the number of guards and tackles that the Ducks rotate through against Wyoming. However, he feels confident because of how much the players trained across positions during the offseason.
- Michigan State played one defense and attacked many different ways coming out of it. Wyoming, on the other hand, has several looks. On how much of a challenge that presents the Oregon offense: "They're all over the map. ... They mix in enough of everything to make you prepare for a lot of stuff. It's like anything: identify it, communicate it and execute it."
- On how Wyoming has changed schematically (spread under previous coaching staff to more of a pro style now): "It's significant. Their scheme is 180 degrees from what it used to be, although they will have some of those elements."
- Helfrich said that a big win early in the season, like against Michigan State, can provide more confidence for players, especially some younger guys. He said he hasn't seen any indication of any players resting on their laurels. Helfrich said that both the coaching staff and the team leaders have stressed how there can't be any kind of let up following the win over Michigan State.
- On how you scout a team that has a first-year coach, especially when the scheme is so different from the program's previous regime: "It's difficult, that's probably one of the biggest challenges in this game. Yes, we have all the North Dakota State film and we've watched a bunch of those opponents. … They did a fantastic job there obviously. You take that and you try to match up a similar team or a similar program or a similar style and you have to try and find that. And then you try to do that this year with the two games they've had, Montana and Air Force were polar opposites in terms of their approaches and there's not that much carryover. ... You kind of have to pick and choose and just be ready for a lot of stuff."
- Regarding punt and kick returns: Helfrich likes the competition there, he said that he hasn't seen some guys be as consistent across the board -- fielding the ball, being an off-return blocker, communicating. So, it sounds like they're not going to say much...
- Freshman Charles Nelson keeps getting major praise from this coaching staff but is still only a special teams guy. Here's what Helfrich said about him on Tuesday: "He was awesome [against MSU]. ... He is special. He's putting it all together as many young guys are, as far as offensively, special teams, all that stuff. He definitely will have a much more substantial role here going forward just as he layers on some experience. But that guy is special. He has an unbelievable feel for high speed, change of direction and being able to stay on the move and make contact like he does -- it's rare."
- He said the biggest improvements that needed to be made between Weeks 1 and 2 were communication and tackling and he saw the biggest gains there. "Is it perfect? No. But there was a lot of improvement in those areas."
- On linebacker Joe Walker: "I think Joe really excelled with his communication and he did a nice job tackling. Joe really attacked the back field. He made some things happen on the other side of the line of scrimmage, which was significant. And his overall grade between his hustle and the type of plays he made was pretty high."
- The whole "Can this team beat another physical team?" question was brought up to both Pellum and Helfrich. More than anything it sounds like they're bored of answering the question, but it is still a valid question considering their past and the lapses experience during last Saturday's game. This is what Pellum had to say about whether or not this game was a statement: "It was an opportunity to go out, and more than anything, prove to each other that we can go out and play good, sound, gap-controlled defense with fundamentals and tackling. And that's how we looked at it going into it. And coming out of it, it felt like we were able to do that. It wasn't great, but it was pretty good."
- On Arik Armstead and whether Pellum has seen major jumps in his skill since he stopped playing for the Oregon basketball team: "I'm not sure if leaving basketball per se had a big impact from a stand point of leaving basketball. I know that him being here full time, in the weight room full time and being around the players full time has definitely had a real impact."
In so many regards -- which will be of importance to the College Football Playoff committee -- a W is a W. And so, the Week 1 win against South Dakota and the Week 2 win against Michigan State are both wins, both positive things for the Ducks’ playoff resume.
But what Oregon took away from MSU is something so different than what it took away from South Dakota. The Spartans were able to put pressure in different ways on a young squad in Week 2 of a crucial season for the Ducks. They sent Oregon into the locker room at halftime with a deficit, with all the momentum turning green and white.
"The biggest thing I think we can take away from this is that our team really grew up in the second half," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "We’ve got a lot of young players and a lot of them haven’t been in a game like that before. I think it really showed their character that they were able to respond the way they did."
"We thought we had a pretty mature group of young players," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich added. "I think that was very evident in the second half."
Helfrich said that at halftime he noticed the young players were composed, which could have been tough given the moment, the stage, the opponent.
"There was no panic," Helfrich said. "There was no element of fear."
That kind of attitude would be expected out of Mariota or cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or center Hroniss Grasu, any of the guys who have been apart of these games before.
But the fact that it was coming from players like wide receivers Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, running back Royce Freeman and defensive back Tyree Robinson, who were playing in just their second collegiate football game ever, says way more than a 40-point blowout win over an FCS school.
