Oregon Ducks: Tony Washington

During the next few weeks, we’re going to go through Oregon’s roster, position by position, examining what talent was lost to graduation or the NFL and what that leaves the Ducks with in 2014.

Yesterday we looked at the defensive line, and today we’re checking out the Ducks’ hybrid drop end-linebacker.

Who was lost after the 2013 season: None

[+] EnlargeTony Washington
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTony Washington should again be a feared pass-rusher, but depth behind him is a concern.
Lost production: None

Who’s back in 2014: redshirt senior Tony Washington, redshirt junior Christian French, redshirt sophomore Cody Carriger, redshirt junior Ryan McCandless, redshirt freshman Ivan Faulhaber

Statistics of returning players: 72 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, 4 forced fumbles

Outlook: Oregon should be fine at the drop end position. Washington is back, a season after he led the Ducks in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (7.5). He will be a guy Oregon consistently relies on for quarterback pressure, and expect him to more than deliver.

The drop end, like so many of the other positions, boasts major talent at the starting position and then (pun intended) drops off a bit through the reserves. French and Carriger have taken limited snaps, but look for them to get some game action early in the schedule before the Ducks begin relying on Washington almost exclusively.

With the defensive line's added size and the improvement it showed this spring, there are certainly a few early signs that the D-line will be able to handle opposing offensive lines better in 2014 than it did in 2013. If that's the case, look for defensive coordinator Don Pellum to dial up a few creative blitz schemes to use the experience and talent of Washington, as well as the rest of his linebackers, to get to opposing quarterbacks.

Other spring position reviews:

Video: Oregon LB Tony Washington

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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Chantel Jennings speaks with Oregon OLB Tony Washington about the team’s depth and Don Pellum becoming defensive coordinator.
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 spring practice is more than a month away, but it’s never too early to take a look at what Oregon must do this spring to be a championship contender in the fall.

We’ll be doing different countdowns looking at players, position groups and position battles over the next month, and we’re starting this week with the five position groups that need to improve the most. Yesterday the safeties saw themselves at No. 4, today we moved up the defense a bit to the linebackers.

No. 3: Strongside linebacker

2013 review: The Oregon linebackers were stout in the middle of the field considering the amount of talent and number of reps they needed to replace from the previous season. They were good in run support as opponents only averaged 3.8 yards per rush, but there is certainly room for improvement. The Ducks held opponents to 100 rushes of 0 or negative yardage, and while that sounds like a solid number (averaging eight rushes of 0 or negative yardage per game), it ranked No. 97 nationally. By comparison, Tulane led the nation in opponent rushes of 0 or negative yardage with 172. And about a third of the time, opponent rushes went for at least five yards, which placed the Ducks at No. 23 nationally.

Why they must improve: The linebacker corps as a whole returns plenty of talent and experience in Tony Washington (60 tackles, including a team-high 12 tackles for a loss and a team-high 7.5 sacks), Derrick Malone (team-high 105 total tackles) and Rodney Hardrick (65 tackles including three for a loss). However, where they’ll need someone to step up is at strongside linebacker after losing Boseko Lokombo (63 tackles, seven tackles, team-high seven quarterback hurries). The Ducks will be looking to replace both its strongside defensive end and its strongside linebacker, so when opposing offensive coordinators look at the Oregon defense, there will be an evident hole in terms of experience. The Oregon defense up front is going to need to become stout quickly as it faces Michigan State and its talented rushing attack in Week 2. Last season running back Jeremy Langford emerged for the Spartans, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, so in order to slow his attack, and every other tough running back they face this season, the Ducks will need to find someone to step in at strongside linebacker. Tyson Coleman saw limited action last season, tallying 21 tackles, and he’ll likely compete with Torrodney Prevot (14 tackles) to fill the shoes left by Lokombo.

The countdown:

Stat attack! Some Week 11 Pac-12 numbers

November, 12, 2013
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Some Pac-12 numbers for your review.

Number to the left is national rank.

