Oregon Ducks: Thomas Tyner

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EUGENE, Ore. -- A team is only as good as its twos and threes -- or so says Oregon wide receiver coach Matt Lubick. If that’s true, the Ducks are about to find out how good they are in the passing game.

While the addition of former Ducks basketball player Johnathan Loyd to the football team brought some excitement last week, it was quickly overshadowed by the news that wide receiver Bralon Addison had torn his ACL.

While there have been several success stories of players who’ve returned quickly from these types of injuries, considering the timing of Addison’s injury, Lubick needs to count on his twos and threes for the brunt of the receiving duties in the 2014-15 season.

[+] EnlargeThomas Tyner
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon RB Thomas Tyner might need to make more plays in the passing game this season.
“They’re very eager,” Lubick said of his youthful players. “They’re excited to learn. If there’s a blessing in disguise about an injury happening at this time it’s that it gives those guys reps now as opposed to right in the middle of the season when they wouldn’t get as many reps.”

And those guys need to take the reps considering the personnel situation in the wide receiver corps.

Of the Ducks’ top 10 leaders in receptions last season, the top four will not be playing next season (that includes Addison, who was the No. 2 receiver last season). Those four players accounted for nearly 70 percent of the Ducks’ receptions and 72 percent of the Ducks’ receiving yardage. As a group, receivers 5-10 last season accounted for only slightly more catches than Josh Huff did on his own.

And of those six players who return, only two are pure receivers -- Keanon Lowe and Chance Allen. The other four are tight ends (John Mundt and Pharaoh Brown) and running backs (Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall).

“The neat thing about spring ball is you’re trying to figure out about your team,” Lubick said. “Is our best personnel group two tight ends? Is our best personnel group two running backs or is it still three wideouts? We still don’t know that. We’re still trying to find that out.”

Over the past three seasons Oregon has had a running back in its top four receivers, including the 2012-13 season when running back De'Anthony Thomas led the team in receptions. However, for Tyner or Marshall to boost themselves into the top four, they’d have to nearly triple their receptions next season. It’s certainly possible, but Oregon would still need receivers to step up because they’re not going to be able to throw to backs or tight ends on every play.

The two returning receivers from last season’s top-10 group -- Lowe and Allen -- only accounted for 23 catches, 331 yards and four touchdowns in 2013.

However, it’s not ridiculous to believe that such inexperienced players could make a huge jump in just one season. From the 2011-12 season to the 2012-13 season Colt Lyerla and Daryle Hawkins went from just 12 combined catches to 50 catches. From the 2012-13 season to the 2013-14 season Addison went from 22 catches and 243 yards to 61 catches and 890 yards.

But when Lyerla, Hawkins and Addison made those jumps there were several other players making huge impacts from a receiving standpoint as well, guys like Thomas and Huff. This season, Lowe and Allen won’t have that luxury because there aren’t other experienced players around them in the passing game.

Another issue for the Ducks is that the young guys are going to need to play above their age from a consistency and blocking standpoint. Generally, blocking isn’t one of the aspects emphasized for most high school wide receivers and so they get to college and need to learn that skill.

“At Oregon, it’s not just about catching balls,” Lubick said. “You have to be able to make plays without the ball. You have to be able to make plays with the ball. You can’t do one without the other, you have to do both. That’s sometimes the biggest adjustment for guys who weren’t used to doing that in high school.”

Lubick said that he, offensive coordinator Scott Frost and coach Mark Helfrich will be looking for the most consistent wide receivers through the spring and those will be the ones who get the starts in the spring game.

“The good thing about it is we have a lot of talent, a lot of resources and our offense gives us a lot of flexibility to have a whole bunch of personnel groupings,” he said. “… To be in our offense, whether you’re a tight end or running back, you have to know all the spots. It’s an opportunity for other guys to step up.”

But chances are, no matter who steps up, there will be at least a few completely new names catching balls during the spring game.

On one end will be a possible Heisman contender (assuming his receivers can help boost his passing yards) and one of the best-known quarterbacks in the nation. And on the other end will be a bunch of the Ducks’ twos and threes. People know how good QB Marcus Mariota is. Now, according to Lubick’s reasoning, they’ll find out how good the passing offense is as a whole.
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To the notes!

