Outlook: By now we know the Oregon Ducks as a household name across the nation and defensive coordinators have been known to have trouble sleeping at night thinking about them. The 3 time defending Pac-12 Champion Ducks have created their own brand of football and finally got the big BCS win they had been chasing, defeating Wisconsin 45-38 last season in the Rose Bowl. Oregon looked like they were simply primed for round 4 this year, but the unexpected departure of their multi-dimensional leader at qb leaves the Ducks in a bit of limbo. On top of that, all-everything starting running back LaMichael James is now in the NFL and a couple of dependable receivers are also gone, so the Ducks will have to do some shuffling. However, Oregon never rebuilds. They will once again reload and return arguably the most exciting players in the country on offense while their defense is still one of the fastest and best around.
The schedule also sets up as easy as any schedule in the conference. Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech are the preseason opponents, against which the Ducks will attempt to score as many points as possible to impress voters before an improved conference schedule comes at them. Still, 3 of the first 5 conference foes are breaking in new coaches, and Washington is the only team in that group that had a winning record last season. After that the navigation gets much more difficult for the Ducks, as they head to the Coliseum for “The Rematch, part IV” (my own personal name for this budding USC rivalry) and New Memorial Stadium to face the Bears in successive weeks, then comes Stanford. That California tour will seriously test this team, which is sure to cruise through the first 8 games, but if they pass the test, the Ducks could be looking at another National Championship shot by season’s end.
The Good: The Defense. Despite being on the field for at least 100 plays more than every other Pac-12 team in 2011, the Duck defense still finished in the top 1/2 of the conference and returns several key components, including one of the better combo of safeties in the conference in senior John Boyett and sophomore Terrance Mitchell. The D-line is maybe as big as its been in recent memory with the return of Dion Jordan (6’7, 241) and Ricky Heimuli (6’4, 321), while the linebackers are impressive and all-conference type players in Micheal Clay, Kiko Alonzo and Boseko Lokombo. In short, the Ducks’ playmakers on defense rival any in the Pac-12 and they just may be the second deepest in the conference.
Speed: The “Road Runners”, as I like to call them, are back and better than ever. DeAnthony “The Black Mamba” Thomas, Kenjon Barner, Justin Hoffman and Josh Huff will continue Oregon’s perception as maybe the fastest, most explosive team in the nation. The offense will continue to put up their usual high play/per game numbers and the threesome’s only issue will be finding ways to get the ball, as once they have it in their hands the defense is in serious peril. Barner finally gets the opportunity to be the feature back and Thomas will continue to move all over the place in Chip Kelly’s dynamic offense.
Special, Special Teams: The same combo of Thomas and Barner are an especially feared force in the return game. Kicking it to them means the Ducks have an immediate opportunity to score, while not kicking it to them means the offense will start in great field position, which is also an immediate opportunity to score. Thankfully for any kicker facing these two, they’ll have 5 extra yards on the kickoffs to try and kick the ball into the bleachers. Add to that the top Punter in the conference in Jackson Rice, along with the dependable Rob Beard and Alejandro Maldenado as the placekickers, and there you have some special, Special Teams.
The Bad?: It’s really hard to find fault on a 3 time defending champion, but it’s what we try to do, so here it is. If there is a bad on this team, it’s the question mark and inexperience at quarterback, although I wouldn’t call it a weakness. In spots of relief last season, Bryan Bennett was really solid and he’s a really likeable kid whom the coaches sing praises about. But he didn’t have a great spring and looked shaky, at best, during the Spring Game. On the other hand, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota (from Hawaii) lit it up in that game and is giving the coaches a lot to think about heading into the Fall. Bennett and Mariota are both big strong armed kids at 6’3, 199 and 6-4, 196 respectively, but Mariota is more athletic and at this point, more accurate. We’ve seen Chip Kelly’s willingness to go with the younger players if they provide a spark, so it’s going to be a war as both of the qbs should get plenty of reps during the first 3 games.
Corners: The defensive backfield has question marks at cornerback and in this league that’s not where you want them. I think they’ll figure it out, but they got smoked in the Spring Game and will be tested, a lot!
Summary: Oregon fans are eying a fourth straight Pac-12 Title, but they do have some work to do, specifically late in the season. The game of the year will be in Los Angeles, of course, but the Bears and Cardinal still come after that before the trip to Corvallis. Also, the Ducks will definitely not have an incapable Championship opponent this season, should they make it that far. We expect it to be a rematch with USC, but they say never count your chickens… Should be a fun year in Eugene.
Catch us next week with our breakdown of Oregon State, and stay tuned for more Cougar news all week on Allcoug’dup.com