Oregon Ducks: DeForest Buckner

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.
The spring season for Oregon was relatively un-newsworthy. And when it comes to spring football, un-newsworthy is a good thing. With the exception of the Bralon Addison injury, the Ducks had 15 uneventful practices. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t standouts.

This week we’ve taken a look at five standouts from spring practices.

No. 1: The defensive line

It’s hard to pick just one player on the defensive line considering, as a whole, it looked so improved in the spring game. We couldn't just give the No. 1 spot to only Arik Armstead or only DeForest Buckner or only Tui Talia or only Stetzon Bair when all of them (and others, too) looked much more complete (as players and as a position group as a whole) in May than they did last October and November.

This might be the most important improvement of the spring considering how the line struggled with stopping the run last fall. If this group continues to improve this summer like it has since the end of the 2013 season, then the defensive line that takes the field this fall will be much more capable of competing in the Pac-12.

It’ll also help that most of the best rushers in the conference from last season are gone, either to the NFL or graduation. However, don’t overlook Week 2 opponent Michigan State, which comes in with Jeremy Langford. The importance of this game cannot be overstated. The Ducks will need to have their game together when the Spartans come to town because a loss to MSU, which will use its run game to open up passing lanes for QB Connor Cook, could keep the Ducks out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Other spring standouts:
Spring ball is a lovely little dose of football that gets us all through the year, but it’s a far stretch from what we know and see in the fall. For the most part, it gives the young guys solid snaps and lets the older guys tune their skills.

But the coach who put it best this spring was Oregon coach Mark Helfrich who said, “In spring ball, you’re panning for gold a little bit. There’s a bunch of crap and one fleck of gold. You grab it and build on that and try to fix the other parts.”

So, here’s a look at who or what those flecks of gold were for the Pac-12 North:

Cal: If the Bears had been even adequate on defense a year ago, Andy Buh would still be in charge of the defense. Of course, that didn’t happen, but as a result coach Sonny Dykes was able to bring in Art Kaufman -- a man with a much more extensive list of success coordinating defenses. With Kaufman on board, Cal got back to basics, upped the amount of hitting it did in practice and took steps toward getting back to respectability. And, oh yeah, it remained healthy throughout the process.

Oregon: Offensively, if there’s any kind of gold/silver lining to the fact the Ducks lost Bralon Addison, it’s that they lost him early in the spring, which gave the younger, less experienced receivers more reps. Obviously, you never want to see a guy go down, but the timing of this injury gave other guys the time to step up and bring along the learning curve. Defensively, the silver lining is that the pass rush definitely improved. Between Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, Oregon is going to have two really solid defensive linemen on its hands.

Oregon State: The Beavers lost Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks and with him about 1,700 yards of receiving. They spent the spring trying to figure out where they’d find it. The fleck of gold in this season for Oregon State is that it might be on the right trail with two young receivers -- sophomore Victor Bolden and redshirt freshman Hunter Jarmon. They’re both players to keep track of next fall as quarterback Sean Mannion will certainly continue his gun-slinging ways.

Stanford: The two-time defending Pac-12 champion’s blueprint has long been in place. Now the program is in the rinse-and-repeat state among college football’s elite -- and for Stanford that starts with the offensive line. With four new starters up front, the talented group needs time to mesh, but it showed enough throughout spring to encourage the coaching staff it can remain a strength of the team. Center Graham Shuler and left guard Joshua Garnett also displayed leadership traits.

Washington: Whenever there’s a coaching change before a spring season, the fleck of gold is always going to be the fact that for both the coaches’ and players’ benefit, there was a period of time to get acquainted with one another. For Chris Petersen, he was installing a new system, bringing UW an overhaul in the coaching staff and implementing new rules and ways of doing things. Hopefully the spring period moves this group from Petersen’s program with Steve Sarkisian’s players to more of Petersen’s program.

Washington State: Ask any WSU fan about the future at quarterback beyond Connor Halliday and there is no worry in the world. It has been that way since Tyler Bruggman signed his letter of intent as part of the Class of 2013. What few counted on was that a walk-on could end up challenging the heir apparent -- but that appears to be the case. Luke Falk, who at one time was committed to Cornell, split reps with Bruggman and outperformed him in the Cougars’ spring game.
The Oregon defensive line is breaking it down to the basics this spring with a new slogan for the position group, one that goes all the way back to when most players first started learning the position and were given the most basic of commands on the defensive line.