Matt from Beaverton, Ore., writes: I'm sure by now you've read the news about the Ducks losing Bralon Addison this season due to an ACL tear. He looked to take a huge step in becoming a focal point of the Ducks offense with Huff graduating. Do you think Oregon returns to running the ball far more frequently, or are there players you think will step up to fill the void? I'm curious how Jonathan Lloyd (senior point guard for the basketball team) pans out as a return specialist/WR.

[+] EnlargeBralon Addison
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Ducks are not devoid of offensive talent, but replacing Bralon Addison will be difficult.
Ted Miller: Losing Addison is a big blow for two reasons. First, he's an intriguing talent who was expected to become QB Marcus Mariota's No. 1 target this fall, an important distinction considering Mariota is a Heisman Trophy contender. Second, the Ducks are now as green at receiver as any team in the Pac-12. They will be without their top four receivers from 2013.

What's left? There's veteran Keanon Lowe, a good leader and a tough blocker, but he only caught 18 passes last year. In terms of wideouts, the next most productive returning receiver is sophomore Chance Allen, who caught five passes.

Of course, there's young talent. A top-five team with Oregon's offensive name brand isn't going to be devoid of guys who could immediately step in and shine, but how that pecking order develops is a mystery. Allen, sophomore Dwayne Stanford, redshirt freshman Darren Carrington and the mercurial B.J. Kelley are possibilities.

Lloyd? It's fun to speculate, but being a great athlete doesn't mean you'll be a good receiver. That gets a firm "We shall see."

As for compensating in the passing game, the Ducks are strong at tight end, so you probably will see more from those guys. They also, as you note, could lean more on the running game, as Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have the potential to be a 2,500-plus-yard tandem.

One of the Ducks mottos is "next man in" and losing Addison hardly knocks the Ducks out of the Pac-12 and national title race. But if you made a list of the top-five most important Ducks in 2014 a week ago, he would have been on it.

 




Ray from Tucson, Ariz., writes: Recognizing that football is a big moneymaker for college athletic departments, conferences and networks, I'm curious as to whether we've already seen the peak of this sport. Between unionization of athletes and issues with concussions and the incidence of brain damage in former players, it seems like there are some issues ahead. Can educational institutions continue to feature a sport that has apparent long term consequences to the players and cash the checks without some lifetime responsibility to those students? 18-22 year olds always think they are immortal, but the faculty and administrators should know that a significant percentage of the kids have potential for injury and brain damage. Perhaps not as bad as what the Roman gladiators had, but still substantial enough that some court cases could change the financial equation. Do you think you'll need to bone up on badminton or soccer rules as an alternative sport for the Pac-12 blog at some point?

Ted Miller: This is a time of change in college football on many levels, and those changes aren't independent of each other.

We've reached critical mass with the flowing revenue and big-money salaries, where the relative deprivation between athlete and coach/administrator is impossible to ignore. We've also reached a point where we need to take strong steps to address player safety and long-term health issues. Most folks around the game see this, even if they don't agree on all the next steps.

The good news is this: Crisis often breeds progress.

As for your question, "Has college football peaked?" Maybe. But that's not my impression.

Ultimately, I don't think college football is going anywhere. Too many people love it and care about it to not figure out ways to improve things.

And the notion of no Pac-12 blog surely will motivate them all to come up with changes we all can believe in.

 




Derek from Salt Lake City writes: So recently it was announced that the student government at the University of Utah was proposing changes to the fight song "Utah Man" because they felt it was sexist and offensive to some people. I would love to know what someone who is not a die-hard Ute thinks about the whole situation ...

Ted Miller: It's funny how trivial things such as this are often highly controversial, emotional and political. My guess is the folks who most loudly claim they are aggrieved probably have never and will never even sing the song.

Still, my first response? Why not change it to "Utah Fan." What is lost? Fact is plenty of Utah fans are women. The assertion that "man" is an inclusion term is disingenuous.

Don't think so? Your momma is a man. See.