Scoring offense

3. Oregon, 51.7 points per game
8. Arizona State, 43.7
T24. Oregon State, Washington, 37.2

Total offense

2. Oregon, 596.6 yards per game
10. Washington, 515.9
17. Arizona State, 490.4
25. Oregon State, 474.2

Rushing offense

7. Oregon, 301.5 yards per game
12. Arizona, 271.3
17. Washington, 229.0

Passing offense

2. Oregon State, 404.8 yards per game
7. Washington State, 365.0
8. California, 345.3
18. Arizona State, 304.8
20. Oregon, 295.0
25. Washington, 286.9

Note: Oregon's numbers took a dramatic fall after the loss at Stanford. The Ducks entered last week averaging 55.6 ppg., 632.1 ypg and and 331.5 rushing yards per game. Arizona State also went down after its tough win at Utah, but Washington used a blowout win against Colorado to perk up considerably.

Scoring defense

10. Oregon, 17.9 points per game
18. Stanford, 19.4
19. USC, 19.6
27. Washington, 21.8

Total defense

14. Arizona State, 332.7
17. USC, 339.5
20. Stanford, 348.8

Yards yielded per play (FBS foes only)

7. Oregon, 4.45 yards per play
11. Stanford, 4.75
20. USC, 4.93
23. Washington, 4.99
25. UCLA, 5.01
29. Arizona, 5.08
31. Arizona State, 5.10
35. Utah, 5.12

Pass-efficiency defense

8. Oregon
12. Washington
18. Arizona
20. Arizona State
21. USC

Note: The defensive numbers continue to be strong in the conference, with eight teams ranked in the nation's top 35 in yards per play, a great measure of a defense's efficiency. Further, five top-21 pass efficiency defenses is pretty incredible when you think about the QBs in the conference.

Rushing

2. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona, 152.6 yards per game
3. Bishop Sankey, Washington, 145.0
17. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford, 115.9
T23. Byron Marshall, Oregon, 102.8

Note: Carey lost the nation's lead because Boston College's Andre Williams piled up 295 yards at woeful New Mexico State. Gaffney has become the go-to guy in Stanford's offense, as the Cardinal has reclaimed its hard-nosed, run-first mentality.

Pass efficiency

7. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
14. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
18. Brett Hundley, UCLA
20. Keith Price, Washington

Note: Interesting that Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, as well as he is playing, is ranked 34th in passing efficiency. He's 11th in ESPN.com Total QBR.

Receiving yards per game

1. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State, 149.3
5. Paul Richardson, Colorado, 117.9

Note: Lots of guys have fallen off among the national leaders here. Are these two the first-team All-Pac-12 receivers?

Sacks per game

T3. Trent Murphy, Stanford, 1.1
T15. Tony Washington, Oregon, 0.8
20. Devon Kennard, 0.8 (in 10 games)
T21. Trevor Reilly, Utah, .08

Note: Reilly is an underrated guy who is making a push for first-team All-Pac-12. Funny that picking the All-Pac-12 defense might be more challenging than the offense.

Random notes
  • Eight Pac-12 QBs are ranked in the top 44 of ESPN.com's total QBR: 2. Mariota, 11. Kelly, 13. Hundley; 17. Kevin Hogan, Stanford; 28. B.J. Denker, Arizona; 29. Mannion; 36. Price; 44. Travis Wilson, Utah.
  • With three regulars season games to play, a conference title game and bowl games ahead, nine Pac-12 players presently have at least four interceptions. Last year, nine players had at least four interceptions at season's end.
  • California has run 894 plays this year, most in the nation.
  • Washington has just five turnovers this year, tied for seventh fewest in the nation. Washington State's 27 turnovers ranks 122nd in the nation and last in the Pac-12.
  • Utah has just two interceptions. Only Kentucky has fewer.
  • USC and Arizona have recovered just three fumbles this year.
  • UCLA's Anthony Barr is tied for the nation's lead with Colorado's Chidera Uzo-Diribe with five forced fumbles.

Stat attack! Some Week 10 Pac-12 numbers

November, 5, 2013
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Some Pac-12 numbers for your review.

Number to the left is national rank.

