Oregon Ducks: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

EUGENE, Ore. -- In the midst of player unionization movements and NCAA rules discussions, the Oregon defense is reminding itself of a simple fact while working through spring practices: Football is fun.

“You know when you’re a kid and you can just run forever, you can play forever ... Somehow, sometimes football gets you so bogged down that the kids don’t play with that, that fun, spirited emotion,” Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “And football has to be fun.”

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
AP Photo/Don RyanErick Dargan (right) and his teammates are trying to bring some swagger to Oregon's defense.
Fun obviously means something different to every person. Most people wouldn’t consider early-morning workouts or weight lifting until you can’t feel your quads to be “fun,” but for the Ducks, it is.

The idea is to get back to the joy most of these players felt when they were children, playing Pop Warner football in front of their parents and coaches. There’s no way to completely avoid the thoughts that they’re playing on national TV and that scouts and fans are going to have opinions. However, if each player can get to a place where he’s enjoying himself, the other stuff will take care of itself.

Coaches have scaled back in terms of the football verbiage. That means less jargon for the defense this spring, which hopefully translates to more big plays on the field in the fall.

“You have to reduce the thinking,” Pellum said. “You have to free them up to have a little more fun. You have to create practice situations where it seems fun, where it’s competitive. And you have to allow those kids to do it.”

And they’ve changed the verbiage a bit, too. Defensive back Erick Dargan said Pellum has been emphasizing two words for the defense this spring: attitude and swag.

“Attitude has always been there, but the swagger is becoming a bigger part because sometimes we lack swag,” Dargan said. “Swagger isn’t just about fashion. It’s about how we carry ourselves and how we get ready to play. Always being ready and confident. The swag -- it’s not about how you dress, it’s about how you wear it.”

Dargan said for the Ducks, that swag has been defined as dominating one’s area and doing it with confidence and strength.

The Ducks certainly need that kind of approach this spring as they aim to replace two starters on the defensive line and three in the secondary. The linebackers return starters and depth, which will help the defense as Pellum is also in charge of coaching the linebackers.

The Ducks allowed a Pac-12-best 4.6 yards per play last season. But when it came to third and fourth downs, Oregon struggled, allowing teams to convert on 40 percent and 46 percent of their attempts, respectively. Neither one of those statistics placed the Ducks in the top 40 nationally.

Another way the players are enjoying this spring is with intra-position group competitions. This winter, the competition level between players improved in the weight room, and that has continued onto the practice field this spring.

Some of the defensive backs have an open competition with interceptions. So far Dargan, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill are in. Any DB can throw his name into the hat, but there can only be one winner and that guy gets dinner from every other player in the ring.

Pellum isn’t encouraging each group to create these kinds of competitions, but he’s not going to make them scale back, either.

“All of that stuff is good,” Pellum said. “Friendly, good-spirited competition is good. This is the only time most of the kids are going to play football in their life, so they need to be enjoying every second of it.”

And if they are enjoying themselves this spring, while getting back to the fundamentals and playing with more spirit and confidence, Pellum believes there’s a better chance they’ll enjoy themselves during the 2014 season. Of course, wins are fun, and that’s also a big goal for Oregon. But right now, as the Ducks work their way through 15 spring practices, having fun is also a major concentration.

“We have to play with that spirit,” Pellum said. “We have to have a little more of an attitude. We have to play a little more disciplined, [be] tougher, meaner and have fun doing it.”
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.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division. We've already done offense for the South and North divisions. Wednesday we looked at defenses in the South.

Next up: North Division defensive three-headed monsters.

1. Stanford

LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson, S Jordan Richards

The skinny: The Cardinal lose their top tackler (Shayne Skov) and top sack guy (Trent Murphy). But there are others ready to take control. Tarpley has long been one of the league’s most underappreciated linebackers (93 tackles last season) and Anderson’s return boosts a front seven that should continue to party in the backfield. Richards is solid at one safety spot, though there are some questions about who will play opposite him. The Cardinal still boast the top defense in the league until proven otherwise.