The story included Utah social work professor Joanne Yaffe observing, "I don’t think I’m being hyper-PC, I’m just thinking about not really being included in the song."

I agree. Perfectly reasonable observation. And reason to make a change.

Yet she then unfortunately added, "I think that the U can feel like a very isolating, unwelcoming place, and maybe this song is part of that."

Sigh. That's just gobbledygook. And disingenuous whining is a good way to lose a sympathetic audience.

If I were in charge at Utah, I'd change it to "Utah Fan."

And you folks know I'm up to snuff and never bluff.
It might be a very different looking Oregon team that takes the field next fall … and not because of the uniform changes (though, those are sure to be something different). Instead, the guys wearing those uniforms might fill them out a bit differently.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks and Tennessee Volunteers
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesOregon is hoping the weight gained by player like Johnny Mundt will not affect the team's speed advantage.
Through this winter, several players went through some significant weight changes by making minor tweaks in the strength and conditioning program. But coach Mark Helfrich is hoping that the weight gains aren't just shown physically but in how the players take the field, as well.

“Hopefully a lot of that is confidence,” Helfrich said. “Just that edge of you feeling a little better about yourself, you’re moving a bit more, you’re physically bigger. It’s just you’re coming into the play with more confidence and that’s a big deal.”

Defensive lineman Sam Kamp put on the most weight of any player, packing on another 29 pounds and fellow lineman T.J. Daniel added 22. Not to be outdone, the offensive linemen packed on more than 100 pounds as a unit, with guard Doug Brenner leading the way with 26 pounds and Matt Pierson, Cameron Hunt and Elijah George all bulking up at least 20 pounds.

“I think we’ve kept our speed and athleticism,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “The added weight gain is just there to get us more physical and blowing the defensive line off the ball where we lacked that toward the end of the season.”

But it wasn’t just the big men making significant changes. Tight end John Mundt packed on 20 pounds and in the linebacker group, guys like Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Tyrell Robinson all put on at least 15 pounds.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota is up to 218 pounds and hopes to be at 220 for the start of the 2014 season, while both leading backs made some important changes -- Byron Marshall lost six pounds (down to 201 pounds) while Thomas Tyner added 14 pounds and is up to 215.

With all of the weight gain the main concern would be that the high-powered offense the Ducks feature might be lacking some of that Oregon speed, but the players have tried to keep up their speed with the added weight. Mundt said that one of the focuses was finding that sweet spot for each player at which he stayed as fast as possible but got as big as possible.

“We were all pushing each other in the weight room and in conditioning,” Mundt said. “We’ve all gotten better and stronger, so that’s a good thing. … I think we have more strength and size across the board, but we’re still moving fast.”

Added bulk is certainly going to benefit this team,and as long as each guy can still move the same, the only teams struggling with the weight gain with be opponents. In May, if a player doesn’t appear the same when he takes the field for the spring game, it’s not the uniform, it’s the guy in the uniform.
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.
There are still two weeks until Oregon begins spring practice, but that won’t keep us from looking ahead and making predictions about what we'll see in the spring game.

Prediction No. 1: Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner will carry the ball 35 times in the spring game.

Why: Last season, the Ducks were the second-most prolific offense in the nation, falling just behind a potent Baylor attack. Oregon accounted for 565 yards of offense per game and 7.55 yards per play (also second best, this time to Florida State).

[+] EnlargeThomas Tyner
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon's Thomas Tyner should get ready for some additional work.
Mariota led a balanced offense, with about half of that production coming from the running game (273.5 yards per game, 6.3 yards per rush). The Ducks tallied 42 rushing touchdowns and scored a rushing touchdown, on average, once every 13 carries.

Though the Ducks lost De'Anthony Thomas, they still return their top three rushers --- Marshall, Mariota and Tyner. Marshall led the Ducks with 14 rushing touchdowns and 86.5 rushing yards per game and Mariota and Tyner accounted for nine rushing touchdowns each, creating a three-headed monster that found holes in nearly every defense.

A season later, these three should be even better as they’ve matured in the game, know the playbook better, and have another cycle of offseason conditioning and strength training.

