Oregon Football: Ducks' Strengths and Weaknesses Heading into Fall Practice
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College football is right around the corner—and I do actually mean right around the corner, as the Oregon Ducks will open up camp in just a few short weeks.
While the team is one of a privileged few to have more strengths than weaknesses, fall practice is still an important time to identify those question spots and find ways to make them stronger.
I believe that on paper this is the best Oregon team we've ever seen. But that's worth as much as a match in a rainstorm until the games begin.
Heading into fall camp, here are the Ducks' biggest strengths and weaknesses.
Avery Patterson with a pick-six against Washington State
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In 2012, the Ducks teed off against Arkansas State to open the season and promptly lost safety John Boyett for the remaining 12 games of his career.
Yet it was that very moment that allowed Avery Patterson to step in and not only become an efficient starter, but excel at the position. He, along with Brian Jackson, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, formed a starting secondary that became one of the game's best.
Aside from a poor performance against USC, the group held the opposition in check throughout the season and even caused Heisman finalist Collin Klein to have one of his worst games of the season in the Fiesta Bowl, throwing for just 151 yards and two interceptions.
Along with prominent backups Troy Hill, Dior Mathis and Erick Dargan, the secondary led the nation in interceptions.
And the reason it's a strength again this season? Every aforementioned player will be returning in 2013. Good luck, Pac-12 quarterbacks.
Weakness: The Kicking Game
K Alejandro Maldonado.
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One of the names sure to create buzz in fall camp will be Matt Wogan, an incoming freshman kicker who many hope will be the long-awaited answer to the Ducks' field-goal woes.
But another important name to look for will be Dylan Ausherman, a junior college transfer who redshirted last season and is expected to assume the punting duties after senior Jackson Rice graduated.
If both guys can come and in and prove their worth right away, then the kicking game could be a strength.
But as it stands, there are a lot of questions.
Everyone is aware of the notable field-goal misses, and there's no way to tell what kind of punter Ausherman will be until his first boot in a real game.
Given both the talent and experience at many other positions, the kicker and punter spots definitely stand out as weaknesses heading into fall practice.
The face of Marcus Mariota, first-team All-Pac 12 last season.
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If we're calling the quarterback part of the backfield, and it is, then Oregon's backfield is easily one of the biggest strengths on the team.
There isn't much more to be said about Marcus Mariota, the Ducks' freshman phenom coming off one of the best seasons in team history.
But after one Heisman candidate, you'll find another in do-everything speedster De'Anthony Thomas, who will also spend some time in the slot. Considering that Helfrich has him as the first-string back, however, we're going to let the backfield claim him here, making the group even stronger.
Following the two Heisman candidates is sophomore Byron Marshall, a deceptively fast bruiser of a back who should be in line for 15 carries a game in the fall. Finally there's incoming freshman Thomas Tyner, the best running back in Oregon high school history who might run a faster straight line than Thomas.
It's pretty easy to see how the backfield is one of the strengths of this team. If it realizes its massive potential, it could become the best in the country.
Derrick Malone could be a breakout star at linebacker.
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Linebacker is a position that I hesitate to call a "weakness" because there aren't any players that have played poorly thus far. The position has a lot of talent, and the potential for it to be a strength by the end of the season is very high.
But relative to every other position, there's little doubt that the linebacker spot is the one with the most questions.
Both Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso are gone, leaving a host of younger players to fight over the starting spots. If you're like me, you've probably watched game replays more than a few times this offseason. The one thing that consistently stands out is the speed at which both Clay and Alonso were able to diagnose a play and get to the ball.
Despite the young guns having talent, that kind of football headiness cannot easily be replaced.
If there's one aspect of the position that looks promising, it's the depth. But the biggest question is which guys can become big-time playmakers this season?
And if we're asking that, the position as it stands today is one of the few weaknesses on the team.
Strength: Offensive Line
Hroniss Grasu lifts up DAT after a touchdown.
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For the final "strength" spot, I landed on the offensive line. I could have easily leaned toward the wide receivers or picked a trait that stands out on this team such as leadership.
But it's the heart and soul of the offense that gets the nod. The offensive line will have the biggest impact on the direction of the season.
The group is led by the outstanding trio of Hroniss Grasu, Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher. All three are solid as a rock. They're guys you don't have to worry about leading up to a big game, regardless of how great the opposing front seven may be.
The remaining guard spots are up for grabs, but Hamani Stevens, Mana Greig, Andre Yruretagoyena and Jamal Prater are all solid candidates to fill the open positions. Incoming freshmen Cameron Hunt and Evan Voeller are both highly touted and could get playing time as well.
In order for the Ducks to move the football, whether it's on the ground or through the air, the offensive line has to be on its game and communicate effectively. The current group is talented, experienced, and could be a major reason for success in 2013.
Weakness: Experience at Running Back
RB Byron Marshall takes a handoff from Marcus Mariota.
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I touched on the backfield earlier as one of the strengths of this team, but the experience at running back especially is a question mark heading into the 2013 season.
It may not be a weakness in the sense that Colorado's quarterback situation is a weakness, but this season will mark the first time in the last four that neither LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner has a home in the backfield.
We know how special De'Anthony Thomas is, and it's fair to be optimistic about Byron Marshall's potential as well. Tyner at peak performance gives the Ducks one of the best running back stables in the country.
But the talent is not the question.
The question is, who will be able to take five or six carries in a row and pick up several first downs, as Kenjon Barner did against USC last season? Can someone replicate what LaMichael James was able to do at Cal in 2010 late in the fourth quarter?
The guys can play, but none of the three has ever had a game put on their shoulders. Nobody has been given 20 carries through three quarters and then be told they might get 10 to 15 more in the fourth.
Highlights are going to come in bunches, and carries may be split somewhat evenly throughout the season. But there's going to come a time where one of the backs has to step up and take a game over as we saw both Barner and James do many times. All three have the talent to do it, but none has actually had to do it.
Which makes the lack of experience of the running backs one of the weaknesses heading into 2013.