Scoring offense

2. Oregon, 55.6 points per game
6. Arizona State, 46.6
25. UCLA, 37.3

Total offense

2. Oregon, 632.1 yards per game
10. Arizona State, 515.1
15. Washington, 501.9
26. Oregon State, 474.2

Rushing offense

2. Oregon, 331.5 yards per game
12. Arizona, 275.4
22. Washington, 218.1

Passing offense

3. Oregon State, 404.8 yards per game
7. Washington State, 365.0
8. California, 351.1
17. Arizona State, 324.7
20. Oregon, 300.6
23. Washington, 283.8

Note: It's becoming clear that Oregon and Arizona State have the two best offenses in the Pac-12. It's also clear that Pac-12 offenses, on the whole, aren't terribly efficient. Oregon ranks second in the nation in yards per play at 8.09. The next conference team is Arizona State, way down at No. 27 (6.28 yards per play).

Scoring defense

7. Oregon, 16.9 points per game
13. USC, 18.7
19. Stanford, 19.4
26. Arizona, 20.9

Total defense

11. USC, 323.6
17. Arizona State, 343.4
23. Stanford, 353.4

Yards yielded per play (FBS foes only)

7. Oregon, 4.41 yards per play
11. Stanford, 4.69
T19. USC, 4.92
19. Arizona, 4.92
25. UCLA, 4.97
26. Washington, 5.0

Pass-efficiency defense

6. Oregon
14. Washington
15. Arizona
20. USC
26. Arizona State

Note: Arizona's improvement on defense has been remarkable, but that improvement will be strenuously tested by the upcoming schedule, starting with a visit from UCLA on Saturday. Also ahead: Washington State, Oregon and Arizona State. If the Wildcats maintain a top-25 defensive ranking by season's end, coordinator Jeff Casteel should be Assistant Coach of the Year.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsStanford's Tyler Gaffney is averaging 110.8 rushing yards per game.
Rushing

1. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona, 153.1 yards per game
3. Bishop Sankey, Washington, 145.3
17. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford, 110.8
18. Byron Marshall, Oregon, 109.9

Note: Stanford will need Gaffney to hit this number if it hopes to beat Oregon on Thursday. And it needs to keep Marshall off his average, too. Carey will be challenged by a UCLA run defense that yields only 3.9 yards per carry.

Pass efficiency

5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
16. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
21. Brett Hundley, UCLA
25. Keith Price, Washington
27. Kevin Hogan, Stanford
28. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State

Note: Mariota fell to No. 2 in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR behind Baylor's Bryce Petty. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly has surged to eighth in the nation in QBR. Eight Pac-12 QBs rank among the top 43 in the nation in QBR.

Receiving yards per game

1. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State, 149.3
5. Paul Richardson, Colorado, 123.0
30. Chris Harper, California, 91.2
31. Jaelen Strong, Arizona State, 90.0

Sacks

2. Trent Murphy, Stanford, 1.2 sacks per game
T10. Tony Washington, Oregon, 0.9
T21. Devon Kennard, 0.8 (in 9 games)
T27. Anthony Barr, UCLA, 0.9
T27. Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington, 0.9

Note: Murphy has labored in Barr's shadow, but he can make a name for himself on Thursday if he can take down Marcus Mariota. Barr will be chasing Ka'Deem Carey and B.J. Denker on Saturday. Murphy is fifth and Barr tied for seventh in the nation in tackles for a loss (1.7 and 1.6 per game, respectively).

Random notes

  • Arizona State RB Marion Grice continues to lead the nation in scoring with 13.5 points per game. His teammate, kicker Zane Gonzalez, is fifth with 11.6 ppg.
  • Washington State safety Deone Bucannon is tied for sixth with five interceptions.
  • Stanford is 10th in the nation in run defense, so that obviously will be a strength-on-strength matchup on Thursday.
  • UCLA QB Brett Hundley leads the Pac-12 and ranks 13th in the nation with a 68 percent completion percentage.
  • Colorado's Chidera Uzo-Diribe leads the nation with five forced fumbles. Barr and Washington are tied for second with four.
  • Oregon State QB Sean Mannion still leads the nation with 31 TD passes. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is tied for fifth with 23.
  • Oregon QB Marcus Mariota is fifth in the nation with 15.84 yards per completion.
  • Oregon State and Arizona State have both yielded three blocked kicks. UCLA and Stanford have both blocked three kicks.
  • Arizona State ranks first in the conference and eighth in the nation with just 31.88 penalty yards per game. Four Pac-12 teams are among the nation's most penalized teams: Oregon (116), California (118), Washington (122) and UCLA (123, which is last).