The rushing attack will need to be more prolific this season, at least early on. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers, so other offensive players are going to need to make up for that lost production. It doesn't necessarily need to come from other receivers (though, per prediction No. 4, the tight ends will step up), and with how much experience Oregon returns in the run game, it seems like Oregon might attack with the rushing game early and often to get the offense moving. In situations such as the Sept. 6 game against Michigan State, don't be surprised if the Ducks favor the run over the pass. And don't be surprised if you start to see the pieces of that puzzle forming in the spring game.

In the May 3 scrimmage, with these three on the field (and a defensive line that will still be making major shifts and adjustments), they’ll be able to run wild. Mariota will look to get the ball down the field, but don’t be surprised if these three account for 35 carries in the spring game -- an increase of four carries from the trio’s average of 31 per game last season.

Other spring game predictions:

  • No. 5: The D-line won’t be as far along as people would like
  • No. 4: The tight ends will be more involved in the pass game
  • No. 3: Cameron Hunt will make the most noticeable strides on the O-line
  • No. 2: The offense will look great ... the defense certainly won’t
There are still two weeks until Oregon begins spring practice, but that won’t keep us from looking ahead and making predictions about what we'll see in the spring game.

Prediction No. 2: The offense will look great … but the defense certainly won’t.

Why: This isn’t a huge surprise. Offenses can evolve more quickly (especially when so many players on the offensive line return) and it theoretically takes less for them to impress fans than a defense. On top of that, because the defense does have more players to replace, the Oregon offense will be playing a group that is still in building mode.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall and the Oregon offense should be ahead of the defense this spring.
This won’t necessarily be the case in 2015 if Marcus Mariota leaves and the offense finds itself trying to find its way under a new quarterback. But for now, the core of the offense -- Mariota, the offensive line and the top three rushers (Mariota, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner) -- return. It will take more work to get the receivers up to the level of the rest of the offense, but (see prediction No. 4) there’s a decent chance the tight ends will get more involved in the pass game.

So, essentially, this spring game isn’t going to tell a whole lot about this team. Yes, Mariota should look great. The offensive line should be able to move the line of scrimmage against a less experienced defensive line, and the running backs -- who have ample experience -- should be able to find the holes and get solid gains.

Those are all certainly things that will make every fan excited, but also remember that it’s also Oregon’s defense out there. The defense will have many more yards to make up and though they’ll show improvement, they’ll be the lesser skilled group out there on the field on May 3.

The best benchmark for the team is at won’t come until the second week of the season when Michigan State, the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, comes to Eugene. That will be the first great defense that Mariota and his arsenal will face, and it will be the first good offense that the Ducks will face and try to slow.

Other spring game predictions:

  • No. 5: The D-line won’t be as far along as most would like
  • No. 4: The tight ends will be far more involved in the pass game
  • No. 3: Cameron Hunt will make the most noticeable strides on the O-line

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
7:15
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback
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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.

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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What we learned from the Ducks’ win on Saturday:

Thomas’ impact: RB De’Anthony Thomas’ has clearly been surpassed by Byron Marshall -- and to a lesser degree Thomas Tyner -- on the depth chart at running back. Since returning from an ankle sprain that sidelined him for four games, Thomas hasn’t shown the same explosiveness in the running game. But on special teams? Different story. Thomas changed the game with his 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It will be interesting to see how his role evolves the rest of the way.

Rose Bowl or bust: If Oregon players spent Sunday writing thank you cards to USC, would anyone blame them? The Ducks are again on top of the Pac-12 North and are now the favorites to head to the Rose Bowl thanks to USC’s win over Stanford. It’s the first week all year where Oregon seems destined for Pasadena on Jan. 1. Before losing to Stanford, the Ducks figured to be headed there a week later for the national championship.

Mariota needs rest: It’s obvious Marcus Mariota isn’t at full strength and while the Ducks are still good enough to beat most teams with their star quarterback hobbled, their offense is missing what he does as a runner. Mariota’s stat line read very un-Mariota-like: four carries for minus-18 yards.

Planning for success: Oregon

October, 24, 2013
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With No. 12 UCLA coming to Autzen Stadium this week, No. 3 Oregon has an opportunity to accomplish something it has never done in the series that dates back to 1928: win five straight games.

