The Oregon Ducks are undergoing a major transition this offseason. Chip Kelly spurned the program in exiting for the NFL, and Mark Helfrich has taken the reins with designs on sustaining the Ducks' success in the coming years.
As is almost always the case, a bevy of Oregon standouts left for the NFL draft, including running back Kenjon Barner and linebackers Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan. The Ducks have plenty of depth at the running back position, but questions still remain about who will fill the No. 2 role in the team’s typically crowded backfield and who will step in to fill some big holes at the linebacker positions.
Still, there’s a lot to be optimistic about this season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota will be back under center, and running back De’Anthony Thomas will be right behind him. With a talented duo of tremendous players in the backfield and a young but talented receiver corp, the Ducks should have no problem recreating their explosive offense in 2013.
Fans will get their first look at the new-look Ducks at the annual spring game on April 27, and we’ll all get a closer look at some of the best position battle to watch for in the 2013-14 season. Let’s take a look at some of those position battles and break down which players will be worth watching Saturday.
Jordan and Alonso were massive contributors on Oregon’s defense in 2012. Michael Clay will also need to be replaced, and there are several players in line to do so going forward.
Derrick Malone, Tony Washington, Rodney Hardrick, Brett Bafaro, and Carlyle Garrick should all be in the mix to see considerable time at linebacker this season. Oregon certainly has some depth at the position, but that particular group contains the players most likely to earn a starting role in 2013.
Tony Washington will be the biggest name to keep an eye on, though. He was a minor contributor and special-teams performer last season, but he’ll be in line to take over for Jordan this year. Given Jordan’s versatility and multiple roles on the Ducks’ defense in 2012, Washington will be faced with some lofty expectations.
Colt Lyerla will remain atop the depth chart at tight end to start the season, but Oregon has a pair of excellent young players waiting in the wings. One of the two will back up Lyerla at a position that could see a lot of work and some big numbers in 2013.
Sophomore Pharaoh Brown stands to be the player to step up and fill the void. The 6’6” target didn’t see much action in 2012, but he has the size, speed and ball skills to make a substantial impact this season.
T.J. Daniel and Evan Baylis will also be in the mix to see some playing time, but neither has the upside of Brown, especially as downfield targets who can stretch the middle of the field.
But as is often the case, the spring game will be a tremendous opportunity for one of the dark-horse tight end candidates to emerge as a potential backup to Lyerla. It won’t be a flashy battle to watch, but it will be an important one.
Backup Running Back
There aren’t many programs that can lose a running back like Barner and not feel the pressure of replacing his production.
But even with Thomas ready to take the reins, Oregon needs to address its backup running back position.
Byron Marshall was fantastic in relief of both players last season, and he’s first in line to back up Thomas this season. With 5.1 yards per tote on 87 carries in 2012, he showed enough to warrant a bigger workload this season.
Oregon won’t abandon its up-tempo offense in 2013, though, and the running back position needs a lot of depth. Expect 5-star freshman running back Thomas Tyner to be his primary challenger for the No. 2 role.
That said, the spring game won’t feature an enthralling running back battle, but it should certainly be considered an audition for Marshall to claim the backup role behind Thomas.