The Oregon Ducks football team went through a roller coaster season in '07, elevating as high as No. 2 in the national rankings before a bevy of injuries (the backbreaker being Dennis Dixon’s ACL tear) contributed to three straight losses.
That stretch included a heart breaking overtime loss to arch-rival Oregon State, the first time the Beavers won in Eugene since 1993.
Yet, after some rest and regrouping the Ducks showed their prowess when a surprisingly effective freshman QB, Justin Roper and healthy star running back Jonathon Stewart led the way to a 56-21 shellacking of the favored South Florida Bulls in the Sun Bowl.
Mike Bellotti and his staff went on to land a solid recruiting class (which would rise meteorically in the rankings if Terrelle Pryor can somehow be coaxed away from Big Ten country), which begs the question, what can college football expect from the Ducks in 2008?
There are gaping holes to fill on offense, but the cupboard is not bare talent wise, though it is lacking experience in some areas.
Dixon’s graduation with fellow senior Brady Leaf leaves the unsettling dilemma of naming a new starting quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Nate Costa was actually ahead of Roper on the depth chart before tearing his ACL (sound familiar?) in practice last season, and the two will likely compete throughout the off-season for the job.
Two four-star recruits, however, muddy the picture. Darron Thomas has a similar look and playing style to Dixon, who despite his early struggles would almost undoubtedly have been a Heisman Trophy finalist had he avoided injury last season.
Chris Harper is listed as an athlete, but was brought in to compete for time in the backfield and has said he firmly intends to play quarterback. Roper is the only known commodity as a starter, but betting men are saying that Costa will most likely be making the reads against Washington to open the season.
If Thomas and Harper both impress in camp, it is possible that the '07 Sun Bowl star could find himself as far down as fourth on Oregon’s depth chart. Should Pryor decide to don the green and yellow, the convoluted situation will become completely unpredictable.
Recruiting experts do not believe the Ducks will have to face this dilemma though.
Jonathan Stewart’s early departure for the NFL leaves a gaping void at tailback, but “backup” Jeremiah Johnson has the quickness, speed, and cutting ability (not to mention a crowd pleasing stiff arm) to be a 1,000 rusher himself, assuming he gets his grades in order.
Now a senior, Johnson could be called upon to carry the offense while the new faces in the passing game mesh. Junior College transfer LaGarrette Blount lacks Stewart's speed, but is a powerful and productive runner who some compare to former USC standout LenDale White.
He will look to bring Oregon the “thunder” style of runner to complement Johnson’s “lightning.” Andre Crenshaw could see time in relief of Johnson, as he possesses a similar skill set and performed admirably as a change of pace runner for Stewart after Johnson’s injury last season.
Graduation leaves Oregon razor thin at wide receiver, losing two fifth-year seniors and Cameron Colvin.
The good news is that leading receiver Jaison Williams returns; the bad news is that his inconsistency plagued him throughout last season. Though he possesses a combination of size, speed and strength to be considered among the elite receivers in the country, William’s hands have earned him the dubious nickname “fifty-fifty” among Ducks fans. The nickname aptly describes his catching ability.
Junior Derrick Jones' recent trouble with the law for marijuana possession leaves his future with the football team in question; this is not his first offence having been suspended for several games last season. If his participation with the track team is any indication though, he will likely remain on the roster.
Sophomores Aaron Pflugrad and Jeffrey Maehl are the only other wide outs with meaningful experience, but if Jones keeps his nose clean and the recruits (such as 6-6 former tight end Dion Jordan) perform well enough in camp Maehl could be moved back to safety.
Ed Dickson provides a play-making presence at tight end and may be called upon to contribute a bigger role this season.
While the skill positions undergo considerable reshuffling the offensive line returns three-fifths intact.
Center Max Unger returns to lead the OL unit in his senior season, and the backups who will step in to replace the graduated starters have significant game experience. Several four-star recruits from the past two seasons ensure enough depth to keep fresh bodies on the field, leading to hopes that 2008’s line can be just as effective as 2007’s.
Matt Evenson returns as an effective, if unspectacular place-kicker along with long snapper Spencer Young, giving hope that the Ducks will not be left out in the cold in tight situations where a few points will decide the game. Oregon will need a new holder to replace Leaf, who graduated. That may be Roper who took over for an injured Leaf last season.
Punter Josh Syria will look to improve on a solid debut season. The kick-coverage teams who, despite vast improvement under dedicated special teams coach Tom Osborne, still allowed opponents generous field position too often for many fans’ liking last season.
Andiel Brown comes back as a solid returner, though look for several younger players like true freshman LaMichael James, to find playing time in the return game.
The defense returns a corps of experienced and talented players that filled in for several injured starters and improved toward the end of '07.
The Duck defense may need to carry the team early as the new playmakers on offense find their footing.
The strength of the team is generally considered to be the secondary, where leading tackler Patrick Chung returns for his senior year at rover. A ball hawk and an extremely physical player, Chung ranks as one of the top safeties on the West Coast, though sometimes out of position having to support against the run.
Hero of the USC game Mathew Harper is gone, and someone will have to step up and be a playmaker in his stead defending the pass. Junior Titus Jackson seems the most likely candidate, though other DB’s could push for time with strong off seasons.
Corners Walter Thurmond III and Jairus Byrd will start for the third consecutive season and both have shown they can be solid playmakers.
Nickleback Willie Glasper was inconsistent last season, especially against USC where he gave up several big plays.
While rightly considered the strength of the defense, Oregon’s secondary is at its best when keeping opposing playmakers in front of them. Several teams found vulnerabilities in the Duck’s coverage schemes in the 15-20 yard range last season and Oregon must improve in this area to make a strong run in '08.
Though speedy and swarming, fans and coaches alike would like to see the Duck’s front seven make more plays on their own, rather than simply filling holes and leaving it to the DB’s to take down opposing ball carriers.
Defensive tackle has been an iffy spot in the lineup ever since the departure of Haloti Ngata, but seniors Ra’Shon Harris and Cole Linehan will lead the rotation and try to improve security in the interior.
Off the edge come Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu, both excellent pass rushers who will lead the charge against opposing quarterbacks. Reed won Defensive Player of the Week honors in Pac-10 last year, and Tukuafu has been one of the most consistent players on the line.
Behind these two is little experience however, young players must step up to earn playing time and keep these two fresh for those pivotal drives late in games.
Linebacker looked to be a problem area last year and several injuries only exacerbated things. The replacements performed well, however and gained invaluable experience for this year.
Middle linebacker John Bacon lacks top end speed but is a solid physical presence in the center of the field. Jerome Boyd and Kevin Garrett look to improve on their numbers from last year and keep opponents from getting to the second level.
This group has better size numbers than several line backing units from years past, but has yet to find a true playmaker in the mode of a Blair Phillips or an Anthony Trucks.
With so much inexperience on offense, it is unlikely Oregon can make another national title run, but there is enough talent on hand to hope for good things.
If the defense improves and the running game remains strong while the new QB and receivers gel a 7-5 or 8-4 season is possible.
Injuries nearly spelled complete disaster for the Ducks last year, and without Dixon and Stewart the '08 squad cannot afford to lose many starters and remain competitive.
The schedule is also daunting, with USC, Cal, and Oregon State all being away games this year. The senior leaders on this team must join with the coaches in forming a mentally and physically well conditioned squad that can play well through occasional adversity in order to succeed.
If they can, there is enough raw talent for good things to happen.