Alex Shoemaker, EDN Sports Editor
Heading into spring practices the Oregon Ducks football team will need to replace an unfortunately high number of starters from its Rose Bowl team of last season.
With former Ducks Darron Thomas and LaMichael James both juniors last year, many fans hoped that the duo would return for their senior seasons and help the Ducks compete for another national championship. James declared for the NFL Draft, as was expected, and surprisingly Thomas chose to jump ship as well.
Fortunately, head coach Chip Kelly has shown the ability to replace high-caliber offensive weapons year after year with even more explosive players. In 2009, the Ducks lost starting running back LeGarrette Blount in the opening week to a season-long suspension only to replace him with James and defensive back turned running back Kenjon Barner.
On the defensive side, long-tenured defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has a less daunting, but still serious, task of figuring out starters for lost seniors. But the depth chart extends deeper than just the first and second strings.
With the fast-pace play of the Ducks, particularly on defense, the ability to rotate players in without a drop-off in talent is vital. In a normal game, Oregon will rotate 20-25 players on defense.
As coach Kelly says, no job is safe. Any player can have his spot taken if another player out plays him for it. This spring will highlight those important battles.
Starting Quarterback: Bryan Bennett vs. Marcus Mariota
The obvious competition that fans have been drooling over is the battle between Bennett, who appeared in seven games including the Rose Bowl, and Mariota who redshirted last season.
This job would have been Thomas’ to lose had he not declared for the draft. Many believe that Thomas’ decision was based on competition for the starting job.
The two will split reps with the first team 50/50 during spring and summer practices until a starter is picked. With media closed to practices, only Kelly, the other coaches and players really know who is out-performing the other for the job.
Bennett should have the inside track for the job seeing as he is the only one with experience in live games and has already started a game (Colorado) in his young career.
The coaching staff has praised Mariota since his arrival on campus a year ago. That praise has only gone up since then.
“That’s what we were excited about. Each week you could see him (Mariota) starting to grasp things,” said Kelly about Mariota and his improvements this offseason. “He improved everywhere. That’s the key. There’s never one thing.”
With the Ducks playing one of, if not the, weakest non-conference schedules to start the season, it’s likely this job won’t be “won” until mid-way through the season.
However, Kelly doesn’t like continuing competitions throughout the season, like his decision to give Thomas the starting spot over Nate Costa in 2010, and rarely opens up a starting spot. There will be plenty of time to pick the right player for the job.
Third-String Running Back: Ayele Forde vs. Byron Marshall
The top-2 spots are sewn up in Barner and athlete De’Anthony Thomas who plays everything on offense from slot receiver, to the inimitable “tazer” position coach Kelly has patented.
Tra Carson’s decision to transfer has become official, withdrawing from the University of Oregon spring term to find a school closer to home. Carson would have been the clear favorite for the spot, playing in eight games last season with a breakout performance against Colorado where he rushed for 80 yards and his first and only touchdown as a Duck.
Forde, a sophomore from Victorville, CA, rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns last season, only playing in reserve action. Marshall, a powerful 4-star recruit, will have to make his impact in a short amount of time.
Forde has to show improvements in spring, and not have any drop off in play. With just summer practices to impress, there is a chance that Marshall will redshirt next season.
Wide Receiver: Replacing Huff, Tuinei, and Hoffman
The departure of senior Lavasier Tuinei leaves the Ducks thin at wide receiver. Josh Huff’s DUI this offseason also depletes an already uncertain unit.
Coach Kelly has yet to detail the extended timetable for Huff’s punishment, but at least a two or three game suspension is expected.
Oregon’s third starting receiver from last season, Justin Hoffman, has battled concussion complications and may have to retire early from the game of football.
While the wide receiver unit would be listed as “thin”, a better descriptor would be “inexperienced”. Oregon has a plethora of talented freshman and sophomore receivers who will compete for starting and reserve time in 2012.
Assuming that Huff will be back for the season, one of the starting spots is his after his suspension (if there is one). And to save time we’ll assume that Hoffman is unable to return to football, opening another starting spot.
De’Anthony Thomas will take over the vacancy left by Tuinei, splitting time as a wide receiver, and senior Rahsaan Vaughn will take Hoffman’s vacant spot. Vaughn has 14 catches with 184 receiving yards and a touchdown as a JUCO transfer.
A battle between six or seven players this spring will decide who goes where on the depth chart and who will be Huff’s temporary replacement.
The competition will include Devon Blackmon (a 4-star recruit out of high school), Eric Dungy (son of former NFL coach Tony Dungy) Daryle Hawkins (quarterback turned receiver), Keanon Lowe (a big receiver with good hands), Tacoi Sumler (one of the fastest players on the team), and B.J. Kelly (the favorite to replace Huff).
Eugene Daily News’ projected starting wide receivers for Oregon’s opening game will be Thomas, Vaughn and Kelly.
Starting Kicker: Rob Beard vs. Alejandro Maldonado
It’s not often that a kicking competition gets notice, but the Ducks have struggled with consistency at the position and were cost a win against USC last season due to poor special teams.
Beard, who battled injuries all of 2011, attempted just two kicks, coming through on both with a long of 30 yards. Maldonado converted just 7-of-12 filed goal attempts (58.6%) and was just 2-of-6 on attempts longer than 40 yards.
If Beard can stay healthy, the job should be his to lose. With an offense that can go for fourth downs without hesitation, a “reliable” kicker is what is most needed.
Defensive Line: Everyone Except Dion Jordan
One of the most disappointing units for the Ducks in 2011 was the defensive line that allowed 139.5 yards per game on the ground. Not all of the blame can go to the defensive line because the Ducks’ linebackers also allowed teams to run all over the defense.
Where the Ducks did play well was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Oregon defense ranked No. 6 in the country in sacks per game (3.3) ahead of teams like Alabama, USC and LSU.
The only Duck on the defensive line whose job is safe is starting DE Dion Jordan (a converted tight end) who is projected by many, including Ted Miller of ESPN, to have a breakout season for the Ducks. Taylor Hart also should be safe with one of the starting DT spots.
There will be an intense battle this spring for the remaining DT and DE jobs.
The DE favorite has to be Arik Armstead, a 5-star and former USC commit, who spurned the Trojans to join the Ducks a few months ago. As an early enrollee, Armstead is hard at work making his name known.
Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi will compete for the last spot on the defensive line. Keliikipi, with more starting experience than the other Ducks at the position should be the leading candidate for the job.
Defensive Backs: Everyone Except John Boyett
How big are Oregon’s losses in the defensive backfield? How about Anthony Gildon, Eddie Pleasant and Cliff Harris?
Besides John Boyett at FS, the other three starting positions in the Oregon secondary are completely open for the taking.
Injuries to Gildon for nearly all of last year forced the Ducks to start two freshmen, Terrence Mitchell and Troy Hill, for the majority of the 2011 season. Both cornerbacks are back and ready to defend their spot on the starting roster.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will have a legitimate shot at taking one of the starting spots, and will be the back up to see the most playing time with the other starters. Dior Mathis, James Scales III and Erick Dargan will all see playing time as reserves.
As for the replacement of Pleasant, the Ducks will turn to Avery Patterson to start and Brian Jackson to back him up. Both players will rotate playing time to keep the position fresh.
If you agree or disagree with any of the predictions and opinions expressed here, comment below.