This experience is going to pay dividends going forward. Allen, Freeman and Robinson are going to be huge contributors for the Ducks this season and thanks to Michigan State, they really aren’t freshmen anymore. They are top targets in the run and pass game who proved themselves worthy of Mariota’s attention in tight situations. They are top tacklers on the team. They are guys who went from untested youth to valuable experience in about 30 minutes.
And that could be the difference between later W’s and L’s this season.
The Ducks have talent and experience, high power and big names. Now, they just need consistency, and a lot of it is going to come from guys whose age wouldn’t necessarily dictate that kind of play.
But age is just a number, and the Ducks don’t care about numbers, just W’s.
It's the first big national statement that the Ducks could've made, and they certainly made it. But, if you feel like reliving it, here's a bit of a dose of the day, as told through social media and a bit of commentary.
In case you missed it, the Duck appeared as the guest picker on ESPN's College GameDay this morning. He got pretty creative with his usage of props. There were Lucky Charms, a blender and a large hand on a stick (which he enjoyed pointing toward Herbstreit and Desmond Howard's faces). And naturally, when it came to picking the winner for Oregon-Michigan State, he went with the Ducks. As did Lee Corso, whose headwear tradition made us see double as he sat next to the Duck (if you're wondering, he's the one on the right).
And if you feel like reliving that part of the show, you can watch the whole thing here.
There were a lot of questions and rumors about what exactly Michigan State would be wearing when they took the field against Oregon. The Ducks are famous for their uniform combinations and many people assumed the Spartans would bring out something different and new. The biggest rumor was that they'd be wearing white helmet (MSU coach Mark Dantonio had specified the team would be wearing "white" earlier in the week). But, when they took the field, they were sporting their typical helmets and all-white uniforms. If you were watching on TV or in the stadium you might not have noticed it, but MSU did something pretty cool with their decals on their thigh pads. Maybe it's something Oregon tries in the ensuing seasons?
After the two teams traded some punts, Oregon finally reached the end zone as running back Thomas Tyner punched it in on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. The Ducks followed that up with a two-point conversion that had the Spartans' head spinning.
Oregon would strike again, at the beginning of the second quarter, with a 28-yard field goal. But it'd be MSU who'd find the end zone next as running back Jeremy Langford -- who finished the day with 86 yards and one rushing touchdown -- ran in a 16-yard score on third-and-1.
Jeremy Langford yet another example of B1G's depth at RB this year. #underrated— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) September 6, 2014
But any kind of excitement that garnered for Spartans fans was quickly ruined when Oregon receiver Devon Allen did this video-game-like move.
But this is where it got interesting. The Spartans went on to score 20 unanswered points. Then Oregon scored 28 unanswered points. It had the press box a buzz about momentum shifts and the craziness of college football.
Those points end a 20-0 Michigan State run. What you got, Connor Cook? Or are we officially changing momentum? #MSUvsUO— Ted Miller (@TedMillerRK) September 7, 2014
Well of course the Ducks weren't going to go quietly. Mariota to Devon Allen for a TD, and it's 27-25 Michigan State.— Lindsay Schnell (@LindsayRaeSI) September 7, 2014
MSU's defense in the same position Oregon's was early in the 3rd, desperately needing someone to make a play.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) September 7, 2014
There were even a few hypotheses made as to why the momentum swings were happening.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu made a diving interception of a Reggie Daniels tip as Michigan State was marching down the field (MSU was only down 12 at this point). Before the INT, the Spartans had made it all the way to the 31-yard line and Ekpre-Olomu made the pick at the 4-yard line. It seemed like a slow motion play, and Ekpre-Olomu said later that though it wasn't a "difficult play" (his words, seriously), his eyes did get a bit big when he saw Cook attempt that pass.
Since the DJ played Outkast here in Autzen Stadium the Ducks have outscored Sparty 14-3.— Spencer Hall (@edsbs) September 7, 2014
That's the best pick we will see all year. Incredible effort by Ekpre-Olomu.— Ivan Maisel (@Ivan_Maisel) September 7, 2014
Ekpre-Olomu's pick would nearly seal it but the Ducks' offense put it out of reach when freshman RB Royce Freeman found the end zone on fourth-and-2 with 1:25 remaining. The extra point provided the final 46-27 margin.
It was an all-around awesome game, and the energy in Autzen Stadium was incredible. The Ducks answered several questions tonight and kept the ball in the court.
