Oregon Football: 5 Storylines That Will Decide the Fate of the Ducks in 2013
The Oregon Ducks are coming off of one of the best seasons in school history, complete with a 12-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl victory and a 49.6 point-per-game average.
Duck fans have a lot to be optimistic about in 2013. The team's returning playmakers such as Marcus Mariota, De'Anthony Thomas and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu should only improve on their 2012 success, making Oregon one of the top teams in the nation.
Nonetheless, there are still questions that remain for the Ducks in 2013.
A new head coach, a thin recruiting class, key losses on both sides of the ball and an impending NCAA investigation are only a few of the headlines surrounding Oregon football for the upcoming season.
Here are the five biggest storylines that will decide the Ducks' fate in 2013.
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The NCAA Investigation:
Mark Helfrich has an interesting clause in his new contract. According to Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY, the new head coach is required to "actively look for red flags of potential [NCAA rule] violations."
With the NCAA's continued investigation into the Oregon football program surrounding their relationship with Willie Lyles, a hearing before the NCAA's committee of infractions is likely imminent this spring. The results of that hearing will go a long way in deciding the Ducks' fate in the near future.
Off-the-Field Problems and Injuries:
It seems as though Oregon has lost one or more of its key players at the beginning of each season in the recent past to either off-the-field issues or serious injuries. LeGarrette Blount, Jeremiah Masoli, Cliff Harris, John Boyett and Carson York are a few of the names that come to mind.
While injuries are harder to control, Helfrich needs to make sure that he keeps his players on the field and out of trouble in 2013.
It appears as though the Ducks will have a relatively weak schedule in 2013. Oregon has set up another easy non-conference set, headlined by a home matchup against Tennessee.
The one tough showdown that really stands out falls on Nov. 7 when the Ducks take on Stanford on the road. However, home matchups against Oregon State, UCLA and Cal make the team's conference schedule pretty manageable, and could set the Ducks up for another run at the national title game.
The Dawn of a New Era Under Mark Helfrich
Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian
This is the big one.
The Chip Kelly era brought immense and unprecedented success to the Oregon football program. After taking over as head coach in 2009, Kelly led the Ducks to four straight BCS bowls and an overall record of 46-7, including only three conference losses.
On top of those accomplishments, Kelly was a big pull factor in terms of recruiting, bringing in a steady stream of elite high school prospects.
However, Mark Helfrich, who has been Oregon's offensive coordinator for the past three years, appears to be the best man possible to replace Kelly.
Aside from playing a huge role in the success of the Ducks offense since his arrival in Eugene (Ore.), the Oregon-native bleeds green and yellow.
According to Paul Myerberg of USA TODAY, Helfrich stated that "coaching at Oregon was the pinnacle" of his career.
The new head coach will take over with a veteran coaching staff that returns almost every key piece from 2012, with the exception of defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro who will join Kelly in Philadelphia.
The leadership of Helfrich is perhaps the biggest storyline that will dictate Oregon's 2013 success, and Duck fans are hoping for a smooth transition.
Can the Young Stable of Running Backs Carry the Load?
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Over the past six or seven seasons, Oregon has played host to an impressive series of elite running backs including Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
With the graduation of Barner, that all changes. For the first time in a long while, Oregon fans don't know exactly what to expect out of their rushing attack that has become a staple of the team's success.
That is not to say the Ducks lack talent in their offensive backfield. De'Anthony Thomas is one of the most electrifying and visually spectacular players in all of college football.
However, as most Oregon fans know, his contributions on the outside and in the slot are extremely valuable. It would be a crime to limit Thomas to one dimension of his game by asking him to carry the load on the ground.
Behind Thomas, Oregon's running backs lack experience but show great promise. Byron Marshall was a highly-touted recruit in 2012 who posted 447 yards and four touchdowns on 87 carries this past season as a true freshman. New offensive coordinator Scott Frost could lean heavily on Marshall in the wake of Barner's departure.
