It's been a hectic offseason for the Oregon Ducks.
They've dealt with an ongoing NCAA investigation regarding possible recruiting violations, the possibility of coach Chip Kelly departing for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and an ESPN The Magazine report about widespread use of marijuana among Ducks players.
They've also got a freshman starting at QB, high expectations following a 12-2 season, a Rose Bowl victory and a 34-6 record in the last three years.
Ducks fans are excited for tonight's debut against Arkansas State, and with kickoff approaching, it's time to look at a few things to watch for in tonight's game.
1) How Will QB Marcus Mariota Perform?
Kelly named Mariota the first Oregon freshman starter at QB in 21 years, and there's a ton of pressure on the young QB to carry the fifth-ranked Ducks.
Mariota is big (6'4") fast (clocked at 4.48 40-time) and a strong pocket passer. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 206 yards in the annual spring game, when he began to draw consideration for the starting job.
Mariota's focus, poise and footwork are his strengths, and we'll get a chance to watch him perform on the big stage against Arkansas State.
Hopefully for Ducks fans, his teammates will ignore his underclassman status and rally around his strong leadership skills.
2) How Will Oregon Deal With Its Offseason Losses?
Though the Ducks faced a litany of off-the-field issues (including the aforementioned recruiting violations and accusations of marijuana use), their biggest challenge comes on the field.
In spite of the losses, there are plenty of reasons for Ducks fans to be optimistic. They can replace James with increased touches for fan-favorite RB De'Anthony Thomas, who racked up 1,200 all-purpose yards last year.
They also have Josh Huff and Kenjon Barner at the position to provide weapons for Mariota.
Roster turnover is just a part of college football, and few coaches are better at handling it than Chip Kelly. We'll see if he can do it again this year, starting tonight against Arkansas State.
3) Will The Defense Hold Up Against the New-Look Red Wolves?
The Ducks D has its work cut out against Arkansas States' new coach Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn, who replaced Hugh Freeze (departed to Mississippi), is installing a new up-tempo offense behind Sun Belt player-of-the-year Ryan Aplin. He'll look to challenge the Ducks' young secondary (populated by sophomores Terrance Mitchell and Ife-Ekpre Olomu) with a quick-fire passing attack.
Oregon's defense is led by linebacker Michael Clay, who is the play-making centerpiece of their fast 3-4 defense.
If they can frustrate the Red Wolves early, Oregon's defense should be able to slow them down and make them start to press. That will open up the possibility of some big defensive plays. Look for the D to come out aggressively and set the tempo for the game.
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