1. Marcus Mariota will have his hands full with the pass rush the Spartans throw at him. At the center of the Spartans’ attack is Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He’ll be going up against Michigan native Jake Fisher (who held an offer from Michigan State) most of the game. It will be a crucial matchup, one that the Ducks really haven’t been able to replicate in practice this week. “We don’t have too many Shilique Calhouns walking around campus on either side of the ball, and certainly not on our scout team,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said earlier this week. Keeping Calhoun away from Mariota is key and it’s going to come down to several factors -- the offensive line playing as a unit, the running backs helping in pass protection, receivers running their routes efficiently and Mariota making the right decisions about when to be patient and when to take off.
2. Michigan State isn’t just a defensive team anymore. Since last October, the Spartans offense -- led by quarterback Connor Cook -- has seriously turned a corner. In the first seven games of last season, he had nine touchdowns and two interceptions. In the final eight games of the season, those numbers jumped to 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He became more comfortable in the passing game and quickly gained chemistry with his wide receivers, many of whom are back in 2014. His downfield passing percentages skyrocketed during that same time period. In the first seven games of the season, he completed nine passes of 15 yards or longer (with a 28.1 percent completion rate). In the final eight games of the season, he completed a Big Ten-leading 31 passes of 15 yards or more, including 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions (with a 48.4 percent completion rate). And in Michigan State's season opener against Jacksonville State, the junior played just one half, but completed 12-of-13 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns.
3. Explosion plays (plays of 25 yards or longer from the line of scrimmage) are going to be something to watch in this game. In 2013, the Ducks had 67 explosion plays and 21 of them resulted in touchdowns. Against South Dakota last weekend, Oregon accounted for seven, with three ending in the end zone. However, the Spartans are very good against explosion plays. “Big-play ability is what you see with Oregon,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “They can be stopped for four or five plays and then all of a sudden hit a 70-yarder. You have to be able to take that away from them. We've been good at that lately with not giving up a lot of explosive plays, particularly last season. This year remains to be seen because there are so many games left, but that's something we have to hang our hat on.” Those plays are limited the more a defense can force a three-and-out, which the Spartans did with a high success rate in 2013. Last season, Michigan State led the nation in this statistic, forcing offenses into three-and-outs on one-third of their drives. The Oregon defense did the same about a quarter of opponent's drives.
4. Michigan State punter Mike Sadler is a must-follow on Twitter. OK, maybe you don’t want to follow him right now (or right after the game, depending on how it all shakes out), but he's entertaining. Which other special teams player in the country has more than 16,000 Twitter followers? He does. And it’s deserved.
Zoology class. Expectation: playing with puppies. Reality: Algae. Lots of algae. Dammit Mike.— Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3) August 27, 2014
I just asked my waitress what sport she thought I played. Her answer? Disk golf. Time to reevaluate my life.— Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3) July 8, 2014
Do cows drink milk? Seriously.— Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3) July 25, 2014
Hopefully zoology class can shed some light on that at some point.
5. Eleven players caught passes for the Ducks last weekend. Running back Byron Marshall led the group with eight receptions, but it will be interesting to see how much that list narrows and how much certain players are targeted. We really didn’t learn too much about the true identity of this team in a blowout win like South Dakota, but against a more quality opponent, expect to see where and on whom this team will rely most heavily. Has Mariota developed enough chemistry with Devon Allen to try and get the ball to him against the Spartan No Fly Zone? Or will Keanon Lowe show his seniority and become Mariota’s security blanket? Or maybe they’ll try to take shorter shots and attack the field with some passes out of the backfield? The receivers were one of the biggest questions -- and still are -- through the summer and fall camp. Expect some answers by Saturday evening.
- 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."
- 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."
- 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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:
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.
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.
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.
No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly
2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.
Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.
No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.
Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."
No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley
2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.
Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.
No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams
2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.
Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.
No. 1: Marcus Mariota
2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.
Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.
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.
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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- Arizona State doesn't rate highly when it comes to returning experience.
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- Colorado adds a safety.
- Former Oregon OT gets booted from a high school field and he's irked.
- Oregon State gets a commitment from a tight end.
- An advanced stat preview of Stanford's offense.
- A watch list recap for UCLA.
- Highlights of recent USC QB commit Sam Darnold.
- What is Utah's strongest position group?
- Washington picks up its first commitment on defense.
- Five things you should know about Washington State LB Chester Su'a.
Kanell's Top Four Teams
2:00 PM ET Hawaii Colorado 3:30 PM ET Utah Michigan 6:00 PM ET Georgia State Washington 10:00 PM ET California Arizona 10:30 PM ET 2 Oregon Washington State 10:30 PM ET San Diego State Oregon State