“Knock back.”

It’s simple. Knock the offensive line back off the line of scrimmage. Knock the ball carriers back. Knock the quarterbacks back. Knock back. It’s also something the group didn’t do a lot of last season as it allowed 3.8 yards per rush (No. 37 nationally) and accounted for just 29 sacks (No. 45 nationally).

Fixing those issues has certainly been their focus this spring, but the slogan has encompassed the goals of this group as it works to fix its problems.

“Our mentality is definitely going to change,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “Last year put kind of a bad taste in most of our mouths. We want to play with a different attitude.”

The defensive line lost Ricky Havili-Heimuli, Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart, who accounted for 134 tackles including 16.5 for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Those three losses are all significant, so not only are the Ducks looking for new starters, they’re also looking for depth.


Alex Balducci and DeForest Buckner will be names to watch as possible starters this spring game, but Sam Kamp and Stetzon Bair could be nipping at their heels. Junior college transfer Tui Talia could have a jump on other players just because of his experience at Diablo Valley College, where he was ranked the top defensive end in the ESPN Junior College 50.

“We’ve got some younger guys who haven’t played much and then we have some guys who’ve played in a lot of games who are still young and continue to get better,” Armstead said. “[We’re] just getting the guys with less experience more opportunities to get out there and play more and [we’re] also getting the guys who do have that experience to learn more.”

And that skill of knocking back is going to be the most crucial of all.

Though the 3.8 yards per rush was worrisome for the defense, it was on critical rush plays where the defense struggled the most.

On third-down runs, the defense allowed a 65.5 percent conversion rate. There were only three defenses in the nation that had a worse conversion rate (Memphis, Purdue and New Mexico). On fourth-down runs, Oregon’s defense allowed a 66.7 percent conversion rate. The Ducks jumped to 73rd nationally in that category, but they still trail eight teams in the Pac-12. Those are critical situations in which Oregon must knock back in 2014.

Armstead said that the key to improvement in those categories goes back to the new mentality.

“It just came down to those situations that [other teams] made plays and we didn’t make plays,” Armstead said. “Making plays is a mentality -- just digging down deep and getting those stops in crucial moments when we need them.”


By most football standards, last season in Eugene, Ore., was a success. Under a first-year head coach the Ducks had an 11-win season while their 273.5 rushing yards per game and 291.5 passing yards per game were among the best in the country. But there was no Pac-12 championship and no BCS bowl game (ending the Ducks’ run of four-consecutive BCS bowl game appearances). So, year two is going to be as big of a test as the first for Mark Helfrich & Co.

With spring practices beginning Tuesday, the first steps of 2014 will be taken as the Ducks look to build on what they did last season and fix the mistakes that were made and the shortcomings that plagued them.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe return of Marcus Mariota meant big expectations are back for Oregon's offense.
Offensively, their identity is set. Marcus Mariota decided to return to Oregon, and with that decision expectations soared for what this offense could do. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers but with Mariota slinging it behind an offensive line that returns abundant talent and experience, even average receivers could look great. The receiver depth is far better than average. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison need to continue to contribute at a high level as they look to make up for the loss of two of the top three receivers from 2013.

However, since the receiver experience is limited, look for Helfrich to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game as the Ducks return a trio that could help take some of the yardage burden off those WRs. In 2013 the tight end trio of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis accounted for five touchdowns and 475 yards on just 30 receptions.

The run game, again, will be no surprise to anyone. Even without De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks should be fine. Byron Marshall -- who led Oregon with 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,038 rushing yards -- and Thomas Tyner will be able to attack defenses up front and be a very formidable matchup in the option when teams try to stop the run. They both boast good hands, so they’ll be able to help out in the pass game as well, helping Mariota put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

All of that combined will make up a high-powered offense, which is exactly what people expect out of Oregon. But the biggest question will be whether the defense can be an equal counterpart. And with an attack like Oregon’s, the defense must almost be even stronger considering it’s on the field about 10 minutes more per game than teams.

So it’s not very fair to put up their straight defensive numbers and statistics against any other team that doesn’t feature as prolific of an offense. But it is fair to say that it’s one of the bigger concerns heading into this spring and one of the facets of the game that must make the biggest strides.