Aside from a 10-year stretch beginning in 1959, the teams have played almost yearly since their first meeting and just twice during that span has Oregon has put together a four-game winning streak. The first one ended in 1932 (UCLA's first win in the series) and the second in 2004.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas is expected to be back for the Ducks.
But those Ducks weren't these Ducks.

Those teams didn't average 8. 3 yards per play. They didn't average 57.5 points or 643.1 yards per game. And unlike 40 of Oregon's 53 touchdown drives this year, they usually needed more than two minutes to score.

In UCLA's last win over Oregon, the Ducks had 60 minutes to score and could not. The Bruins' 16-0 win against then-No. 9 Oregon is the only game in the last 28 years the Ducks have been held scoreless.

Even if the Ducks were forced to go to their No. 3 quarterback, as was the case in that game, the concept of that kind of success against the Oregon offense is almost inconceivable.

That's before factoring in the return of electric running back De'Anthony Thomas, which is expected. Without Thomas in the lineup the past four games due to an ankle injury, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner haven't allowed for any drop off.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich was tight-lipped about any potential role changes that could occur as a result of Thomas' pending return.

"We'll have to wait and find out from a game-plan standpoint how everything shakes out," Helfrich said. "Your personnel groups are obviously dictated by what you can do. We've had a lot of receivers step up and play really well on the perimeter. I think Byron and Thomas have very bright futures, so we'll fit that all together and see what turns out."

Quarterback Marcus Mariota enters the game with a Pac-12 record streak of 265 passes without an interception dating back to Nov. 17 of last season against Stanford. Coincidently, ESPN's College GameDay was in Eugene that day and will be again on Saturday.

With Mariota opposite UCLA's Brett Hundley, Saturday could serve as college football's ultimate matchup of dynamic quarterbacks this year.

Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti noted similarities in defending Hundley to what teams face in Mariota.

"I don’t think he’s as fast as [Mariota] but he might be a real strong guy … he’s more elusive and faster than you think so he can make some plays with his feet and extend plays," Aliotti said of Hundley. "Whenever a quarterback can do that just like our guy, you watch Marcus, it's tough. It's a lot like going against our offense to a large degree."

An even better comparison, Aliotti said, is Washington's Keith Price only that Hundley is "bigger and thicker, so he'll be a guy that you have to wrap up and bring down."

Price carried 11 times for 18 yards against Oregon in the Ducks' 45-24 win against Washington on Oct. 12.

What are Oregon's weaknesses?

October, 23, 2013
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Oregon is terrible on fourth down. The Ducks have converted on just seven of 18 fourth-down plays this year. Their 38.9 conversion rate ranks 10th in the Pac-12, behind struggling teams like Colorado and California.

We point that out because that's about the only thing Oregon isn't doing well right now.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon appears to have no glaring weaknesses, yet first-year coach Mark Helfrich says the Ducks can get better in every phase.
The Pac-12 keeps track of 33 statistical categories, covering offense, defense, special teams, penalties, turnovers, etc. The Ducks rank first in the conference in 11 categories, including the two most important: scoring offense and scoring defense. They rank in the top three in 18 categories. Most of the categories they are not doing well in -- time of possession, onside kicks, opponent penalties -- evoke a "neh."

Others are deceptive. Oregon ranks sixth in total defense but is No. 1 in the far more revealing stat of average yards surrendered per play, where they rank eighth in the nation at 4.46 yards. The Ducks are 10th in red-zone offense, but their touchdown percentage in the red zone -- 72.1 percent -- ranks second.

This seems like a team with few, if any, holes. So what are the Ducks' weaknesses?

"I haven't seen any," said California coach Sonny Dyke, whose Bears lost 55-16 at Oregon on Sept. 28. "They are incredibly fast. I think the difference this year is they are throwing the ball so much better. Their receivers are faster, bigger, stronger, more physical, making more plays than in the past."

In the preseason, there were three questions about Oregon: 1. How would Mark Helfrich do stepping in for Chip Kelly? 2. What would be the pecking order at running back and how would De'Anthony Thomas be used? 3. How would the Ducks replace the dynamic linebacking troika of Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay?