Stat attack! Some Week 9 Pac-12 numbers

October, 29, 2013
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Some Pac-12 numbers for your review.

Number to the left is national rank.

Scoring offense

2. Oregon, 55.6 points per game
6. Arizona State, 45.4
15. Oregon State, 40.1

Total offense
2. Oregon, 632.1 yards per game
14. Arizona State, 509.1
15. Washington, 501.9
22. Oregon State, 487.4
30. UCLA, 469.1

Rushing offense

2. Oregon, 331.5 yards per game
11. Arizona, 288.0
22. Washington, 218.1

Passing offense

1. Oregon State, 420.0 yards per game
6. Washington State, 373.1
8. California, 358.9
14. Arizona State, 332.0
20. Oregon, 300.6
24. Washington, 283.8

Note: The offensive numbers have been trending down. Why? Pac-12 defenses. You’ve got to respect the balance of Oregon and Washington, though the Huskies probably should be getting more than 34.5 points per game out of 502 yards of offense. By the way, Stanford ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in total offense with just 389.6 yards per game, but the Cardinal's 6.2 yards per play is just below Arizona State, Washington and Oregon State's 6.3 ypp, which is tied for second in the conference.

Scoring defense

9. Oregon, 16.9 points per game
16. USC, 19.3
18. Stanford, 19.4
20. Arizona, 19.9

Total defense

11. USC, 317.9
21. Arizona State, 349.3
25. Stanford, 353.4

Yards yielded per play (FBS foes only)

7. Oregon, 4.41 yards per play
11. Stanford, 4.69
16. USC, 4.79
23. Arizona, 4.89
25. UCLA, 4.97
26. Washington, 5.0

Pass-efficiency defense

6. Oregon
12. Arizona
14. Washington
20. USC
29. UCLA
30. Arizona State

Note: Is this the year that defense eclipses offense in the Pac-12? As good as the top Pac-12 offenses are, the numbers for scoring and passing efficiency are better for defense than offense. Still plenty of football left, though. USC gave up 62 to Arizona State and 31 to Arizona, but when playing non-Arizona schools in its other six games, the Trojans have yielded 10.2 points per game.

Rushing

1. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona, 153.3 yards per game
3. Bishop Sankey, Washington, 145.3
17. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford, 110.8
18. Byron Marshall, Oregon, 109.9
31. Tre Madden, USC, 95.9

Note: Who will lead the Pac-12 in rushing, and will that total end up winning the top spot in the nation? And, if so, how does that guy not get invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony? Also, do both All-American running backs come from the Pac-12?

Pass efficiency

5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
13. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
28. Keith Price, Washington
29. Kevin Hogan, Stanford

Note: Mariota is still No. 1 in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is 38th in the nation in the NCAA pass efficiency rating but he is 11th in QBR. Price climbed from 35th to 28th on his numbers against California. UCLA's Brett Hundley has fallen to 36th in the nation.

Receiving yards per game

1. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State, 157.0
3. Paul Richardson, Colorado, 130.6
21. Chris Harper, California, 99.5
25. Jaelen Strong, Arizona State, 97.9

Sacks

4. Trent Murphy, Stanford, 1.90 sacks per game
T10. Tony Washington, Oregon, 0.9
T18. Anthony Barr, UCLA, 0.9 (Barr's played in fewer games than Washington)
21. Keenan Graham, UCLA, 0.8

Note: The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award looks like a battle between Murphy and Barr. Barr is fifth in the nation with 1.90 tackles for a loss per game, while Murphy is tied for seventh with 1.70 per game.