Last year, Oregon was known for its deep secondary as it dared teams to throw. But in return, the Ducks struggled against the run even with an experienced group. They gave up 3.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to convert on 65.5 percent of rushing attempts on third downs (119th nationally). Oregon returns DeForest Buckner on the D-line, but overall, the group will need to improve its numbers against the run. It’s certainly a place where players could emerge through spring ball and one of the most important position groups that must build depth.

But even with the shuffling and inexperience on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum will stick with the 3-4 base defense because of the depth and experience the Ducks have in their linebacker group, which returns three starters, and their defensive backs. Even though the Ducks have just one returning starter in the secondary (cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), most of the DBs got some experience last season.

Next season could be huge for Oregon, but the foundation of what happens next December and January begins right now.
An issue that seems to arise every year in recruiting is which players Oregon chooses to pursue and sign on the defensive line. It always seems to be a source of worry for fans and recruiting pundits alike.

While Haloti Ngata isn't walking through the tunnel at Autzen Stadium anymore, the Ducks have equipped themselves nicely with a patchwork defensive line over the past few years.

In case you just awoke from a long winter's nap, you might have heard that the Oregon Ducks had some big news this week. Chip Kelly pump-faked everyone and decided that the NFL was worth it. Ducks DL coach Jerry Azzinaro followed him out the door and joined him in Philly.

The DuckNation Mailbag has never been so packed, so let's see what you've got on your mind.

Bob C. (Bakersfield, Calif.): Now that Chip has taken his ego to Philadelphia, who will take over? Can the Ducks maintain their success on the field? What about recruiting?

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Carl WinstonOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSan Jose, Calif., native Michael Clay was a crucial recruiting win for the Ducks over California in the Class of 2009.
After the Ducks program began to take off in the mid-1990s, California hired former Ducks' offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford in 2002. As the Ducks' upward climb reached a standstill, Cal stepped up and looked like it might be the next in line to challenge USC.

The Golden Bears did win four of five games with the Ducks between 2004 and 2008, including a game for the ages in 2007. After they walked out of Autzen Stadium with a 31-24 win over the No. 5 Ducks, things began to change between the two schools. Cal did win the following season in Berkeley, as the Ducks fumbled gave away a game they dominated. Starting in the class of 2008, the Bears responded by going on an unprecedented run of recruiting success. The Ducks began to dominate the series on the field with a 42-3 win over the Bears in 2009. Despite the dominant performance over the then-No. 6 Bears, Cal beat the Ducks head-to-head for a number of elite recruits from 2008 to 2012.

Whether it was location, academics, Cal's plans for facilities upgrades -- which are now complete -- or former Cal assistant -- and current Washington assistant -- Tosh Lupoi, the Bears won the majority of the recruiting battles between the two schools. Similar to the recent history with USC, the Ducks don't care about recruiting rankings as much as they do the on-field results.

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Ducks recruiting mailbag 

October, 12, 2012
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It's that time again. The Ducks have a bye this week, so it's time to dig through the Oregon recruiting mailbag and see what's on your mind.

[+] EnlargeLeon McQuay III
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould ESPN 150 safety Leon McQuay III find himself with the Ducks?
Ruben G. (Hillsboro, Ore.):
What is going on with the Ducks' defensive line recruiting? Haven't heard hardly any news about a position that has always been tough for them.

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Much has been made about the size -- or lack thereof -- on the Oregon roster. In past years, that was a legitimate argument, as the Ducks were smaller than most of their opponents. With a recent emphasis on matching up better with power teams, the Ducks have begun to recruit bigger players at every position.

Chris Seisay
Courtesy of Kathy RobinsonOregon commit Chris Seisay is an example of how the Ducks are going after bigger DBs.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly said as much during the Ducks' spring game in April, when he told ESPN's Brock Huard that he realized the Ducks were built to win the Pac-12, but they needed to be built to win the BCS.

It was mostly the offensive and defensive lines that took the heat for being undersized. Last year's recruiting class saw the Ducks add 6-foot-8, 300-pound Arik Armstead, 6-7, 270-pound DeForest Buckner and 6-9, 280-pound Stetzon Bair to the defensive line. The three of them have the size to line up on anyone's defensive line.

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Oregon Ducks weekly mailbag 

August, 31, 2012
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It has been an interesting week for the Oregon Ducks. From naming a starting quarterback, potentially getting a transfer, official visits being set up by top recruits and the season opener against Arkansas State, it's fair to say that things are heating up in Eugene.

