Chip Kelly’s offense will be one of the nation’s best once again.
By: Athlon Sports | 6/2/11, 1:00 AM EDT
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Pac-12 North PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Chip Kelly, 22–4 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Helfrich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Aliotti
Since Chip Kelly took over Oregon’s offense as coordinator in 2007, the Ducks have been all about skill on offense, and there’s plenty on hand for his third season as head coach. Directing Oregon’s attempt to win a third straight conference title will be junior quarterback Darron Thomas, who led the Ducks to the first unbeaten regular season in UO’s modern history as a first-year starter last fall. Thomas has some mechanical faults as a passer and isn’t the runner Dennis Dixon was, but he’s a tough, charismatic leader with the potential for further improvement. And he has the luxury of running the spread-option with backfield mate LaMichael James, who should become Oregon’s all-time career rushing leader early this season.
The Ducks have a sure-handed tight end in David Paulson. Oregon may run more formations featuring running back Kenjon Barner rather than their traditional third receiver, because they’re thin at wideout behind returning starter Lavasier Tuinei and sophomore Josh Huff.
But the biggest concern on offense is up front. Oregon lost three offensive linemen to graduation and two who retired due to injury over the winter. Of primary concern is finding a new center, with sophomore Karrington Armstrong or redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu looking to replace Jordan Holmes.
Oregon will go undefeated in the Pac-12.
The Ducks also lost three starters on the defensive line, but because they played such a deep rotation last fall, coaches feel good about who’s coming back. That begins at tackle with the trio of Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi, and junior end Dion Jordan, a converted wideout/tight end who looked like the team’s best pass-rusher during the spring.
A bigger concern might be at linebacker, where senior Josh Kaddu is the only returning starter and projected middle backer Kiko Alonso has been suspended for yet another arrest. Depth is a concern.
The Ducks need to play a deep rotation on defense because of the withering pace at which the offense plays, and some true freshmen may need to help at linebacker. The secondary is set, though, led by corner Cliff Harris and free safety John Boyett.
Darron Thomas, QB This offense is only as good as the quarterback operating it, and Thomas should be All-Pac-12 caliber in ’11.
LaMichael James, RB A finalist for the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, James figures to set the school rushing record as a junior.
Cliff Harris, CB An electrifying cover corner who doubles as a punt returner.
|Sept. 3rd||LSU (Arlington, TX)|
|Sept. 17th||Missouri State|
|Sept. 24th||at Arizona|
|Oct. 15th||Arizona State|
|Oct. 22nd||at Colorado|
|Oct. 29th||Washington State|
|Nov. 5th||at Washington|
|Nov. 12th||at Stanford|
|Nov. 26th||Oregon State|
The Ducks are in good shape in the kicking game. Punter Jackson Rice and placekicker Rob Beard are back, as is long snapper Drew Howell and short snapper Jeff Palmer. And the stable of returners include Harris, Barner and receiver Josh Huff, all threats to go the distance.
When the final gun sounded ending Oregon’s loss to Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game last season, confetti barely had time to flutter to the ground before Kelly proclaimed: “We’ll be back."
Oregon may have been s relative newcomer to the national title race in 2010, but after falling just short in the championship game, the Ducks want another taste. And they’re making no secret of their goals. During spring practice, the athletic department kicked off a local radio advertising campaign focused on the football team’s effort to not just reach but win the 2011 national title game.
Guys like Thomas, James and Harris are a good base to build on, but the questions about the lines must be answered by the end of fall camp, because Oregon opens 2011 with a huge non-conference showdown against LSU. Of course, those questions won’t stop the Ducks from thinking big entering this fall. Not after flirting with a national championship in 2010.
“This time,” Thomas says, “we want to win.”