When you talk about key players needing to be replaced on the Oregon Ducks, much of the talk always surrounds how to replace LaMichael James and Darron Thomas' production. And, for the most part, there is no arguing with anybody who brings this up.
As with any offense, the Ducks' attack is fueled by how the quarterback and the running back interact, play, and produce. Operating on a different version of the spread attack, the Ducks rely on their quarterback and running back to make the proper reads to judge just what the defense is throwing at them.
While they are most known for their prolific running attack, it is best not to underestimate the passing abilities of the Ducks.
One of the most overlooked pieces in the Oregon offense that helps the entire system is the tight end. As part of the offense, it is the tight end's responsibility to run block, block down the field, and catch passes in heavy traffic. While this may seem like the general duties of any tight end, the complexity of the position within the offensive scheme of the Ducks makes it one of the most important positions to fill with the right kind of player.
There is no doubt that the Oregon Ducks have had their fair share of success at the tight end, most recently coming from David Paulson. And before that, there was Ed Dickson. For a good part of the past decade, Oregon has been blessed with having constant production from a position that many undervalue in the Ducks' offensive scheme.
With David Paulson heading to the NFL, the Ducks will need to find a replacement that can mimic the production of Paulson and his predecessors.
Heading into fall camp the Ducks have two players with experience at the tight end position: Colt Lyerla and Brian Teague.
If you are not sure how the Ducks' tight end situation is shaping up, here is a quick refresher before season starts in September.
One name that used to be thrown around for succeeding David Paulson at tight end was Christian French.
French, rated as a four-star athlete from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had a great high school career that many thought would translate to great offensive numbers at the college level.
Boasting premiere college football speed as well as a big frame, French looked the perfect part to stand in at tight end for the Ducks come his time. Heading into the 2012 season, French would likely have occupied the second spot on the depth chart behind Colt Lyerla, had it not been for the coaches moving him to the defensive side of the ball.
While many may see this as an odd move, it has worked for the Ducks in the recent past. Just like French, Dion Jordan was originally a tight end. He is now one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12 and is nominated for several postseason awards.
Displaying the kind of skill set that Jordan had coming to the Oregon program, it is not a surprise that the coaches saw it feasible to transfer French to the defensive side of the ball.
One of the top prospects in the 2011 class, Colt Lyerla will likely be filling in for David Paulson as the starting tight end for the Ducks come the start of 2012.
As mentioned previously, Lyerla is one of two players on the roster with experience at the position.
Though he only has seven receptions in his young career, Lyerla has already racked up 147 yards and five touchdowns—great numbers for such a young athlete.
While it will be extremely difficult to replicate those numbers throughout the entire 2012 season, expect Lyerla to be the main starter for the Ducks at tight end. Not only does he give them a great threat in the passing game, Lyerla also possesses the strength and speed necessary to be a great blocker for the Ducks' rushing attack.
Evan Baylis was part of Oregon's 2012 recruiting class and came to the University early so he could participate in spring drills.
Since enrolling, Baylis has done nothing but impress his coaches and is shaping up to be alternating with Lyerla at the tight end position this season.
Rated as a four-star prospect by most sites coming out of high school, Baylis possesses great catching ability and has displayed the maturity to exceed at the college football level. At 6'6", he would give the Ducks a great threat in the middle of the field with plenty of room to develop into a better player than he already is.
In Oregon's spring game, Baylis caught two passes for 27 yards and displayed a stable comprehension of the complex offensive system the Ducks run.
Expect him to see plenty of action in his first year with the program.
Doing the opposite of Dion Jordan and Christian French, Koa Ka'ai moved from the defensive side of the ball to the offensive side of the ball to fill a tight end need for the Ducks.
Originally a budding defensive end prospect out of high school, Ka'ai seems to be making the transition to tight end fairly easily. While some may place Brian Teague and Jennings Stewart ahead of Ka'ai on the depth chart, his size and ability to block downfield will be invaluable to the Ducks' running game should Lyerla or Baylis go down.
Arriving as a walk-on to the program in 2009, Brian Teague has done nothing but impress those who have watched him play the game.
Winning offensive scout team player of the year in 2009, Teague has spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons moderately finding playing time at tight end.
A bigger presence at 267 lbs, Teague should provide the Ducks with a very good option as a run blocking tight end. Expect him to see rotational playing time at both tight end and long snapper.
Jennings Stewart is yet another player who switched from the defense to the offense to help the Ducks with their depth at tight end.
Though he will likely see minimal playing time this year behind the other tight ends, expect Stewart to play a mentor role for the Ducks in 2012 with so many young players around him.
Should inconsistency start to plague the position, Jennings will likely fill the roll as he has already demonstrated the poise to perform well at the college football level.
Pharaoh Brown is another part of the Ducks' 2012 recruiting class. However, due to the many other players that will be part of the tight end rotation this season, we can expect Brown to serve 2012 as his redshirt year, taking the year to really grasp the Oregon offense and further develop into the player that Oregon will need in the future.
If he had been admitted earlier to Oregon we could very well be talking about him sitting right behind Evan Baylis on the depth chart.
While he may not see playing time in the 2012 season, expect Brown to be yet another outstanding tight end at Oregon after his redshirt season.