With a flurry of activity surrounding the program, it is now time to open up the mailbag and answer your questions.

[+] EnlargeBryan Bennett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireOregon sophomore quarterback Bryan Bennett passed for 369 yards and six touchdowns and ran for 200 yards on 23 carries last year when he stepped in for an injured Darron Thomas.
Mike L. (Portland, Ore.): With Marcus Mariota being named the starter, it leaves Bryan Bennett with three years left as a backup. Like Mariota, freshman Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie both have four years left. Bennett has said he's staying, but I could see him or one of the freshmen leaving this season. Should the Ducks turn their quarterback recruiting up a notch for 2013?

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Notes on Oregon's preseason camp 

August, 17, 2012
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Nearly two weeks into Oregon fall camp, there is plenty of speculation as to who has the upper hand in the position battles and who has put themselves in position to see the field early on.

All eyes are on the ongoing quarterback battle between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota.

When it comes to discussing his team, Ducks head coach Chip Kelly plays everything close to the vest. There is no greater example of this than when it comes to who will be given the keys to his high-flying offense.

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After being mostly dominated up front by the likes of Auburn and LSU in the past two years, the Oregon coaching staff seems to have made a slight shift in their approach to the game. The smaller, yet fast and powerful Ducks have been built to win the Pac-12, and that has proven to be fruitful in recent years.

However, when faced with the task of matching up against SEC powerhouses in big games, the Ducks were faced with lining up against teams that could match their speed while holding a size advantage up front. While the Ducks held up for the most part, they were unable to play their normal game. Head coach Chip Kelly took notice and has changed his philosophy ever so slightly.

The Ducks still want to play fast and still want to be the most fit team on the field every time they step on the field, but Kelly hasn't been shy about admitting the disadvantage his teams were faced with. The often brash head coach did something a lot of high-profile coaches wouldn't do. He admitted that his system might not always work against the mighty SEC without the proper personnel.

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DucksMatthew Emmons/US PresswireRicky Heimuli (front), a highly touted defensive tackle in the 2010 class, is expected to take a big step up on Oregon's defensive line this season.
After a nice run of NFL talent along the defensive front from 2002-05, the Oregon Ducks took a number of hits with recruits failing to qualify or not showing up on campus for a variety of reasons. When new defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro arrived in 2009, things began to change in Eugene. While the talent has been building in recent years, the defensive line was the one glaring weakness when comparing Oregon to the likes of SEC powers Auburn, LSU and Alabama.

The Ducks have excelled at nearly every position outside of DL in recent years. The linebackers have been key in helping the Ducks to high sack totals, but 2012 looks like the season it all comes together up front for the Ducks. The depth, size and talent are at an all-time high in Eugene, as key returners are back for another go around and a number of impact newcomers will be entering the fold.

After losing Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from the 2010 BCS runner-ups, the defensive line stepped up last year and kept the Ducks among the elite. Now that they have another year under their belts, look for Oregon's front line to make a big impact in 2012.

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Chip KellyChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesChip Kelly has done a good job of keeping continuity on his coaching staff since taking over as Oregon's head man in 2009, which is a big reason behind the Ducks' sustained success.
When thinking about the Oregon football program, most tend to think of the flashy uniforms, the facilities and the ties to Nike as being the big reasons for the rise of the Ducks. Those things have played a huge part in Oregon's success, but the most commonly overlooked part of the equation is the continuity of the coaching staff in Eugene.

Sure, head coach Chip Kelly has only been in Eugene since 2007 and is entering his fourth season as the face of the program, but for the most part Oregon's staff has been together longer than most. In an era where coaches use schools as stepping stones and successful coaching staffs rarely have more than a couple of years together, the Ducks have a level of chemistry among the coaching staff that has helped fuel their meteoric rise to the top.

Head coach: Chip Kelly is entering his sixth season at Oregon and his fourth as head coach. While his name is tied to nearly every job that comes open, Kelly turned down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job this past offseason. Kelly has been a part of the greatest streak in Oregon history. His record as head coach is 34-6 and the overall record of the Oregon program since his arrival is 53-13.

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Chantel Jennings speaks with Oregon QB Marcus Mariota about the Ducks' preparation for a visit from Michigan State.
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