Oregon Football: 1 Wish for Each Position in 2013
Now that we have an idea about where things stand at each position on the Oregon Ducks heading into fall practice, let's take a look at one thing that could make each unit better.
In other words, if fans had one wish for the offensive line, linebackers etc., what would it be?
The most obvious answer is health. A fully healthy and intact Oregon squad has a terrific chance to be undefeated when it travels to Palo Alto to face Stanford in early November. Injuries, however, are part of the game.
We're going to ignore the health aspect on this one, because it would easily be the biggest wish for each position.
Some units, such as the linebackers, have some major questions and it's relatively easy to come up with a wish list for the position. Others, like the quarterback spot or the secondary, have no glaring weaknesses.
Click ahead to find out what the biggest wish is for each position in 2013, and let's hear what you would like to see from them as well!
Quarterback: Improved Leadership
There aren't many ways that Marcus Mariota can dramatically improve at the quarterback position.
He completed 68.5 percent of his passes, threw for 32 touchdowns and only tossed six interceptions. In terms of his skill set, the improvements made will likely be minor given the outstanding year he had in 2012.
But his leadership certainly has room to grow, and that's the biggest wish for the quarterback spot in 2013. Understand that this is still like starting out with a pepperoni pizza. You're happy and content, but what if you were allowed to add on a couple more toppings? That would make it perfect.
Mariota showed incredible poise throughout the entire season, and heck, the team won all but one of its games! But I'm looking for the 2013 version of Marcus Mariota to handle a scenario like the fourth quarter against Stanford a little differently.
Oregon had multiple chances to sustain drives and put the game away with a seven-point lead. Even after the Cardinal tied it at 14, the Ducks had the ball at midfield with just under a minute left. The offense looked flustered, and while it would be ridiculous to put too much blame on Mariota, a more mature quarterback may have instilled a calm and confidence in his team that would have allowed it to continue downfield for a chance to win the game.
This isn't intended to pin the loss on Mariota, as a number of guys, most notably Alejandro Maldonado and De'Anthony Thomas, made mistakes as well. With improved leadership, I can't imagine Mariota would let the game unfold the same way.
It appears this effort has already begun, as Mariota exited several practices in April with a hoarse voice, showing vocal command of the offense. But in order for the star quarterback to take his game to the next level, he'll have to show it off in the season as well.
Running Back: Growth from Marshall, Tyner
The depth chart lists De'Anthony Thomas at the top, followed by Byron Marshall. It's a safe bet that incoming freshman Thomas Tyner will at least work his way up to the third spot before the season begins.
But because De'Anthony Thomas is at his best when he's able to move around in the offense, one of the biggest keys to the season will be the growth of both Marshall and Tyner.
Marshall now has a year under his belt. It showed in the spring game as the true sophomore rushed for 60 yards with relative ease. He has the frame to take on 15-20 carries a game, and the moment coaches are confident in allowing him to do that, the offense will take a step forward.
The same goes for freshman Thomas Tyner. With his insane blend of size and speed, the most important aspect of his growth may be grasping as much of the playbook as he can during fall practice.
Fans should be confident that DAT can handle a decent amount of carries at the running back spot and turn those into yards and touchdowns. But the biggest wish at this position is the growth of backups Marshall and Tyner, which will give Thomas time off to attack from other areas of the field without giving up skill in the backfield.
Wide Receiver: Finding Go-to-Guy After Josh Huff
The biggest wish for the wide receiver position will be finding a go-to receiver to follow in the footsteps of Josh Huff.
Part of the thought process here is that Huff will be gone following the season and we haven't really seen a big-time playmaker emerge just yet. Going into 2014, it would be a real luxury for the coaching staff if they could pinpoint one or two guys who can carry the load of being the guy at receiver.
Another reason is that having two game-breakers instead of one can only be a good thing.
So who will it be?
I'm very high on the potential of sophomore Bralon Addison. If I had to pick one guy to become the next elite wideout for the Ducks, it would be him. But one should also expect improvements from Keanon Lowe, B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford. Several incoming freshmen would love their chance to make an early impact as well.
In any case, the wide receiver position is deep but somewhat lacking in terms of a big-play threat after Huff. Well, at least a proven one.
Who will prove to be that guy in 2013?
Tight End: Larger Role in Game Plan
The Ducks have one of the best tight ends in college football in Colt Lyerla and a backup, Pharoah Brown, who had perhaps the greatest display of improvement in spring practice.
What more could a fan possibly wish for at the position?
For me, it has to be a larger role in the game plan. Obviously I'm no coach, but just as an observation it appears Lyerla's impact on the game is solely a result of how often the offense is designed to get him the ball.
A great example is his time at running back against Arizona. It worked well and added a new, exciting element to the Oregon offense, but it was rarely seen again. Against Kansas State, Mariota targeted Lyerla on three straight plays and the offense moved it all the way down the field in a hurry.
I know Lyerla isn't always open as he's clearly a point of emphasis for opposing defenses. But so is De'Anthony Thomas, and so was Kenjon Barner. There will be games where Oregon scores 50 points, and if Lyerla doesn't have more than a couple grabs, it's understandable.
