Spring drills are barely underway for the Oregon Ducks, but we are beginning to get a feel for the 2012 team.
Since Coach Chip Kelly has closed all of Oregon's practices this season, we have to go by post-practice interviews that Kelly, his assistants and some of the players are giving to various media who wait patiently outside the ropes, microphones in hand.
Thankfully, coaches and players have been very forthcoming with how they think things are going. To a man, they all seem to be having a great deal of fun and are quite positive. Could be it's just more fun than sitting in class on a nice spring day.
Here are my early spring grades for each unit of the team, based on reading between the lines of what coaches and players are saying. As we get closer to Oregon's spring game on April 28, these grades will most likely change—hopefully for the better.
Based on what we know today, the QB grade could be anywhere from A to F.
A if both Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota are so amazingly awesome that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and coach Chip Kelly can't decide between them.
F if they both are lacking essential skills to run the Ducks' high-powered offense and the coaches can't decide who has the fewest flaws.
After the fourth practice, Kelly said: "We have thrown a lot at the quarterbacks and they have done a nice job. They are both improving and they aren't mentally overloaded."
I'm going to be the optimist here and give Mariota and Bennett a B+. I'm also going way out on a limb and say I think Mariota might have a slight edge. I am basing this entirely on Kelly walking out with Mariota after the first practice.
Hey, when you can't get inside, you go with what you have.
I believe Kenjon Barner is the real deal and he's going to have an A+ year. I also believe we will see De'Anthony Thomas in the RB slot more than people think.
So why the minus after the A? Depth, baby. I don't think we know enough about the other RBs on the roster to feel confident if Barner or Thomas go down. And I don't think the spring game will tell us that much about this position.
I am excited about Byron Marshall arriving in the fall, but it's based on words, not actions at this point.
I believe the true grade for this position will come about in the third game.
The good news: The Ducks are blessed with many wide receivers.
The bad news: We don't truly know if any of them are any good.
The really bad news: We don't know what the outcome of Josh Huff's legal troubles will be.
After today's practice, Kelly said the receivers were dropping some balls, but he went on to praise Justin Hoffman, saying he has been a great leader and a good mentor to the young guys.
Devon Blackmon has been vocal about the wide receivers knowing they have to step up this year. In a video interview with The Register-Guard, Blackmon said Josh Huff "is the man" and that Rahsaan Vaughn is going to have a big year. Blackmon also said he learned a lot his redshirt freshman year and he feels good about earning a spot.
Blackmon also offered his views on the QB competition. He said Bennett throws a hard ball and that Mariota is more about finesse. He chuckled while saying Bennett's ball was harder to catch. Hmmm.
I really hope we can raise this grade after finals.
I honestly don't have a clue who's going to play tight end for the Ducks in September. I think most of us assumed it will be Colt Lyerla, but after four practices I haven't heard his name mentioned once.
However, Chip Kelly does manage to work in Evan Baylis' name on almost every interview. He's either really taken with the new recruit, or he's just trying to build his confidence. I suspect it's the former.
So, at this point, I assume that all is not right in Lyerla Land, and that we might be going with a true freshman. Add to that Curtis White retiring because of injuries, and I think this position is super scary at the moment.
Are we quite sure David Paulson has to graduate?
I was very fond of Mark Asper, and I thought Darrion Weems was a rock in the O-line.
Those were the only two seniors on a unit that performed well last year and was a huge part of the Ducks' offensive success. While those are two very big pairs of shoes to fill, the news out of the Moshofsky Center is that the Ducks are 11 deep in this unit.
In addition to returning starters Hroniss Grasu, Carson York and Nick Cody, the group includes five very promising kids from the 2011 recruiting class.
I'm also expecting a lot from Kyle Long when he arrives in the fall. (Psst, Kyle, don't forget to invite your dad to Autzen, please.)
This grade should rocket to A+ when the season starts, as long as York fully recovers.
I think the Ducks will be rotating offensive linemen in so fast it will make your head spin. And will probably make defenses puke trying to keep up.
The two names we keep hearing about on the defensive line are juniors Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi. They are apparently making their presence known.
Also back is Ricky Heimuli, and there is talk about new recruit Stetson Bair, who will enroll in June. Bair, as you will recall, is the younger brother of former UO great defensive tackle Brandon Bair.
It sounds as if this unit is jelling nicely. This is one group that I will be taking a close look at during the spring game in the hopes we can get its grade up to an A.
Four words: John Boyett for Heisman.
I have all the faith in the world in Michael Clay and expect the senior to have a stellar year, probably even award-winning.
I have absolutely no faith in Kiko Alonso and I hope I'm dead wrong about that kid. If he plays like he did in the Rose Bowl, hallelujah, life is good.
However, I just don't see much depth here, and this is another unit I will be watching carefully at the spring game.
I probably gave this group a higher grade than you would. I was not happy with the unit's performance in every game last year, and there is room for improvement.
However, I think Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill will benefit from a year's experience in the "school of hard knocks." And people are talking about Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
With the Amoako brothers coming in the fall, the heat will be on these three to step it up a level in spring to get a jumpstart on locking down their positions. I believe they will do that.
However, I'm a hopeless Pollyanna, so I could be wrong on this one.
I am a person who cares deeply about the kicking game. I think it stems from the "Old Oregon Days" when the Ducks would frequently lose games because of blocked punts or missed field goals—it happened all the time.
This year, I am very confident of the Ducks' kicking game. Although he got beat out of the Ray Guy Award that goes to the nation's best punter by some dude from Louisiana Tech in 2011, Jackson Rice will win it this year.
Rice is just one of those kids who was born to punt. Chip Kelly says Rice is also a great leader, both in the weight room and in setting a tone in practice.
On the placekicker side, it's a battle between Rob Beard and Alejandro Maldonado. While I prefer Beard, I think we are in good hands with either one of these kickers.
Everyone who can, go to the spring game on April 28. Then, we'll compare notes on April 29, OK?
And don't forget to have fun.