2. Washington

LB Shaq Thompson, DE Hau’oli Kikaha, DB Marcus Peters

The skinny: The Huskies have some losses, like everyone else in the country, but there is plenty of talent coming back for the new coaching staff to work with. That returning production is enough to slot them No. 2. Thompson continues to get better with each season and appears on the verge of a breakout year. Kikaha has not-so-quietly turned into one of the Pac-12’s most feared rushers (13 sacks last season) and Peters is back after making five interceptions last season. They lose some leadership with the departure of Sean Parker and there's some question marks in the secondary. But this should be a salty group in 2014.

3. Oregon

LB Derrick Malone, DE/OLB Tony Washington, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

The skinny: Despite losing Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Terrance Mitchell, the secondary still boasts one of the top defensive backs in the country in Ekpre-Olomu. Mitchell led the team with five picks in 2013, but a lot of teams opted not to test Ekpre-Olomu. Malone is back after making 105 tackles, and Rodney Hardrick should be on his heels as top tackler. The linebackers should be a strength. Washington returns after recording 7.5 sacks to go with 12 tackles for a loss. Now, if they could just get off the dang field on third down ...

4. Oregon State

S Tyrequek Zimmerman, DE Dylan Wynn, CB Steven Nelson

The skinny: Zimmerman brings his 104 tackles back from last season and the return of OLB Michael Doctor, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, should be a nice boost. Replacing the production of Scott Crichton and his 7.5 sacks will be difficult. Linebacker D.J. Alexander and Wynn should see their share of time in the backfield. Nelson, a former junior college transfer, had a spectacular first season with the Beavers with a team-high six interceptions (tied with Rashaad Reynolds) and eight breakups.

5. Washington State

LB Darryl Monroe, DT Xavier Cooper, ?

The skinny: Do-all safety Deone Bucannon is gone after leading the team in tackles (114) and interceptions (6). He was an All-American for a reason. Monroe is an obvious choice for tackles, and Cooper is the obvious choice for sacks. But the secondary is wide open. Mike Leach has essentially said all four spots in the secondary are up for grabs. Clouding the issues is the future of cornerback Daquawn Brown, who has legitimate experience but also some legal hurdles to overcome.

6. California

S Michael Lowe, LB Jalen Jefferson, S Avery Sebastian?

The skinny: We all know about the defensive injury issues the Bears had last season, which is why Lowe returns as the leading tackler and tied for the lead in interceptions with one (the Bears only had five all last season). Jefferson returns with the most sacks, and Kyle Kragen appears to be a good fit for the scheme. (Remember when Kameron Jackson had three in one game!) We’ll see how oft-injured but talented Stefan McClure fares at safety. Getting Sebastian back from injury will help in the secondary. The pass rush should be improved with Brennan Scarlett’s return.
The first day of Oregon’s spring practices is April 1 (no, we aren’t fooling you), which means we’ve got about three weeks until the Ducks take the field again. Last week we counted down the top five Oregon recruiting classes and this week we’re taking a look at the top five players to keep track of during spring ball.

No. 4: The guys who returned -- QB Marcus Mariota and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 statistics:

  • Mariota: 3665 passing yards | 31 passing TD | 4 INT | 860 rushing yards | 9 rushing TD
  • Ekpre-Olomu: 84 tackles | 5 tackles for loss | 3 INT | 6 passes broken up | 9 passes defensed | 1 forced fumble
[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmo/USA TODAY SportsOregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is already considered a top NFL prospect.
Why to watch them: It’s always interesting to keep an eye on players who decide to pass up millions in the NFL to return to college for another season. Obviously, it’s an individual decision that each player makes, but whether they attack the next season with a chip on their shoulders or have cold feet about their decision remains a question that can only be answered once they hit the field. However, chances are that it will be chips on their shoulders for both Mariota and Ekpre-Olomu.