Random notes: Arizona State is the Pac-12's least-penalized team. Washington is the most-penalized team. Oregon leads the Pac-12 in turnover margin. It's plus-13 for the season, having forced a conference-high 23 turnovers. Arizona has the fewest turnovers with eight. Washington State has the most with 25, including 19 interceptions, which is nine more than any other team. California, however, is 12th in turnover margin at minus-12. Stanford, USC and Utah are tied for first in the conference with 27 sacks. Arizona and Colorado are last in the conference with just nine sacks. Stanford has yielded the fewest sacks --nine in eight games. Cal has yielded the most sacks -- 27 in eight games. Oregon State leads the conference in third down defense, with foes converting just 32 percent of the time. UCLA is still No. 1 in third down offense (51.9 percent).

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.

Week 8 helmet stickers

October, 20, 2013
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EUGENE -- Several Oregon players put up big numbers against Washington State on Saturday, though they didn’t quite match the eye-popping 58-of-89 for 557 yards WSU quarterback Connor Halliday put up. But the Ducks were able to pick off Halliday four times, and the Oregon offense displayed much more balance. Here are some top Oregon performers from Week 8:

RB Byron Marshall: Marshall continues to impress since De’Anthony Thomas went down. In Saturday's game, Marshall had 21 rushes for 192 yards, an average of 9.1 yards per carry. He rushed for three touchdowns and also caught two passes for 54 yards, even though one of those catches was negated by a fumble. That equals 246 total yards.

DE Tony Washington: The junior had a monster first half, recording six unassisted tackles and two sacks on the night.

S Terrance Mitchell: The junior had fewer tackles than some of his teammates, but was he one of four Ducks to record an interception. And what an interception it was in the fourth quarter. After the Halliday pass was tipped, Mitchell alertly scooped it up. That by itself would have been a nice play. But he made it a great play by eluding some tackles along the sideline, then popping over the middle and zipping in 51 yards for the pick-6.

Five things to watch for Oregon

August, 30, 2013
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Five storylines to keep an eye on for Oregon’s game against Nicholls State.
  1. Coaching style: Few are expecting much resistance from the Colonels, a team that was in the state of Oregon last December and was blasted 77-3 by the Beavers. So if you are wondering how similar or different Mark Helfrich will be compared to Chip Kelly, this probably isn’t a good measuring-stick game. We know what Chip Kelly would do on fourth-and-3 from his own 35 – and it didn’t matter if it was Southern Middle Tennessee Tech School of Interior Design or Stanford. What kind of game manager will Helfrich be?
  2. LB spotlight: With the departures of Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan, the spotlight is on the linebackers to try to match the production of its predecessors. It’s not a young or inexperienced group by any means – just the opposite. Boseko Lokombo, Derrick Malone, Rodney Hardrick and Tony Washington have all been in the system and have experience and quality reps. While the linebackers might be a question mark on paper, chances are the group flourishes with more reps as a unit.
  3. Playing time? How long will we see the starters? In the nonconference schedule last season, the starters pretty much only played in the first half. Some argued that with more playing time and padded stats, quarterback Marcus Mariota could have been in Heisman contention. Mariota is no longer an unknown as he was before last season and coming off a quarterback competition with Bryan Bennett. But he’ll still probably play the first half, considering what the score will be 30 minutes into the game.
  4. What about DAT? Helfrich was noncommittal earlier this week when talking about the number of carries for De’Anthony Thomas, who might take on a bigger role in the rushing game this year with the departure of Kenjon Barner. However, he also said that Byron Marshall had a strong camp – and it’s more likely that he assumes Barner’s old role, which frees up Thomas to do what he does best. Don’t think of Thomas’ production in terms of carries -- think in terms of touches. Rushes, receptions, kick and/or punt returns. How many touches he gets is more vital than how many carries.
  5. Fresh faces: Right now, there are five true freshmen listed on the depth chart for this week’s game, and only one is a “starter.” Kicker Matt Wogan is listed to handle kickoffs and he has an “or” between his name and Alejandro Maldonado’s. But if the Ducks are up big early – which is expected – don’t be surprised to see running back Thomas Tyner get some carries and others such as right tackle Cameron Hunt or linebacker Tyrell Robinson could make appearances.

