- Brandon P. Oliver, Reporter, DuckNation
The defending league champion Oregon Ducks kick off their quest for a Pac-12 four-peat when fall camp kicks off on Monday. The Ducks won the last two Pac-10 titles and the inaugural Pac-12 title; now they want to be the first back-to-back Pac-12 champions.
When fall camp kicks off there will be many familiar faces and also some notable players missing.
Gone are record-setting quarterback Darron Thomas, all-time leading rusher LaMichael James, team MVP David Paulson, the team's most improved player, Eddie Pleasant, and Rose Bowl Offensive MVP LaVasier Tuinei. How will they replace the departed stars? Who will step up? Is a fourth consecutive league title possible?
Under Chip Kelly the Ducks have morphed into a program that reloads, not rebuilds. Losing so many top players will sting, but the Ducks have the talent and the system in place to ensure the drop-off, if any, is minimal.
What to watch for as camp kicks off
The highly anticipated 2012 recruiting class reported to campus this weekend and will be looking to make its presence known sooner than later. Some of the potential impact players who recently arrived in Eugene have a real chance at seeing the field early.
Quarterback competition: Chip Kelly has seen this before and he spun gold out of straw each time. Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas both led the Ducks to BCS games in their first year entering the season as the starter. Now it's either Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota who will have the keys to the Ducks offense.
Bennett has some game experience, including one start under his belt. Bennett is a gunslinger with a rocket arm who looked to have the advantage entering the spring. He did nothing to lower expectations as the only returning quarterback with game experience. The only issue for Bennett was the emergence of redshirt freshman Mariota.
Mariota evoked memories of Dennis Dixon in the spring with his uncanny ability to freeze the defense on the read-option. He is not as explosive as Bennett but he is just as good of an athlete. His strong-armed, smooth delivery, his pocket awareness, his long strides and his ability to stay calm in the pocket made him a fan favorite at the spring game. Mariota might not be the favorite to win the job, but he showed he is fully capable of leading this team to great heights.
Wide Receiver battle: With Tuinei gone to the NFL and the retirement of Justin Hoffman, the Ducks are in need of new targets to emerge out wideout. Josh Huff has been an enigma during his career but has the talent to take over. Will he be able to take the lead as the leader of the group?
Who will step up? BJ Kelley, Tacoi Sumler and Devon Blackmon are likely to be the three most-watched players during camp. The trio came in together and redshirted last season. At least one of them needs to step up and make an impact early for the Ducks. Rahsaan Vaughn, Eric Dungy, Daryle Hawkins and Blake Stanton join Huff as returners. Can Bralon Addison, Dwayne Stanford or Chance Allen break into the lineup as true freshmen?
Tight End depth: The talent is there. The experience is not. Sophomore Colt Lyerla leads the way as the primary target but behind the potential superstar lies a group of inexperienced talent. Three freshman and a converted defensive lineman will battle for the backup spots. Evan Baylis has been in Eugene since spring ball. Pharoah Brown and Terrence Daniel are as athletic as they come. Koa Ka'ai looks to make an impact on the offensive side after beginning his career at defensive end.
Safety help: John Boyett is back for a fourth year as a starter at free safety but his sidekick is now gone to the NFL. Who will replace Eddie Pleasant in the secondary?
The frontrunners are juniors Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson. Both have loads of experience playing in big spots for the Ducks. Whoever wins the starting job will be sharing time as the Ducks have the depth and talent to rotate fresh bodies in on every possession.
Erick Dargan, Issac Dixon and James Scales are next in line. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a physical corner who many think could wind up at rover for the Ducks. For now his versatility is key for the Ducks as he can easily transition between corner and safety.
Running backs: The top level talent is as good as it gets in college football, but can it hold up during the season?
Kenjon Barner is a surefire NFL prospect but has never had to carry the load of the Oregon run game on his back alone. If he stays healthy and proves he can carry the ball 20-25 times a game he could be in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
De'Anthony Thomas is the most electric player in college football. The Ducks will get him the ball every way possible, but he likely won't see many games where he has double-digit carries. If Barner goes out that will change, but Thomas is best utilized in space and that's where fans will see him all season long.
The biggest question might be whether freshman Byron Marshall comes in ready to play college football. Marshall is a bigger back and has elite talent. Should one of the top two go down, Marshall needs to be ready to carry the ball 10-15 times a game.