Oregon has designs on a return to the national championship picture in 2014, returning a talented and veteran lineup. The pursuit of a perfect season and the program's first national title begins with the perfect offseason.
Foremost for the Ducks is staying healthy, though that's no different than any program's focus in the offseason. However, injuries played such a pivotal role in Oregon's 2013-14 season taking a turn.
The Ducks were undefeated and ranked near the top of the polls heading into November, but injuries to quarterback Marcus Mariota, offensive lineman Mana Greig, running back Byron Marshall and defensive lineman Wade Keliikipi derailed their road to a fifth straight BCS bowl appearance.
While the team's collective health now and into the first weeks of the 2014- season have little bearing by season's end—the rigors of a season take a toll, as evidenced last November—Oregon faces a championship test right out of the gate against Michigan State.
The Ducks cannot afford to enter their Week 2 date with the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion shaking off rust. Oregon's College Football Playoff aspirations depend on being fine-tuned and full strength from the season's outset.
Speaking of strength, toughening up in the trenches is crucial for Oregon this offseason. The Ducks were beat on both lines in losses at Stanford and Arizona and especially on defense. A line lacking depth failed to stop the Cardinal and Wildcats' run-heavy attacks.
Defensive end Tony Washington attributed the late-season letdown in part to attitude. He told Andrew Greif of The Oregonian last month that a championship mindset in the fall is cultivated in the offseason:
We’ve got to clean up all the little stuff right now so we can get to where we need to be. Last year you could feel it. It didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right what we were doing out there. We didn’t say anything about it, and we let too many little things go. Last year is not what our standard is about and it starts in the winter.
New defensive coordinator Don Pellum is emphasizing commitment and tenacity this offseason, a philosophy vital to Oregon's championship pursuit. But the Ducks also need depth up front.
DeForest Buckner had an impressive season, and Washington was among the conference's most prolific pass-rushers with 7.5 sacks. But in other positions along the line, Oregon needs standouts to emerge this offseason both in the weight room and during spring workouts.
The Ducks offensive line faces a less dire, though similar, situation. The offensive front is among the most experienced in the Pac-12, returning All-American center Hroniss Grasu as its anchor and with All-Conference Tyler Johnstone entering his third season as a starter.
But a lack of depth became a glaring issue down the stretch when freshman Cameron Hunt was forced into the starting lineup as injuries mounted.
More veterans at every position along the line gives positions coach Steve Greatwood a foundation on which to build a deeper unit for 2014.
In addition to Grasu, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's decision to return for his senior season was a huge win for the Ducks. However, teammate Terrance Mitchell's early entry into the NFL draft leaves what was one of the nation's premier defensive back duos down one.
The Ducks are not lacking for experience among Mitchell's potential replacements, however. Dior Mathis and Troy Hill are both fifth-year seniors. Hill has been a prominent part of the secondary every season since 2011, and Mathis became a primary contributor in 2012.
Hill was reinstated from an indefinite suspension, received following a December 2013 arrest, Andrew Greif of The Oregonian reports.
Pellum and defensive backs coach John Neal certainly have options for replacing Mitchell, which is one of the more important tasks facing this team in the offseason.
Oregon is stocked at skill positions with arguably the most collective talent in the conference, led by third-year starting quarterback Mariota.
A three-man running back rotation of Byron Marshall, De'Anthony Thomas and Thomas Tyner shared 379 carries, with Mariota seeing another 96. Thomas' early departure for the NFL means more touches to share between Marshall and Tyner.
Though a multifaceted attack is a signature of Oregon in the last half-decade, the Ducks have typically showcased one running back prominently. The last Oregon team to feature a true two-headed backfield was the 2008 squad.
|Leading Oregon Running Backs Since 2008|
|Jeremiah Johnson/LeGarrette Blount, 2008||Johnson: 168 Blount: 138 Total: 306||Johnson: 1,201 Blount: 1,003 Total: 2,204||Johnson: 13 Blount: 17 Total: 30|
|LaMichael James, 2009||230||1,546||14|
|LaMichael James, 2010||294||1,731||21|
|LaMichael James, 2011||247 (missed two games with injury)||1,805||18|
|Kenjon Barner, 2012||279||1,767||21|
|Byron Marshall/Thomas Tyner, 2013||Marshall: 168 Tyner: 115 Total: 283||Marshall: 1,038 Tyner: 711 Total: 1,749||Marshall: 14 Tyner: 9 Total: 23|
Implementing a run game that uses Marshall and Tyner as feature backs equally can be tricky, but if such an approach is fine-tuned in the offseason, the Ducks can double the trouble opposing defenses face in 2014.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.