Check, check and check.

The 7-0 record, No. 2 ranking in the national polls -- No. 3 in the BCS standings -- and 40-point average margin of victory suggest that Helfrich is doing fairly well. He might be a softer touch than Kelly -- though he's not afraid to tweak a reporter or two -- but he's not taking any mercy on the field.

Running back? The bottom line is the Ducks are No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 332.4 yards per game, 17 yards better than last year's average, and they've done that with DAT missing the last four games with an injury. Backups Byron Marshall and true freshman Thomas Tyner are both averaging 6.7 yards per carry and have combined for 16 touchdowns. Marshall, a sophomore, ranks 19th in the nation with 106.6 yards rushing per game.

Linebacker? Tony Washington, who replaced Jordan, has nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Jordan had 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012. Derrick Malone leads the Ducks in tackles with 59. And, really, the bottom line is the defensive numbers, including a run defense that ranks 22nd in the nation.

"I think [the Ducks defense is] certainly the best they've been," Dykes said. "The secondary is really, really good. They are good at linebacker and they are pretty active up front."

Of course, Dykes is a first-year Pac-12 coach who hasn't been dealing with Oregon during its rise to consistent top-five team, though he was Arizona's offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2009. If we're going to ask whether this version of Oregon might be the best yet, we need to ask someone who's seen them all.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose Huskies have lost 10 in a row to Oregon, including five defeats during his tenure, let out a big breath when asked if this was the Ducks' best team.

"Hooof," he said. "We've played some pretty good ones. I think the balance they have on offense is probably the best that they've been."

The general consensus is Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' best quarterback during its recent run. He might, in fact, as former Ducks All-American QB Joey Harrington recently volunteered, be the best in program history. Mariota brings a dangerous downfield passing game to a longstanding dominance running the ball. As for the defense, it's very good, though it remains to be seen whether it's as good as the 2010 unit or even the talented crew of 2012 that battled numerous injuries.

Still, every coach who has played the Ducks probably feels there's something he wishes he might have attacked more or tried to exploit.

"I think there is a lot of places," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "There's always a lot of places."

Washington State lost 62-38 at Oregon last weekend, with Leach's Cougars adding two late touchdowns to make the gap less dramatic. Quarterback Connor Halliday set a number of Pac-12 and NCAA passing records in the game -- he completed 58 of 89 passes for 557 yards -- but also threw four interceptions, one of which Terrance Mitchell returned 51 yards for a touchdown.

"Oregon is really fast," Leach said, echoing a common theme. "As you play Oregon, everything they do -- they can reel plays in quicker. They react to everything quicker. Very explosive... Oregon hits you in the mouth when you throw one up."

Of course, speculating on Oregon's seeming lack of weaknesses and its standing among other accomplished Ducks teams is a mostly a meaningless academic exercise when five regular season games remain ahead, including a visit Saturday from No. 12 UCLA. In fact, the next five Pac-12 games (combined opponent record of 26-7) are far tougher than the first four (combined record of 12-16).

Helfrich isn't really biting, either. When asked about areas of concern, he pointed back to the preseason questions and implied the jury is still out at linebacker.

Yet his overriding conclusion sounded very Chip Kelly-ish, while also offering plenty of room to read between the lines.

"I think everything," he said. "In every phase we can get better, starting with me, everything we do."

That's either coachspeak -- we need to get better every day -- or carries a more ominous implication: No weaknesses? Best Oregon team? You haven't seen anything yet.

Ducks bounce back from early turnovers

October, 20, 2013
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EUGENE, Ore. -- The Oregon offense started to sputter in the second quarter Saturday against Washington State.

Oh sure, the Ducks entered halftime up 34-24, with 483 yards of offense already.

But Oregon was up 27-7 early in the second quarter.

More troubling, the Ducks fumbled the ball away three times in the quarter. At one point, that allowed the Cougars -- who entered as 40-point underdogs -- to close within 27-21.

"We needed to take care of the football better in the first half, though we got a lot of yards," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "We got off to a sluggish start, but we responded well in the second half. I was happy with our response in the second half."

