Oregon Football: Position-by-Position Fall Practice Preview
We're just over two weeks away from the start of fall practice, so it's time for a refresher on where things stand at each position for the Oregon Ducks.
The good news is that the majority of positions on the team have at least one if not multiple star players. But everybody, even those perceived to be among the best in the nation at their positions, has room to improve and must do so in order for the 2013 season to be a successful one.
But even a Top 10 team like the Ducks has several questions that must be answered before the real games begin. Linebacker is an unknown at this point with Boseko Lokombo being the only surefire starter, and fans are hoping that incoming freshman Matt Wogan will be a long-term answer to the team's recent kicking woes.
As with any team, staying healthy is the No. 1 goal. We'll take a look at what the team needs to accomplish at each position before the season, but if the majority of players are healthy and ready to go on August 31, fall camp will undoubtedly have been a success.
Here is your position-by-position fall practice preview for the Oregon Ducks.
There aren't very many teams that have the luxury of returning a first-team All-Conference quarterback who quietly had one of the best seasons in school history.
The Ducks are one of them.
At the top of the depth chart is redshirt sophomore Marcus Mariota, who has every tool it takes to be a top-tier quarterback. His arm strength has improved and so has his leadership ability, which could mean the difference between last season and a Heisman-type season in 2013.
Look for him to be more vocal and take on more of a leadership role as the season progresses. In terms of the starter, the Ducks are in the best position possible.
Behind Mariota is an intriguing duo of redshirt freshmen.
The more highly touted of the two is Jake Rodrigues, a big-armed dual-threat talent with all the potential in the world. The other is Jeff Lockie, a talented player in his own right who might be a step ahead in the mental department at this point. Both guys will be vying for the backup spot, and there's an excellent chance we'll see each of them in mop up duty early on.
While last year's duel between Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota defined fall camp, the quarterback spot won't be a major position of interest this time around. It will be exciting to see the kind of strides Lockie and Rodrigues have made since April, but there isn't a whole lot that could happen to shake up what we already know about the position.
For the first time since the conclusion of the 2008 season, neither LaMichael James nor Kenjon Barner will be lining up in Oregon's backfield.
Yet hopes are still high that the ground game will once again be a dominant force throughout the season.
De'Anthony Thomas is the name you know all about, the lightning-in-a-bottle player who has become a mainstay on the top 10 plays each week. Despite his size, look for Mark Helfrich to give him around 10 to 12 carries every game.
If the 2012 Civil War is any indication, Thomas will thrive in the backfield just as he has everywhere else. The only real question with DAT is how he'll hold up getting regular carries each week throughout the entire season, something he hasn't faced previously.
Behind the Black Mamba (or right beside/ahead of him, at least in terms of number of carries) will be sophomore Byron Marshall. Last season, Marshall played a lot during garbage time and showed promise despite the defense figuring out that he was likely to take it up the gut every play.
Marshall has some power that we haven't seen since LeGarrette Blount, but he is still a home run threat in the open field. His development as an every-down back will be one of the most important things to watch for as the season unfolds.
The wild card at this position is incoming freshman Thomas Tyner, a highly touted back who has an incredible combination of size and speed. He likely won't get major first-quarter carries right away, but if he can start to live up to his talent in year one, he'll be hard to keep off the field regardless of which quarter it is or what the scoreboard looks like.
Despite not having a single back who has proved he can take 20 to 25 carries a game and rush for 150-plus yards, the Ducks are in great position here.
Either somebody will emerge as the go-to guy or a running back-by-committee approach will be utilized all year long. In any case, the talent level is extremely high, and there's little reason to believe the rushing attack won't once again be among the nation's best.
Not to sound like a broken record, but we're taking a look at the receiver position, and like the quarterback and running back spots, it appears to be a pretty elite group.
The big name is Josh Huff, who burst on to the scene as a freshman and has slowly increased his totals each season despite dealing with an array of nagging injuries. But Huff has all the tools to be an eight-catch, 100-yard-per-game wideout, and many are expecting a major season from the senior.
The other two starters from last season are back, too, as Keanon Lowe and Daryle Hawkins will both look to once again provide excellent blocking and consistency with route running.
Both guys are capable of making big plays, but they could be challenged by sophomore Bralon Addison, an electric receiver in the mold of De'Anthony Thomas but perhaps a bit more polished as a pass-catcher.
