Five Position Battles to Watch in Fall Camp
The weather in Eugene is finally starting to heat up, and so is the anticipation for Oregon Ducks football. Ducks fans are less than two months—just seven Saturdays—away from Gus Malzahn and his Arkansas State Red Wolves’ visit to Autzen Stadium. But let’s be clear, when fall camp opens in the beginning of August, Arkansas State will be the last thing on Coach Chip Kelly and his staff’s minds.
There are some major spots to fill, and expectations are as high as ever for the three-time defending Pac-12 champions. The talent is there. Now, its up to the coaching staff to evaluate and decide on their options moving forward. The Ducks return only five starters on offense and six on defense. Here are the top five fiercest position battles to keep an eye on as Oregon inches closer towards September 1st:
We know, we know. This is the most glaringly obvious battle of fall camp, and it has been discussed at nausea. But it’d be nearly impossible to argue that it isn’t the most important.
Bryan Bennett, who showed flashes while filling in for the injured Darron Thomas last season, came into spring camp as the favorite.
And then there was the spring game.
Redshirt Freshman Marcus Mariota opened eyes completing 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards while tacking on 106 yards on five carries. Bennett struggled, looking like a shadow of his 2011 self when he led the Ducks to convincing wins over Arizona State and Colorado. Duck fans need not forget however, it was just a spring game—a glorified practice. Not to discount what Mariota did, or to the opposite extent what Bennett did, but one scrimmage will not force Chip Kelly’s hand in choosing his field general this season. Nor should it. Chip knows this. He’s going to watch these guys compete day in and day out throughout camp, and you better believe these guys will be going back and forth.
Expect this battle to be similar to Costa vs. Thomas in 2010. Chip likely won’t tip his hand until late August. And whoever loses out better stay ready, because if history has taught us anything, the backup signal caller will see extended action during the season.
This is one battle to keep a close eye on. Chip is known for using a very deep rotation at the receiver position, and there is certainly plenty of talent to choose from. Incumbents De’Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff seem locked in at the slot and on the outside, respectively. That leaves room for one more starter opposite of Huff. Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler and B.J. Kelley are all highly touted prep stars that redshirted last year. Look for some highlight plays from a member of that explosive trio. Justin Hoffman and Rashaan Vaughn both saw the field and hauled in over a 100 yards last season.
With Thomas, Kenjon Barner and Huff all possessing elite speed and average-at-best size, it may come down to Coach Kelly leaning towards one of the bigger, possession receivers in Hoffman or Vaughn to start. Nonetheless, these five will challenge each other throughout fall camp in what promises to be, at the very least, highly competitive.
Daryle Hawkins (6’4, 197) could fill the role of a possession receiver after an impressive spring game. Eric Dungy, Keanon Lowe also figure to compete for reps. Look for incoming freshmen Bralon Addison and Dwayne Stanford to get some looks on the scout team as well. Both are four-star prospects according to Rivals.
In what seems like a two-horse race, the coaching staff will have to decide if they want to go with a hard-hitter or a coverage specialist at the rover position. Brian Jackson (5’10, 202) out of Hoover, Alabama fits the Eddie Pleasant/T.J. Ward mold of past Oregon teams as a bruising safety that isn’t afraid to throw his body around. This isn’t to say that he cannot cover, or that challenger Avery Patterson cannot hit, just that Jackson is better suited playing closer to the line and providing the defense with support against the run. Duck fans do know, however, that opposite safety John Boyett can hit as well, so the coaching staff may be inclined to go with the more coverage apt Patterson at the position. Patterson came to Oregon as a cornerback and has moved around the defensive backfield in his three years as a Duck. The redshirt junior started one game at rover last year and one game at free safety. Erick Dargan also looks to figure in the rotation.
So who starts at rover come September 1st? It looks like it will come down to who catches the coaching staff’s eye in fall camp. Either way, look for both to get extended playing time this fall in defensive coordinator Nick Allioti’s rotation.
Sophomore Colt Lyerla looks to be a lock as the starter. Fall camp will likely determine who his primary reserve will be. Redshirt Freshman Christian French has the advantage of sitting out last season and absorbing Chip Kelly’s playbook. French (6’5, 231) garnered a four star ranking from Rivals and participated in the U.S. Army All-American game coming out of high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Dropped passes in the spring game coupled alongside the success of Dion Jordan’s transition have brought speculation that French could very well move to defensive end—a switch that could open the door for incoming freshmen Evan Baylis and Pharaoh Brown.
Baylis (6’5, 225), rated a four-star recruit by Rivals, received offers from Arizona, Michigan, Stanford and UCLA before committing to Oregon. He enrolled early for spring practice and caught two passes for 24 yards in the spring game. Brown (6’6, 220) comes to Oregon as the third highest rated tight end by Rivals. The four-star will participate in his first camp with the Ducks this fall, as he challenges French and Baylis for the primary role as Lyerla’s back up.
In what figures to be a strength for the Ducks in 2012, defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro must replace the departing Terrell Turner opposite defensive end Dion Jordan. Ricky Heimuli and Taylor Hart are sure bets as starters in the always-rotating interior. Wade Kelilkipi and Isaac Remington figure to get plenty of reps at the defensive tackle positions as well. Defensive end Tony Washington contributed to the rotation last year filling in for Turner and Jordan and remains a viable option to start.
And then there is the elephant in the room, no pun intended. Mammoth recruit Arik Armstead (6’8, 297) comes to Oregon as their most hyped defensive recruit since Haloti Ngata. Armstead, a Parade All-American out of Pleasant Grove High School in Northern California, can play inside or outside. With the hole at defensive end opposite Jordan, Armstead could start for the Ducks on September 1st. This of course depends on how quickly he copes with the coaching staff’s scheme and fast-paced practices this fall. Kelly has been shy in the past about starting true freshman from day one (see Harris, Cliff and Thomas, De’Anthony) but even if he does not start, Armstead could see the majority of the snaps at the position by the end of the year.