When the offense is operating at an optimum level, some guys are going to get left out despite the barrage of points.
Against USC last season, the Ducks scored touchdowns on nine of their twelve drives (not counting the one- and two-play drives to end each half), so there's no reason to complain about Lyerla not having a big game there.
But I would think with Lyerla's ability to shed tacklers and run like a deer, the coaches will have to create a goal for his number of touches. I'm sure they do the same with DAT, and with Lyerla's elite physical tools, they should use the same strategy.
The biggest wish for the tight end position is to have a larger role in the game plan (beyond just blocking), which should result in a more diverse and effective offense.
Offensive Line: A Young Gun to Enter the Fray at Guard
Three of the five positions along the Oregon Ducks' offensive line are set on stone. Hroniss Grasu is the man in charge at center, while Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher have a firm grip on the tackle spots.
The competition for the guard spots should be a fierce one with as many as five or six guys vying to start.
The biggest wish along the offensive line is for one or two of the young guns, likely the highly touted Cameron Hunt or Evan Voeller, to enter the thick of the competition.
It isn't often that offensive linemen arrive on campus and are physically ready to meet the demands of college football, but Jake Fisher proved it was possible a couple years ago. If either Hunt or Voeller can do the same over the next few weeks, the offensive line will be in tremendous shape.
Having a young guy step forward and compete for the starting spot is a positive thing for several reasons.
First, it will push some of the veterans even harder. Second, it will allow him to potentially get playing time early on, and there's no substitute for game experience. And lastly, it makes the line even deeper should injuries occur.
The offensive line has the potential to be the Ducks' best ever, and having young talent mature and compete for starting spots right away will be a step forward in making that happen.
Defensive Line: More Playing Time for Armstead, Balducci, Buckner
As true freshmen, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner saw plenty of action and gained valuable experience. The pair was joined later on by fellow freshman Alex Balducci after a rash of injuries forced him to burn his redshirt.
Keep a close eye on this trio, because there's a great chance they'll be tasked with taking over the starting spots in 2014 when Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli graduate.
I have zero complaints about their playing time last season as they were on the field fairly often as true freshmen. The biggest wish for this group is that they'll see even more playing time in 2013 and be fully ready to man the starting spots the following season.
It's been obvious since the moment that Buckner and Armstead stepped onto the field that each has a world of potential. We haven't seen as much of Balducci, but the same can be said for him as well.
Having all three be a regular part of the rotation and play nearly as many snaps as the starters will create depth along the line while also building for the future.
Linebackers: Solidify Rotation by October
With so many different candidates at linebacker hoping to replace the departed Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, we may see some different rotations throughout the first few games of the season.
And with that mighty slate including Nicholls State, Virginia, Tennessee, Cal and Colorado, the Ducks may just get away with a little experimentation.
But following those games is a trip to Washington, and by that time the rotation should be set in stone and ready to take on Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Bishop Sankey and company.
This isn't about the linebacker spot having questions or being viewed as a weakness. It's about finding guys who the coaches are confident can handle all the responsibilities of being a starting linebacker in the Pac-12. It's about finding backups who are capable of coming in and performing without much of a drop-off in production.
When the schedule becomes more difficult, the coaches will have to know what they have at linebacker and be confident that they can execute the game plan.
That's why fans should allow for some tinkering early on, but the biggest wish for this position is to have the depth chart cemented down when the calendar turns to October.
Secondary: Meaningful Snaps for Mathis, Hill
The tandem of Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is about as good as there is in college football at the cornerback position.
Which means that possibly one or both of them will be off to the NFL following the season.
Thus, meaningful snaps for those in line to start in 2014 will be crucial, and I'm looking directly at Dior Mathis and Troy Hill. Mathis arrived in 2010 as a highly touted recruit while Hill has shown flashes of potential in the time he's been given.
Against a team like Oregon State, Ekpre-Olomu should stay in to cover a talented receiver like Brandin Cooks. But if the Ducks can find a way to get both Mathis and Hill some meaningful snaps against the elite receivers of the conference, it would benefit them in the future.
I'm looking at the Washington State game as a perfect chance for this to occur. The Cougars throw the ball, continue throwing the ball and then throw the ball some more. They have many talented receivers and it may be a good time to put in an extra defensive back here and there.
If Mathis and Hill can both gain some experience this season going up against opposing teams' starting receivers, it will give them an early jump on potentially starting in 2014.
I left out the position of Punter because it's pretty obvious that hang time, distance and location are essentially the three most important aspects of the position. Those are obviously the things fans would like to see out of Dylan Ausherman this season.
At kicker, the biggest wish is an even simpler one: Accuracy.
Whoever nabs the starting gig will need to be consistently accurate, plain and simple.
Distance is nice, and if either Matt Wogan or Maldonado can toss in a 50-yarder now and then, fans will be thrilled.
But accuracy inside 45 yards is the biggest wish for this position, which produced more heartbreaking moments than notable highlights over the past few seasons.