There are few teams who can go 35-5, win three consecutive bowl games (including two BCS wins), and still be considered a disappointment. The truth is though, since (and maybe including) Oregon came so close to beating Auburn for the 2011 National Championship, they have fallen short of their ultimate goal, even when in control of their own destiny. The Ducks need little introduction, having been in the national eye for some time now, and are still full to the gills with talent. Can they finally parlay that talent into a playoff visit?
There is no question who bears the weight of the Ducks offense on his shoulders, more so this season than his previous two. Junior quarterback Marcus Mariota has run Oregon’s dynamic offense almost to perfection since first stepping on the field as a redshirt freshman. The Heisman Trophy candidate is not only one of the nation’s finest quarterbacks, he’s arguably one of the most dangerous offensive weapons, with a blend of laser-accurate passing and dynamic running that keeps defenders on edge while he has the ball in his hands. Last season Mariota completed 63.5% of 386 attempts for 3665 yards and 31 TDs, with a mere 4 interceptions, and adding 715 yards and 9 scores on just 96 carries. If you want to nitpick, he’s not the “rah-rah” kind of leader that teams like in their quarterbacks, and that has been the focus of his offseason.
Mariota won’t have to do it all himself this season, with a deep group of running backs that can rival any FBS team. The majority of the work will be split between Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Marshall led the team with 1038 yards and 14 TDs on 168 carries last season, and isn’t flashy, but does everything well. Tyner could be the star of the show if he ever gets the carries to prove his worth, and is one of the best in the conference. The Ducks got a taste of life without De’Anthony Thomas last season, and while his playmaking skills will be missed, Oregon kept ticking over without him. He may be missed more as a receiver. Behind the two top guys are a talented bunch who could slot into a starting role and the team likely wouldn’t miss a beat. Such is the system in Eugene, and they recruit their plays to suit it.
There are concerns at receiver, where the top four pass-catchers from last season won’t be playing this year. Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins and Thomas have graduated, while Bralon Addison tore his ACL in the spring. While the team is still deep at the position, experience is now an issue. Keanon Lowe is the leading returning receiver with 18 receptions for 233 yards and 3 TDs, and figures to take one spot, while redshirt freshman Devon Allen and Darren Carrington excelled in camp. If the Ducks need a big goal-line target, they could do worse than sophomore Dwayne Stanford, who missed last season with injury, but caught 11 passes for 106 yards as a freshman in 2012. Expect Mariota to use tight ends Johnny Muntz and Pharaoh Brown more next season. Muntz flashed some big-play ability last season as a freshman, and has bulked up in the offseason, making life even more difficult for defensive backs. The pair combined for 26 receptions, 404 yards and 5 TDs.
The offensive line loses only left guard Mana Greig, who missed the last five games due to injury. Center Hroniss Grasu, an all-American, leads a unit that is as experienced as any in the conference. Left tackle Tyler Johnstone was injured in the bowl game, and will likely miss the start of the season, but he’s one of the PAC 12’s best. Hamani Stevens switched from right to left guard last season to replace Greig, and will stay this year. Cameron Hunt, who took over at right guard, will remain there, while Jake Fisher is a mainstay at right tackle. Depth should be good enough to stave off all but the nastiest rash of injuries.
Both starting tackles are gone from the defensive line, but the unit should be strong on the outside with both ends back. DeForest Buckner took over midway through the season and had a good year, finishing with 39 tackles, 3.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. Opposite him, Tony Washington, a linebacker hybrid, had an outstanding year, finishing with 60 tackles, 12 for loss, with 7.5 sacks, and also forced 4 fumbles and had 4 quarterback hurries. Arik Armstead will likely take one tackle spot after being in and out of the lineup last season, but he has yet to prove his worth. He finished with 15 tackles, 3 for loss. Junior Alex Balducci was a part of the rotation last season, making 18 tackles. Depth is a concern, but some of the reserves looked strong in the spring.
The linebackers should be good again, although pass rusher Boseko Lokombo will be missed. Weakside linebacker Derrick Malone led the team in tackles with 105, and also had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions (1 TD), showing his versatility. In the middle, Grant Hardrick had 64 tackles, 3 for loss and also broke up 3 passes. Rahim Cassell was expected to compete for the vacant strongside linebacker spot, but a DUI in May has since led to his leaving the team. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot and junior Tyson Coleman will battle to replace him.
The secondary only returns starter, but thankfully it’s cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, one of the best in the country. Last season, the senior was second on the team with 4 tackles, 5 for loss, broke up 6 passes and intercepted 3 more. He generally locks down one side of the field, so whoever replaces departed Terrance Mitchell needs to get up to speed in a hurry. They have some talent on board, and for now, senior Dior Mathis looks to be the guy, having played regularly over the last couple of years. The safety pairing of Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson could be the toughest loss. One solid replacement should be senior Erick Dargan, who’s seen plenty of snaps over the last course of his career, as well as being a key member of the special teams unit. Big redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson has dazzled the coaching staff since arriving on campus, and made it difficult for them to sit him last year. Now he gets a chance to strut his stuff, assuming he can hold off a stiff challenge from sophomore Reggie Daniels.
Punter Alejandro Maldonado will likely be missed more than his mediocre gross of 39.9 yards per punt would suggest. He dropped 13 punts inside the 20, with zero touchbacks, and forced 19 fair catches. A mere 8 of his punts were returned for just 26 yards. Kickoff specialist (22 touchbacks) split the kicking duties with Maldonado all season, but made 7 of 9 field goals and should keep the job in 2014. Thomas and Addison will be missed on returns this season. The Ducks have plenty of talent to fill the roles, but both Thomas and Addison have playmaking abilities that can’t be taught.
Playoffs or bust! The Ducks are loaded with talent as usual, and have some key performers in place for a title run. The schedule shouldn’t be too harsh either. They escape playing USC and Arizona State, two contenders, and the non-conference slate is easy outside of an early test against Michigan State, who come to Eugene. UCLA will be a tough game in their home stadium, but unknown quantity Arizona and defensively-depleted Stanford and come to Oregon. We’ll have to wait and see what Washington and Oregon State, both away games, bring to the table. The Ducks should get their playoff shot this season, but they can’t afford to go to sleep in any big games.