It would be surprising if either had seasons that were anything less than incredibly impressive, and that progression is likely start to show itself this spring. And there will be a chance for each player to prove himself as both are going to be asked to do even more than they did last season. Mariota is losing his No. 1 and No. 3 receivers; Ekpre-Olomu will be the Ducks’ only returning starter in the secondary. That kind of pressure should help to push these players to the next level, as they’ll be the team leaders.

Ekpre-Olomu said he chose to return because he wanted to progress as not only a player but a person and that he had unfinished business with the Ducks. From an accolades standpoint. there’s not a lot that Ekpre-Olomu can do that he hasn’t already accomplished. He was named an All-American and a is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

Mariota's name popped up in the Heisman Trophy conversation early in the season, but faded later. His numbers dropped a bit, the Ducks lost two games, Mariota was hobbled a bit by injury, and other players across the country put up bigger numbers. But this season, Mariota enters the season as one of the Heisman favorites, which is only helped by the fact that the Oregon’s offensive line returns talent and depth and is ready to protect him again.

But what’s notable about both of these players is how much they’ve progressed each season. Ekpre-Olomu’s tackle totals have gone from 34 to 63 to 84 in his three seasons. Meanwhile, Mariota's passing yardage totals gained nearly 1,000 yards from his freshman to sophomore seasons, and though his rushing yardage remained similar (752 yards as a freshman; 715 yards as a sophomore) he became more productive with his runs, finding the end zone with his feet nine times last season as opposed to five times as a freshman.

After this season, Ekpre-Olomu’s eligibility will run out; Mariota would have one more year. But if their seasons go as many expect they will, at this time next year both players could be first-round NFL draft prospects.

The countdown:

Poll: Top defense in 2014?

February, 14, 2014
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The shuffling of defensive coordinators appears to be over. We think. And as previously noted, all five of the top scoring defenses in the Pac-12 last year have seen changes at the top of the defensive coaching hierarchy. Three of the hires were internal promotions and two were coordinators who stayed with their head coach while switching schools.

This is how the top five scoring defenses played out last year:
  1. Stanford (19.0 points per game)
  2. Oregon (20.5)
  3. USC (21.2)
  4. Washington (22.8)
  5. UCLA (23.2)

Who got the better end of the deal? Sounds like a poll question for you to ponder all weekend long.

Which team will lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2014?

Your options:

SportsNation

Which team will lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2014?

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    17%
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    30%
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    25%
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    11%
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Discuss (Total votes: 4,124)

Stanford: Derek Mason departed to become head coach at Vanderbilt and Lance Anderson was promoted from within. The Cardinal lose some marquee players but have others such as safety Jordan Richards and linebacker A.J. Tarpley returning.

Oregon: Out is longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, who retired. In is longtime position coach Don Pellum. The Ducks lose some talent but return standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who gives the Ducks' secondary instant credibility.

USC: Clancy Pendergast was not retained by new head coach Steve Sarkisian. So Justin Wilcox is in after working his magic at Washington. The Trojans lost a lot of players to the draft, but a couple key players are back and there is a pretty good crop of young, talented players.

Washington: New head coach Chris Petersen brought his guy, Pete Kwiatkowski, with him from Boise State. The Huskies made tremendous strides in two seasons under Wilcox and have some pretty solid personnel returning.

Other: UCLA's Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Jeff Ulbrich was promoted from within. Head coach Jim Mora will still oversee a lot of the defense. Though impact players like Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh are gone, the Bruins have plenty of talent coming back. ... Arizona was sixth in the conference last year and made huge strides from 2012 to 2013. Can it keep the momentum going? ... Arizona State (seventh) also shuffled its defensive staff around with the hiring of Keith Patterson, though Todd Graham will still be heavily involved in the defense. ... Utah (eighth) is just two seasons removed from leading the conference in scoring defense. Can the Utes get back to the top?