Lokombo leads Oregon LBs

August, 28, 2013
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Just because a position is questionable in the preseason doesn't mean it's not answerable.

Questionable: Oregon is replacing three A-list linebackers. Dion Jordan was first-team All-Pac-12 and the third overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay were both second-team All-Pac-12, with Alonso getting picked in the second round of the draft. Clay was cut this week by the Miami Dolphins.

The lone returning starter is Boseko Lokombo, who only ranked 10th on the team in tackles last year.

Answerable: Lokombo, a fantastic all-around athlete, has been a dominant playmaker during preseason practices, and the Ducks have five other linebackers with significant playing experience.

With the first official depth chart out, Tony Washington, as expected, will step in for Jordan at the position listed as defensive end opposite Taylor Hart, though everyone and their grandmother knows the Ducks defense is a base 3-4 and Washington will be an outside linebacker opposite Lokombo.

Juniors Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone, who were injured during spring practices, are the starters inside.

The three new guys are hardly green. Washington started twice for Jordan last year and finished with 20 tackles. Malone had one start and finished with 41 tackles, which ranked eighth on the team. Hardick had 11 tackles.

Depth? Backup Tyson Coleman, who can play inside and outside, had 34 tackles last year, and Rahim Cassell had 19. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if the Ducks played nine linebackers against woeful Nicholls State on Saturday.

Still, Lokombo is the one to watch. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound senior could play his way into the early rounds of the NFL draft next spring if his production equals his potential this fall.

"He's a guy who is almost limitless from a potential standpoint," Oregon's first-year coach Mark Helfrich said. "We expect huge things from him. But he needs to be more consistent."

Lokombo had 39 tackles last year, with 4.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and two interceptions. Look for the sack numbers, in particular, to go up. Lokombo is powerful -- 500 pound squat -- and fast, though he's more quick than a 40-yard dash guy. He started all 13 games last year and the native of Congo has seen action in 40 since arriving at Oregon from Abbotsford, British Columbia four years ago.

He doesn't seem too worried about the new starters surrounding him.

"Some of them already played a lot last year," he said. "They are ready to take on their roles. It's next man up and that's that."

It also helps that Oregon's defensive line and secondary are both among the best units in the Pac-12, with the secondary widely considered as good as any in the nation.

The Ducks 2012 defense was very good. This one might still be able to match it, even with a question at linebacker.

Said Helfrich, "We have a lot of unproven guys, but a bunch of guys who have played to this point in camp really hard and really well."

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
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Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.

 

Pac-12's lunch links

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
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You don't ask to be part of G.I. Joe. You get asked.

Oregon Ducks weekly mailbag 

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

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

[+] EnlargeBryan Bennett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireOregon sophomore quarterback Bryan Bennett passed for 369 yards and six touchdowns and ran for 200 yards on 23 carries last year when he stepped in for an injured Darron Thomas.
Mike L. (Portland, Ore.): With Marcus Mariota being named the starter, it leaves Bryan Bennett with three years left as a backup. Like Mariota, freshman Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie both have four years left. Bennett has said he's staying, but I could see him or one of the freshmen leaving this season. Should the Ducks turn their quarterback recruiting up a notch for 2013?
Josh HuffSteve Conner/Icon SMIJosh Huff has shown flashes of greatness in his two seasons at Oregon and the Ducks are hoping that he continues to progress.
Oregon Ducks fans have been witness to one of the greatest rises in college football history over the past two decades. The Ducks have risen from cellar dwellers to one of the hottest names in all of college football. The facilities, the uniforms and the Nike connection have all played a big role in the Ducks' rise to the top of the Pac-12.

Along with the success and the increased exposure nationally, has come a major boost in recruiting elite athletes to come to Eugene. It isn't always the high school All-Americans that turn into college stars. Oregon has made a living finding "diamonds in the rough" that have helped build a powerhouse.

There have been some big names in the recruiting world who chose to play their college ball in Eugene, but how many of them have lived up to the hype?

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