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota fumbled twice in the second quarter after being sacked, with one of those being returned for a WSU touchdown.

"Our culture has been one play at a time," Mariota said. "You have to focus on the next one. I was nonchalant with (the ball) a couple of times there. But we knew if we take care of what we need to do, we will be successful."

Byron Marshall rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns, with 108 of those yards coming in the second half. After a 35-yard reception on a fourth-down play in the second quarter, Marshall coughed up the ball.

"You have to stay on it," Marshall said. "You have to pick it up. Three fumbles is unacceptable. You don't turn the ball over."

Helfrich noted the turnovers were team fumbles.

"You can learn from everything," the first-year head coach said. "When you turn the ball over, it is multiple people's responsibility, starting with us as coaches."

Though the Ducks led the Cougs at half by less than a touchdown for the second year in a row, just like last season, Oregon pulled away in the third quarter. Two touchdowns in this third quarter pushed the lead to 48-24, with the final score 62-38.

"Aside from that fumble, I felt I had a solid game," said Marshall, who became the main running back for Oregon after De'Anthony Thomas was injured on the opening kickoff against California on Sept. 28. "It was a really good game. I played hard. That was the best game I've ever had."

As a team, the Ducks rushed for 383 yards and had 336 yards passing, for 719 yards total. In addition to Marshall, Thomas Tyner rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

"Guys like Byron and Thomas have really stepped up and carried the load," said Mariota, who rushed for 96 yards himself. "You can't replace someone like De'Anthony, but they have helped fill the void. They've done a great job for us."

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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What did we learn from Oregon's 45-24 win against Washington?

The fourth quarter is not a worry: No. 16 Washington was seen as Oregon's first quality opponent, so the big media question in advance of the game was whether the Huskies would test the Ducks and make it a competitive game heading into the fourth quarter. The Ducks lead was only 31-24 entering the fourth. So yes they were tested. How did the Ducks do? They dominated, outscoring the Huskies 14-0 in the final frame. So, test passed.

QB Marcus Mariota is getting better, and that's scary: Mariota played maybe the best game of his career, completing 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against a quality defense. He also rushed for 88 yards and a score. Without question, the performance legitimized his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

No Colt? No DAT? No problem: The Ducks kicked talented tight end Colt Lyerla off the team? They see RB De'Anthony Thomas stuck on the sidelines with an ankle injury? That's a major offensive weapon gone and another unavailable. Heck, receiver Josh Huff went down with a leg injury in the first half. No worries. The Ducks get big contributions for WR Bralon Addison and RBs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, and Huff makes a miraculous recover. This offense has plenty of weapons.

Freshmen impact in the Pac-12

September, 25, 2013
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Pretty much every team plays true freshmen. But how much of an impact are those freshmen having on the game? Through four weeks, some have made immediate impacts. Others have seen some mop-up time. Across the ESPN blogosphere this morning, we’re looking at the five teams in each conference who have had freshmen make the greatest impacts on their team.

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCal signal-caller Jared Goff is off to a big start in his career.
1. California: The quarterback is the most important position, and anytime you have a true freshman playing quarterback, it’s going to have a significant impact on the outcome of the game. So far, quarterback Jared Goff has risen to the occasion, even if it hasn’t translated into wins for the Bears. He leads the country in total offense. He’s completing 61 percent of his passes (103-of-168) and has seven touchdowns to four interceptions. Goff is one of seven true freshmen who have seen time for the Bears. Running back Khalfani Muhammad is tied for second on the team with 21 carries (97 yards, one touchdown).

2. UCLA: The Bruins have played 16 true freshmen so far, which, as of last week, was second in the country only to Texas A&M. Linebacker Myles Jack has had the biggest impact with 14 tackles, including two for a loss and a team-high four pass breakups. They are also getting good production from Eddie Vanderdoes, who had two tackles for a loss against New Mexico State, and offensive lineman Alex Redmond has started all three games at guard.