Then there's B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford, two intriguing talents who played a fair amount last season.
It's unclear if Stanford's nagging injury in April will be a concern in August, but both guys will be looking to get a few more plays under their belts and take on bigger roles. Look for at least one of the two to have a semi-breakout season.
Rounding out the group is Eric Dungy, son of Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy. Add to the mix several incoming freshmen as well, though Darren Carrington (and perhaps Devon Allen given his world-class speed) may be the only guy with a shot at playing right away.
The only other name worth mentioning is De'Anthony Thomas, who will also line up quite a bit in the slot. Used effectively, he can be an elite receiver in his own right, making the group all the more dynamic.
Once again, Duck fans have to feel good about this position. If Bralon Addison continues to emerge, Lowe and Hawkins take another step forward in year two of starting and somebody else starts to realize their potential, the passing attack will be more explosive than it has been in years.
Colt Lyerla is the most physically gifted tight end ever to don an Oregon uniform, and his growth in year three will go a long way toward turning this offense from a great one into the best in the nation.
After seeing Lyerla make plays, many wonder why the hulking tight end with sneaky speed doesn't put up bigger numbers. But it seems to me that in watching several games from last season, Lyerla simply makes plays when his number is called. He puts up numbers equivalent to the size of his role in the game plan.
I heard several fans question why Lyerla didn't play a major role in the Ducks' 62-51 victory at USC, and my first thought was, "How much more could you possibly want from an offense?"
Given all the weapons at Helfrich's disposal, there are going to be games where Lyerla doesn't stand out, simply because there are only so many plays in a game and so many guys to distribute the ball to.
That being said, Lyerla is simply too talented to not get the ball at least six to eight times a game, whether that's in the passing attack or as a short-yardage running back. He rarely if ever goes down upon initial contact, and his sure hands make him a reliable target for Mariota.
After Lyerla you'll see tight end Pharaoh Brown, another interesting talent whose raw ability came through in a big way in the spring game. Oregon occasionally likes to use two tight ends, and if Lyerla is having a particularly dominant game, look for Brown to benefit as defenses key in on No. 15.
Koa Ka'ai, Evan Baylis, T.J. Daniel and true freshman John Mundt will also be in the mix at the position, though it's difficult to see anybody getting significant playing time in 2013 given the big names ahead of them.
If Oregon can make an effort to get Lyerla the ball X number of times each game (which is to say, have a specific number in mind before each contest), you'll see a breakout season from the junior tight end. The Ducks are in very good shape at this position.
Now we're taking a look at the offensive line, the most important unit in Oregon's offense.
Having an elite O-line gives coordinators a lot more options with play-calling, and having experienced guys who can call out orders and recognize defensive formations before the play only serves to help Mariota's decision-making.
If you had to pick a leader in this group it would be center Hroniss Grasu, a two-year starter who made the Pac-12's all-conference team last season. At the tackle spots are Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher, future NFL guys who have tremendous ability. These three players make Oregon's line one of the league's best.
But becoming one of the nation's best will depend on who is chosen to start at the guard spots. Junior Hamani Stevens and senior Mana Greig both appear to have an inside track, though sophomores Jamal Prater and Andre Yruretagoyena will challenge the pair.
Incoming freshman Cameron Hunt and Evan Voeller have the best shot at breaking into the rotation, though it's hard to imagine either guy getting significant playing time.
The offensive line is talented, deep and potentially the strongest unit on offense, which says quite a bit given the other positions we've already discussed. If the unit can avoid significant injury and continue to get time together on the field, there won't be many defensive fronts that can match Oregon's beef of its own.
Because Oregon lines up in a 3-4 defense so often, we're considering the defensive line to be just three positions. The fourth, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position, will be previewed with the linebackers.
The Ducks have three senior starters returning along the line in Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli. All three have the strength and size to really get a push up the middle, and Hart is one of the more underrated sack artists in the game. When you see a pileup near the line, you can almost always count on Hart to be in on it.
But while fans are grateful to see some stability and experience atop the depth chart, it's the talent behind the aforementioned trio that really makes this unit exciting. Sophomores Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are both top-level talents with the physical tools it takes to really stand out.
Both guys had solid freshman campaigns, but seeing how they've improved in year two will be one of the more interesting storylines of the 2013 season. Fellow sophomore Alex Balducci will likely be the starting nose tackle in 2014, so it's important to see some growth from him as well.