Thomas Tyner, an incoming freshman and 5-star recruit according to Rivals, presents an intriguing option. The track star possesses elite speed and great 220-pound size to go with it. Tyner famously posted 644 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012...in one game.
Oregon's rushing offense has finished in the top six nationally during each of the past six seasons, and their young talent will need to grow up in a hurry to continue that success.
Replacing Defensive Leaders
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The Ducks have a bit of experience with this issue after all-conference safety John Boyett went down for the season in the second week of the 2012 season.
Inexperienced studs like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Avery Patterson revived the secondary with outstanding play, addressing the problem almost immediately.
However, heading into the 2013 season, the Ducks are hurting at linebacker after losing Michael Clay, a true leader on the team, and Kiko Alonso, not to mention Dion Jordan, a likely future first-round pick.
The news of Anthony Wallace's transfer from Oregon certainly doesn't help the team's already thin corps of linebackers, but they do have the talent to get the job done.
Boseko Lokombo has been an underrated gem for the Ducks over the last three seasons, and will head into 2013 as one of the most experienced veterans on the squad. The athletic senior has a knack for making big plays when his team needs him, accumulating four interceptions and four defensive touchdowns in his career.
On the outside, Oregon also has some intriguing young players such as Derrick Malone and Tyson Coleman, who both showcased their talent in limited playing time in 2012.
The real challenge here will be finding a solid centerpiece to play in the middle. Most Duck fans assumed Wallace would be next in line for that spot in the wake of Alonso's departure, but with him transferring, Oregon doesn't have too many big, full linebackers capable of playing in the middle.
Replacing studs like Clay, Alonso and Jordan won't be easy. Oregon's surprising, and often unsung, defensive accomplishments played a big part in the team's success in 2012, and the Ducks will need to find new leaders at some key defensive positions in 2013.
Making the Most of Offensive Weapons
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Two things that the Oregon offense most certainly does not lack are athleticism and versatility.
Chip Kelly always found a way to get his best players on the field, and it will be up to Mark Helfrich to make sure that pattern continues in 2013.
Helfrich will need to maximize on the all-around talent of his offensive skill players. For example, De'Anthony Thomas cannot become a one-trick pony out of the backfield even if he is the only Oregon back with extensive experience. He needs to continue to catch passes on the outside and move around to keep defenses guessing.
Colt Lyerla is a rare type of athlete. He can run the ball, he can catch the ball and he can block better than most tight ends in the country. Whether they be catches over the middle or carries between the tackles, Lyerla needs to see increased touches next season.
Freshman phenom Marcus Mariota showed in 2012 that he can run just as well as he can throw, reminding many Duck fans of the Dennis Dixon days. Without Kenjon Barner, Mariota may take on a bigger role in the ground game to take some of the pressure off of the team's young backs by choosing to keep more zone-read and option plays.
In short, Helfrich has too many versatile and athletic players to let them go to waste. He'll need to continue to make the most of his offensive weapons if he wants to maintain Oregon's offensive prowess in 2013.
The 2013 Recruiting Class
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Chip Kelly, a notoriously slow-moving recruiter, seemed unconcerned early on with the lack of commitments that the Ducks were receiving.
But as more and more time goes by, and Kelly heads to Philadelphia, Oregon fans are starting to get pretty nervous about the 2013 recruiting class.
Only 13 players have given the Ducks verbal commitments, and some of the most highly-touted of those recruits opened their options back up after Kelly left the program.
Dontre Wilson, Darren Carrington and Tyree and Tyrell Robinson, all 4-star prospects, have each started looking into playing for various other schools before national signing day, which should be a big concern for Oregon.
Mark Helfirch has a big task in front of him in his first month as head coach, as he needs to lock down those wavering recruits and secure commitments from other key prospects such as linebacker Quinton Powell and athlete Juwaan Williams.