Oregon has made its name in the last half-decade with its potent offense, and the 2014 Ducks might be the most explosive bunch yet. The bevy of talent at the skill positions promises Oregon will continue to score in droves, but the big guys up front could make next season's the most efficient Ducks offense yet.
Center Hroniss Grasu's decision to return was as significant of a victory for head coach Mark Helfrich as the announced return of quarterback Marcus Mariota the same day.
The All-American center Grasu is the anchor up front and leader of a unit that returners starters across all five positions. Only Washington has as much experience across its front five entering 2014.
The importance of a healthy and effective offensive line sets the groundwork for the entire offense, and Oregon's struggles in the 2013 season's final month underlined the unit's importance—and the Ducks' finish demonstrated what all the veteran savvy Oregon has coming back means for the next season.
|2014 Oregon Offensive Line Returning Starters|
|Jake Fisher||RT||Sr.||6'6", 293 pounds|
|Hroniss Grasu||C||RSr.||6'3", 297 pounds|
|Cameron Hunt||RG||Soph.||6'4, 282 pounds|
|Tyler Johnstone||LT||RJr.||6'6", 277 pounds|
|Hamani Stevens||LG||RSr.||6'3", 312 pounds|
Mana Greig's re-aggravated knee injury forced true freshman Cameron Hunt into a more prominent role at right guard just before the Ducks' home stretch, which not coincidentally included their two most trying offensive performances of the season.
The Ducks were overwhelmed by Stanford's imposing defense, failing to score until the fourth quarter and giving up big plays that resulted in turnovers inside the red zone. Oregon could establish nothing in its other loss at Arizona, and sandwiched between the two was a pedestrian first-half effort against Utah.
Stanford and Utah, two of the conference's top sacking defenses, combined for 6.5 sacks in those contests, accounting for more than one-third of the 18 the offensive line gave up all season.
The Ducks' last two games—the Civil War rivalry defeat of Oregon State and Alamo Bowl rout of Texas—were the gain from the proverbial pain of the previous three outings.
Against rival Oregon State, it culminated in a game-winning drive Grasu said afterward the program "needed" per GoDucks.com.
I’ve never had one of these types of games in my career at Oregon—a last second drive to win a game. I think this program really needed it. It shows that even if things aren’t going your way, if you’re down you can still come back and win.
The losses at Stanford and Arizona were not solely the responsibility of the offensive line. Certainly the injury to Mariota limited the Ducks, but Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost made adjustments in the Oregon State game that compensated for the quarterback's limitations.
FishDuck.com took an in-depth look at how the play-calling and blocking schemes designed to protect Mariota also opened up the middle of the field for inside zone-read rushes.
Against a Texas defense selling out to stop the run from the running backs, a healthy Mariota was able to take advantage of misdirection to break off considerable gains from the zone-read.
They were two differently played games, but the offensive line was effective in both. That ability to adapt will be crucial to the Ducks' offensive game plan next season, but so will having depth to be able to maintain should one of the starting five suffer injury.
To that end, the Ducks have 4-star junior college prospect Haniteli Lousi signed for 2014.
Oregon's offensive line will be tested early. Defending Rose Bowl champion Michigan State visits Autzen Stadium on Sept. 6, bringing with it a rush defense that finished 2013 ranked No. 1 in the nation with a makeup similar to that of Stanford.
The lumps taken late last season could pay dividends in an early College Football Playoff test for the Ducks, and success there sets the tone for a big season for an offense accustomed to only the biggest.