Jared Ebert is another name to watch for, and given Aliotti's penchant for rotating guys in with frequency, it's likely we'll see plenty of the senior returning from injury.
This group is fairly deep and very talented. The starting three can certainly hold their own and dominate lesser teams, but it's going to take progress from the talented backups if this group is to make an impact against a team like Stanford.
The top of the depth chart is solid and without question marks. But if guys like Armstead, Buckner and Balducci can begin to realize some of their enormous potential, the defensive line can be yet another elite unit for the Ducks.
The linebacker unit will be the most closely watched on the team, and finding suitable replacements to Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso could very well mean the difference between another BCS bowl and a national championship appearance.
Boseko Lokombo has a lock on one of the spots, but the rest are up for grabs. And despite the inexperience, there are a lot of names vying to break into the rotation.
Tyson Coleman is a name you should be familiar with, as the sophomore received a lot of playing time last season, including major minutes in the Fiesta Bowl. Juniors Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have each showed flashes of greatness, but can they be consistent if they're given a larger block of playing time?
Junior college transfer Joe Walker should also be in the mix after arriving on campus early and making several plays in the spring game. Other names to watch are Rahim Cassell and Brett Bafaro, two very raw talents who could be in line for breakthrough seasons.
At the drop-end spot, Tony Washington appears to have the inside track to start. At 6'3", 244 pounds, he is reminiscent of Dion Jordan with his ability to speed rush off the edge and cover the short routes, too. But he could be challenged by Christian French, who showed big-time ability in the spring game.
This is a group that fans shouldn't necessarily be worried about because the talent is there. But figuring out which guys can make plays with consistency will be the challenge.
If the coaches seem confident in having answered the challenge before the Nicholls State game, fans will be happy. But there's a lot that could transpire between now and then, and fans will be anxiously awaiting what the linebackers look like as a unit when the season begins.
Of all the positions on the Oregon Ducks with elite talent, the secondary may just stand the tallest.
The unit was a major part of a defense that led the nation in interceptions last season. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was the breakout star and is now considered to be among the best corners in the nation. Opposite him is Terrance Mitchell, who was overshadowed in 2012, but his 2011 performance should alleviate any concerns about what he brings to the table.
Both guys could be future NFL starters, and there aren't too many receivers who have an advantage going up against these two.
At the safety spot will be Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson. Jackson is a hard-hitting player with a nose for the ball and the athletic ability to hang with even the most physical of receivers. He's also known for coming up to the line and making a play on the ball-carrier. Patterson, if you recall, replaced the injured John Boyett in game one last season and never looked back.
He became one of the league's best safeties and has both the speed and cover skills to excel at the position.
The backups are promising as well as both Dior Mathis and Troy Hill have shown playmaking ability at corner. Safety Erick Dargan replaced Patterson after he went down with an injury last season, and all he did was snag two interceptions in the Fiesta Bowl to go along with eight tackles. He is as good a backup as they come.
This is a truly elite unit, but expectations are enormous. With all that talent, fans won't be happy with any more USC-type games. Some guys will be tough to cover no matter how good the secondary is, and Marqise Lee is one of them. But this unit should completely lock down the majority of opposing offenses.
De'Anthony Thomas and Keanon Lowe will return kickoffs. Bralon Addison may be in the mix there, but he might be better off returning punts.
Drew Howell has the long snapping duties locked down, and junior college transfer Dylan Ausherman will likely handle punting duties after the departure of four-year starter Jackson Rice.
Now that we've taken care of all that, let's get to the position fans are most eager to see (but not in crunch time): kicker.
Alejandro Maldonado is a two-year starter who has struggled mightily and in big situations. But this year he'll have stiff competition in incoming freshman Matt Wogan, a highly rated prospect with a big leg and accuracy to boot.
Many are projecting Wogan as the starter, and that seems reasonable. But regardless of who wins the job, it will be nice to see some real competition. If Wogan can match some of the hype he's received, the Ducks will have a great field-goal kicker and someone they can count on in clutch situations.
But if he struggles out of the gate, the Autzen Stadium groans will be heard all the way from Palo Alto.
The special teams unit has some major question marks, but if Ausherman can prove to be a solid replacement to Rice, and Wogan (or Maldonado) can begin the season by making field goals, this unit should be just fine.