Oregon's national title hopes could ride on a potential matchup against USC in the Pac-12 Championship.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/31/12, 6:00 AM EDT
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PAC-12 North PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Chip Kelly, 34-6 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Helfrich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Aliotti
What started out as a competition between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota to replace Darron Thomas turned into a genuine quarterback controversy in the spring. Bennett led the Ducks to two wins in 2011 while Thomas was out with a knee injury, but Mariota badly outplayed him in Oregon’s Spring Game.
The other early entry to the NFL Draft from the UO backfield, LaMichael James, left behind no such questions, with versatile senior Kenjon Barner expected to carry the load, allowing burgeoning star De’Anthony Thomas to line up all over the field.
Oregon should be able to field a capable line led by sophomore rock Hroniss Grasu at center, and including young phenom Jake Fisher, who played in 13 games as a true freshman despite never before having played on the line.
The question is, who catches passes? Tight end Colt Lyerla caught all of seven balls last fall — five for touchdowns, it should be noted — but expectations are high for the sophomore. Josh Huff needs to be more consistent but is the standout among the receivers, though junior Daryle Hawkins had a strong spring. The Ducks are waiting for a trio of redshirt freshman receivers — Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley and Tacoi Sumler — to break out.
LaMichael James or Darron Thomas: Which is Oregon Football's Bigger Loss?
The Ducks under Chip Kelly have been rightfully known for their offense, but the defense has been quietly remade into a fast, lean unit that has successfully transitioned to the 3-4 and has the makings of being the best in school history.
Hybrid end/linebacker Dion Jordan is a returning all-conference pass-rusher, and true freshman Arik Armstead arrived in the spring to bolster a deep defensive line led by Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi. The linebackers lost two starters for the second straight year and yet could be better than ever, with seniors Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso on the inside, and Boseko Lokombo book-ending Jordan on the outside.
Senior John Boyett will be one of the country’s top free safeties, and young cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu survived a trial by fire last fall to emerge as dependable starters. The question mark is at Rover, where nobody really jumped out in the spring, although juniors Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson have been capable in the past on special teams and in nickel situations.
Darron Thomas, QB
Thomas accounted for 71 touchdowns — against only 16 interceptions — over his last two seasons, leading the Ducks to back-to-back BCS Bowls.
De’Anthony Thomas, RB By the end of 2011, Thomas was quite simply one of the most dynamic players in the country.
John Boyett, S The free safety was Oregon’s leading tackler as a freshman and again last fall as a junior.
Dion Jordan, DE Converted tight end is a rangy 6'7" and 241 pounds, and used that length to keep his distance from blockers and lead the Ducks with 7.5 sacks last season.
|Sept. 1st||Arkansas State|
|Sept. 8th||Fresno State|
|Sept. 15th||Tennessee Tech|
|Sept. 29th||at Washington State|
|Oct. 18th||at Arizona State|
|Nov. 3rd||at USC|
|Nov. 10th||at California|
|Nov. 24th||at Oregon State|
For the second straight year, Oregon returns everybody of consequence in the kicking game. Jackson Rice could be the Pac-12’s best punter. Rob Beard should be over the quad injury that dogged the placekicker last season, but his absence allowed Alejandro Maldonado to get experience last fall, and that should be a battle to watch in the early part of this season.
The Ducks dodged a bullet in January when Kelly turned down the chance to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and returned to Oregon, keeping his entire staff intact for a fourth straight season, the longest streak in the nation. “I concluded that I have some unfinished business to complete at the University of Oregon,” Kelly said in announcing his return.
With a deep, talented defense on hand, all the Ducks need to do to contend for a fourth straight conference title is play their reliably prolific brand of offense. The questions at quarterback and receiver must be answered, but Kelly’s offenses have thrived despite personnel movement in the past, and an easy September schedule should help the offense find its footing.