Pac-12 top 25 for 2013: No. 15

January, 27, 2014
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

No. 15: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon

[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmo/USA TODAY SportsTeams rarely looked to challenge Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
2013 numbers: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He also had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Preseason ranking: No. 8

Making the case for Ekpre-Olomu: This is always the dilemma when it comes to A-list defensive backs. Though his tackles were up from 63 last season, he had fewer passes defended, fewer interceptions and fewer forced fumbles. It’s not for lack of talent. And I don't think many would criticize him for having a bad season. Rather his reputation as a lockdown corner precedes him, and as a result, teams weren't throwing in his direction as much. A first-team All-American per ESPN, he was also a second-team All-American by several other publications and the Walter Camp Foundation. He already was slated as one of the top defensive back prospects in college football. Now that he’s returning to Oregon for another season, he’s going to get that much better, that much sharper and that much more polished. Expect him to be on pretty much every preseason All-America list and the postseason ones as well. His return gives Oregon’s secondary instant credibility.

The countdown:
video
Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.

Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal

The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.

Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal

The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.

Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal

The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.

Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal

The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.

Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal

The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.

Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)

The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas' unique set of skills will be hard for Oregon to replicate.
Leaving: De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.

Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).

The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.

Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon

The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.

Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.

Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.

Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergStanford has a lot of offensive linemen with experience, but replacing an All-American such as David Yankey is never easy.
The replacement: A member of Stanford’s lauded offensive line recruiting class of 2012, Joshua Garnett has already seen his share of playing time. That’s one of the big advantages of being an offensive lineman at Stanford. With their multiple offensive-linemen sets, there is plenty of rotation. Then again, Yankey was a two-time All-American -- it's tough to replace that.

Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford

The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.

Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford

The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.

Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.

Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.
The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.

But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.

Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.

In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.

The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.

Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).

But a lot more is gone than is coming back.

That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.

The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.

Season review: Oregon

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with Oregon.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsA healthy Marcus Mariota made a huge difference for the Oregon offense.
Offense: Things were going pretty well there, for a while. The Ducks stormed out of the gates and scored at least 50 points in their first five games and in six of their first seven. Then Marcus Mariota quietly, partially, tore his MCL and Oregon’s offensive decline was evident. They went from scoring an average of 57.5 points per game in the first seven to 31.3 over the final six. Still, they averaged more than 45 points per game, which was fourth nationally, and they were a top-10 rushing team and a top-25 passing team. All in all, the Ducks were again one of the most dominant offensive teams in the country. Obviously, as Mariota goes, so go the Ducks. In the first seven games, pre-injury, he was completing 62 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 95.3. He also had nine rushing touchdowns. Post-injury, his completion percentage actually went up to 64 percent because he wasn’t running, but that also means he had zero rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns, four interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 79.9 percent. Still, he finished as the national leader in adjusted QBR, Byron Marshall was a 1,000-yard rusher and Josh Huff and Bralon Addison were a vicious receiving duo. Aside from a couple of games, the Ducks offense was explosive and potent. Grade: A

Defense: Stanford and Arizona used similar tactics in their wins over the Ducks. Run, rinse, repeat. Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 45 times and Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were as advertised, combining for eight interceptions and Derrick Malone posted a team-high 105 tackles with two interceptions. Avery Patterson also pitched in three picks as the Ducks were plus-seven in turnover margin. But the lingering problem all year was third-down defense, where the Ducks allowed teams to convert better than 40 percent of the time -- which was 10th in the conference. In the games when things got tight, the defense wasn’t able to get off the field. Grade: B

Special teams: The kicking game is always an, ahem, adventure, when it comes to the Ducks. But this year things were a little more consistent. Matt Wogan was a solid 7 of 9 and Alejandro Maldonado was 3 of 5. Though neither converted a kick beyond 40 yards (Wogan attempted only one and missed, Maldonado didn’t attempt any). Plus, there were three missed PATs on the year (Wogan missed two, Maldonado one). Maldonado was solid at punting and the kick return and coverage teams were steady. Addison returned two punts for touchdowns and De’Anthony Thomas returned one kick for a score. Grade: B+

Overall: Again, we base a lot of these grades on what the expectation was versus where the team finished. And despite an 11-win season, the Ducks, once thought to be a national championship contender, failed to meet those expectations. In fact, they failed to make it to a BCS bowl game. The loss to Stanford was viewed as disappointing -- but certainly not shocking. The loss to Arizona was head-scratching. And from a public relations standpoint, the Ducks didn’t have a great year. Still, they did win their bowl game and finished ranked in the top 10. There’s something to be said for that. And we’re in no way calling Mark Helfrich’s first year as coach a bust. He won a bowl game in his first year – which Chip Kelly never did -- and probably learned a few lessons along the way. When you have a title-game-or-bust mentality, every loss is heart-wrenching. But we also understand that injuries can impact a team -- especially injuries to a Heisman-contending quarterback. Grade: B.