3. USC: The Trojans have gotten impact performances on both sides of the ball from their freshmen. Seven have seen the field for the Trojans. Safety Su’a Cravens has been as advertised so far with 18 tackles, half a tackle for a loss, and an interception. With Silas Redd out, running back Justin Davis has supplemented Tre Madden nicely. In four games, Davis has rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 47.2 yards per game and a team-high 5.9 yards per carry.

4. Washington State: The Cougars have gotten quality -- not necessary quantity -- out of their true freshmen. They have only played four. But two of them are getting quality playing time and making significant contributions. Cornerback Daquawn Brown made his first career start against USC and posted a team high 11 tackles while breaking up two passes. He also had an interception against Southern Utah. Wide receiver River Cracraft is fourth on the team with 10 catches for 111 yards.

5. Colorado: The Buffs aren’t going as young as they did last year, but they are still getting production from their rookies. And they have found something special in linebacker Addison Gillam. Through two games he’s the Buffs leading tackler with 20 stops -- including a sack, two tackles for a loss and five stops on third down. He also blocked a punt. Defensive end Jimmie Gilbert should also continue to see time. In 64 snaps he has three tackles and a sack.

Honorable mentions

These guys have been impactful, but chances are their teams would still have had success if they weren’t on the field based on quality of competition and/or depth at a position. But their contributions shouldn’t be overlooked.

  • Oregon TE John Mundt: Five catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Oregon RB Thomas Tyner: 12 carries for 80 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Arizona LB Scooby Wright: 13 tackles, three for a loss.
  • Oregon State KR Victor Bolden: 19 returns, 365 yards, 19.2 average.
  • Utah LS Chase Dominguez: Haven’t heard his name before? Good. You shouldn’t. He’s a long snapper.
  • Arizona State K Zane Gonzalez: Has converted 4 of 7 field goals with a long of 40 and is 3-4 inside 40 yards. 13 of 13 on PATs.
  • Washington KR John Ross: Six kick returns for 112 yards (18.7 average). Three punt returns for 16 yards (5.3 average).

Planning for success: Oregon Ducks

September, 12, 2013
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Two games into the 2013 season, the Oregon Ducks have been as advertised. Disposing of lesser opponents with relative ease and nabbing their 16th consecutive road win, the No. 2 Ducks return home to face 2-0 Tennessee on Saturday.

In those two games, the Ducks have already produced five 100-yard rushing performances -- two from running back De'Anthony Thomas, two from quarterback Marcus Mariota and one from running back Byron Marshall. They strike hard and they strike fast, with 15 of their 17 touchdowns coming off drives that have lasted less than two minutes.

But it wasn’t necessarily the offense that drew some preseason concerns -- it was the linebacking corps, which had to replace three key players in Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan. So far, coach Mark Helfrich said he’s been very pleased, singling out the play of Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick.

“I think at the linebacker position, I think we have a lot of really good players,” Helfrich said. “They just need some experience and some reps in there and some live action and tackling in space. We’re going to have a different set of challenges this week from skill people than we have the last two games. But [Malone has] done a good job. He and Hardrick have done a good job playing older than they are, getting those guys lined up. ... I like where we’re headed as a group at that position.”

Tennessee and new head coach Butch Jones haven’t faced much adversity yet in 2013. With a 45-0 win over Austin Peay in the opener, followed by a 52-20 win over Western Kentucky, the Vols have gotten good production out of running back Rajion Neal, who is averaging 6.9 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns.

But the Ducks' defense continues to be extremely opportunistic. Since the start of the 2012 season, Oregon boasts 40 takeaways -- tops in the country. It already has six in 2013, with three fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

Last week also saw the collegiate debut of touted running back Thomas Tyner, who rushed for 51 yards on four carries with two touchdowns. While he’s nowhere near ready to challenge Thomas -- who has 29 carries through two games and appears to be settled as the No. 1 back -- Helfrich said they’ll continue to give Tyner opportunities to mature.

“He was OK. I thought he had a natural feel for a couple of things. ... So far, so good,” Helfrich said. “He’s another guy that just needs to play. He needs to get hit. He needs to do some good things. He needs to make some mistakes. Although we’d like to have those in practice rather than in games. But we’re excited about his future, for sure.”

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