Pac-12's lunch links

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
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A huge earthquake happens, who do they rescue first? They'll rescue Clooney, Sandra Bullock, me. If there's room, you guys will come.

Mannion, Ekpre-Olomu coming back

January, 6, 2014
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It was a good day for the Oregon schools, as Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion and Oregon's All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu announced Monday that they would return for their senior seasons and not enter the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmo/USA TODAY SportsIfo Ekpre-Olomu decided to stay at Oregon saying he wants to improve as a player and also wants to finish his degree. "Football is only one phase of who I am; my degree will be forever," he said.
Both decisions might rate as a slight surprise. Most NFL draft projections slotted Ekpre-Olomu in the first round this spring, and Mannion received a third-round grade from the NFL. He, in fact, might have gone higher due to two higher rated Pac-12 QBs also opting to return -- Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley -- thereby diminishing a mediocre quarterback class for the draft.

Mannion ranked second in the nation this past season with 358.6 yards passing per game. He threw 37 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.

Ekpre-Olomu, a two-time All-Pac-12 pick and a first-team All-American for ESPN.com, ranked second for the Ducks with 84 tackles and he added three interceptions.

In perhaps a surprising twist, Ekpre-Olomu, who has started 27 consecutive games, decided to stay while fellow cornerback Terrance Mitchell opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, joining Ducks running back/receiver De'Anthony Thomas in doing so. Ekpre-Olomu is the only member of the Ducks touted secondary returning in 2014.

“The two main factors related to my decision to return were my continued progression as a person and a player, and I felt Oregon was my best option to achieve those goals and improve my situation for next year,” Ekpre-Olomu told the school's official website.

“I should be able to finish my degree by next fall, possibly by the end of the summer. Football is only one phase of who I am; my degree will be forever. Secondly was my ability to make an impact and become a top [draft] pick, and I felt staying one more year would only help me.”

For Mannion, he will be without receiver Brandin Cooks, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver. Cooks and defensive end Scott Crichton are two Beavers who entered the draft a year early.

For Mannion, he wants to help his team and himself. He feels he could use 2014 to move up significantly among NFL evaluators.

"That was something I asked about -- how much good I could do if I have another good year?" he said.

Mannion had a late-season slide in which he threw 12 of his 15 interceptions in the final five games. In 2012, he also tended to throw interceptions in bunches -- he threw 11 of his 13 interceptions in three games.

At present, the Pac-12 has lost 17 players to early draft entry. It still awaits word from Stanford OG David Yankey, Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey and Arizona State LB Carl Bradford, with Yankey and Carey considered highly likely to leave.

The deadline to declare in Jan. 15.







Early entry talent drain for Pac-12

January, 6, 2014
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While the return of UCLA QB Brett Hundley for his redshirt junior season was the weekend's big news, an early-entry to the NFL draft talent drain is hitting the Pac-12 hard.

While a number of big-name players have not yet formally announced their intensions -- such as Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford OG David Yankey, Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Arizona State LB Carl Bradford and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion -- already 17 players have announced they will give up their remaining eligibility to turn professional.

The deadline to declare is Jan. 15.

There has been good news at quarterback. Hundley joins Oregon's Marcus Mariota as pretty significant surprises that they opted to return to school, and that means the 2014 class of Pac-12 quarterbacks will be without peer in the nation by a wide margin.

Here's the early-entry list so far:

Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon*
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE California
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah

*Lyerla was kicked off the team at Oregon in October.

Valero Alamo Bowl roundtable

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell and Texas reporter Max Olson break down the biggest storylines in Monday’s Valero Alamo Bowl matchup featuring Texas and No. 10 Oregon:

How do you think Mack Brown's resignation affects this game?

Max Olson: Throughout the past few weeks, Brown has stuck to the same message publicly: Texas players should win this game for themselves, not for their coach. They’ve had a brutal season, overcome plenty and have a chance to cap it with a ninth win and a few good memories. Brown keeps saying he wants this to be about the kids, not him.

What we’ll get out of kids, though, I just don’t know. They’ve been big underdogs before. They came out firing against Oklahoma and built real momentum. They held Baylor to 3 points in the first half but ran out of gas. Which Texas team shows up Monday? They’ll need plenty of motivation and good fortune.

Kevin Gemmell: My first thought was that this was going to be a huge motivation advantage for Texas -- and I’m a big believer that the bowl season is all about which team is motivated to be there. But I think the recent news that Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is also retiring balances things out in the Oregon locker room. While he’s not as big of a name nationally as Brown, he’s as much an Oregon institution as Brown is to Texas.

Both pregame speeches will be rousing. Heartstrings will be tugged. But ultimately it comes down to what happens on the field. If Oregon is able to set aside its disappointment of not being in a BCS game, then who is coaching on which sideline shouldn't matter because on paper Oregon is the stronger team.

What should be expected of a 100-percent healthy Marcus Mariota?

Gemmell: For starters, an extra element to the Oregon offense that makes them that much tougher to stop. Consider Mariota in the first seven games of the season before his knee injury. He averaged 70.4 rushing yards per game and scored nine touchdowns -- including at least one rushing touchdown in all seven games. Since hurting the knee against UCLA, he’s averaged just 17.8 rushing yards with zero rushing touchdowns.

He also threw four interceptions in the final two games after going pick-free for the first 10, so aside from his rushing abilities -- which are substantial -- his throwing mechanics should be much stronger. I’m of the belief that when he’s 100 percent healthy, Mariota is the best football player in the country. And if Texas gets a 100 percent Mariota, he’s going to be very, very difficult to stop.

Olson: Mariota is one of the many reasons why this is just not a good matchup for Texas, especially considering its defense has had legitimate issues defending the option against mobile quarterbacks. Of quarterbacks who started the last two seasons, nobody in the country has a better Total QBR than Mariota at 89.0. He’s the real deal. I fully expect him to put up big numbers in the Alamodome, and it’ll be interesting to see how Texas defends him, probably with Jackson Jeffcoat reprising his freestyle “spinner” role.

Who will be the key player in this game?

Olson: If you’ve been following this Texas team, you know the key isn’t getting a huge performance from Case McCoy. Yes, he needs to play relatively mistake-free and hit on the big passes when they’re there. But Texas doesn’t stand a chance in this one without a big night from Malcolm Brown.

The San Antonio native had rushed for 421 yards in the four games since Texas lost Johnathan Gray, including 118 in the first half against Baylor. He did a terrific job of hitting cutback lanes against the Bears, and run defense hasn’t been a strength for Oregon. Brown needs to get rolling or Texas could fall behind quickly.

Gemmell: Take your pick from any number of superstars on both sides of the ball for Oregon. Be it Mariota, Josh Huff or Byron Marshall. Defensively, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is as lockdown as they come. But the guy who always seems to show up in the postseason is De’Anthony Thomas.

Last season against Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, he returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, caught four balls for 60 yards and a score and rushed twice for 15 yards. In the 2011 Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, he carried twice for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Wisconsin. He also caught four balls for 34 yards and returned five kicks for 125 yards. Thomas is a big-game player with blazing speed and scary elusiveness. When he’s hitting on all cylinders, he’s a difference maker.

Postseason honors in Pac-12

December, 16, 2013
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While the Pac-12 was shut out of the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver and Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins won the John Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end, so the postseason has seen some individual accolades for the conference.

Further, a number of Pac-12 players are on their way to consensus and unanimous All-American honors.

While we still await the AP, FWAA and the American Football Coaches Association teams, here's how things stand so far with 12 different Pac-12 players receiving note on at least one first team.

PAC-12 FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

ESPN.com

Offense: RB Ka'Deem Carey, Jr., Arizona, WR Brandin Cooks, Jr., Oregon State, OL David Yankey, Sr, Stanford

Defense: DT Leonard Williams, So., USC, LB Trent Murphy, Sr., Stanford, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Jr., Oregon

Walter Camp

Offense: Carey, Cooks, Yankey

Defense: Murphy, LB Anthony Barr, Sr., UCLA

The Sporting News

Offense: Cooks, Yankey

Defense: Barr, Murphy

Specialists: KR Ty Montgomery, Jr., Stanford

Athlon

Offense: Carey, Cooks, Yankey, OL Hroniss Grasu, Jr., Oregon, All-purpose Myles Jack, Fr., UCLA

Defense: Barr, S Deone Bucannon, Sr., Washington State, S Ed Reynolds, Sr., Stanford

Specialists: Montgomery

SB Nation

Offense: Carey, Cooks, Yankey

Defense: Barr, Murphy

Specialists: Montgomery

After a trying second half of the season, Christmas came early for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich when quarterback Marcus Mariota announced Tuesday that he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, in which he almost certainly would have been an early first-round selection.

As a stocking stuffer, two-time first-team All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu also announced he will return. Goducks.com, the school’s athletics website, announced the news for both.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will return to Oregon next season as a Heisman Trophy favorite.
While the Ducks probably are going to say goodbye to receiver De'Anthony Thomas and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who have yet to announce their intentions, Mariota's decision does make one thing clear: Oregon will be the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

Mariota, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for a second consecutive year, will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as he captains an offense that looks like it will welcome back eight starters, a calculation that doesn't include DAT or RB Byron Marshall, the Ducks leading rusher.

While the Ducks' defense will take a few hits, Helfrich's second team appears stacked and ready for a potential bounce-back season. North Division rival Stanford will be replacing a number of key stars on both sides of the ball, including eight players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Mariota completed 227 of 360 attempts for 3,412 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He set a Pac-12 record from the end of last season into this year by attempting 353 passes without an interception. He ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com Stats & Information's Total QBR.

Of course, a knee injury suffered against UCLA on Oct. 26 hampered him over the second half of the season, most notably in the Ducks' first loss at Stanford. Still, the Ducks "down" year produced a 10-2 record, a sixth consecutive 10-win season with a bowl game left to play.

Mariota's return means that as many as 10 conference teams could welcome back their 2013 starting quarterback. We still await word from UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion on whether they will enter the NFL draft. The return of Utah's Travis Wilson is up in the air due to health issues.

Only Arizona and Washington started seniors at QB this year.

The dual return of Mariota and Grasu means the brains of the Ducks' offense will be back in 2014. Grasu, perhaps the nation's top center, should have a mastery of the Ducks' offensive line calls, while Mariota figures to own an Andrew Luck-like knowledge of the nuances of the Ducks' offense as a third-year starter.

That's a huge advantage heading into 2014.

Further, their return is a vote of confidence in Helfrich. If one or the other didn't believe in the Ducks' first-year coach, they almost certainly would have moved on.

The only Ducks who might be unhappy with Mariota's decision are backup QBs Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who will be redshirt sophomores next season. They probably expected to be in a hotly contested competition for the starting job this spring. That said, they might benefit from another year of seasoning playing behind a future high NFL draft choice.

Of course, sometimes the celebrated return of a QB doesn't always work out (see: USC's Matt Barkley in 2012). Fans and NFL scouts will expect Mariota to be even better next fall. Comparable numbers might be viewed as a sign of his plateauing.

But that's a potentiality that isn't worth fretting over today.

Oregon fans were frustrated when the program lost two of its final four games and fell out of the national title race. Here's a guess that those frowns just turned upside down.

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