Oregon Football: Ducks Offense Evolves with Personnel

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Oregon Football: Ducks Offense Evolves with Personnel
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Many of the basic tenets of Oregon's uptempo spread offense are the same heading into 2014 as they were in the Ducks' 2010 run to the BCS Championship Game, despite new coaches and different players. However, the system is constantly evolving and next season will be no exception. 

The changes coming in 2014 certainly will not be as dramatic as when former head coach Mike Bellotti tabbed Chip Kelly to coordinate the offense in 2007. But there are measurable differences to expect next season in comparison to last, dependent largely on the available talent. 

Oregon has had a knack for adapting to its personnel, a quality Kelly touted following the Ducks' 2013 Fiesta Bowl rout of Kansas State, per the Philadelphia Daily News

Anything you do has to be personnel-driven. You've gotta be able to adapt to the personnel that you have. There's a lot of great offenses out there, but does it fit with the personnel you have? I think the key is being sure what you're doing is giving your players the chance to be successful.

Kelly brought a hurry-up spread approach that was a vast departure from Jeff Tedford's pro set. In his tenure from 1998 to 2001, Oregon was among the nation's most prolific aerial attacks, with quarterbacks Akili Smith and Joey Harrington producing some of the most gaudy passing numbers in the conference. 

The pro set remained in place at Oregon after Tedford's departure, but Bellotti introduced the spread as a counter to the defense USC rode to conference dominance. By the time Kelly ascended to head coach in 2009, the Ducks were among the nation's most potent scoring and rushing offenses and ready to embark on a three-year run of conference championships. 

A telling example is the way in which each quarterback since 2007 ran the offense. Marcus Mariota is a true dual-threat, more akin to 2008 and 2009 starter Jeremiah Masoli than predecessor Darron Thomas.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Mariota rushed 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013 and 106 times for 752 yards and five scores in 2012. Masoli racked up 127 rushes, 718 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008, with another 121 carries for 668 yards and 13 touchdowns the following year. 

Though Thomas was used as a ball-carrier, his output was significantly below that of Masoli and Mariota—he gained 486 yards in 2010 and 206 in 2011. 

Don Ryan/Associated Press
Darron Thomas (above) was used less in the rush than Jeremiah Masoli (top) or Marcus Mariota.

The way in which the Ducks offense adapted to a new quarterback was further evidence of Oregon's ability to evolve around personnel. Both Thomas and Mariota took over as starting quarterback after an unexpected departure: Thomas following Masoli's dismissal from the team in 2010 and Mariota after Thomas eschewed his remaining eligibility to enter the NFL draft. 

Oregon's evolution isn't limited to quarterback play. 

Current head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost made use of a multifaceted backfield in their first season steering the ship, beyond turning Mariota loose.

Whereas a single ball-carrier dominated the position from 2009 through 2012, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have been used as something of a tag team, and last year De'Anthony Thomas also played a prominent role at running back. 

De'Anthony Thomas was a unique talent whose contributions to the Oregon offense cannot be easily replicated. More than likely, Helfrich and Co. won't try to reproduce what De'Anthony Thomas contributed with one player, but will find a role for a third regular running back.

Incoming freshman Royce Freeman is unlike the other Oregon running backs before him. At 5'11" and 215 pounds and likely still growing, Freeman has a power-back frame, which Helfrich and Frost can use in goal-line and short-yardage situations.  

Oregon used former tight end Colt Lyerla in those situations occasionally in 2012 and Tra Carson in 2011, but otherwise the powerful Freeman adds a new dimension to the already diverse ground attack. 

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

With Freeman supplementing the tandem of Marshall and Tyner, a dual-tight end look with Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown will have an offense known for spread and playing on the perimeter able to create mismatches with a style more reminiscent of a power-based team. 

But the presence of big, physical tight ends and a power back don't signify any kind of drastic philosophical change. Helfrich inherited a formula for success when he took over as head coach last year, and the former Kelly assistant found no reason to tamper with it. 

"As long as Chip was here, and as long as Mark is here, we're never gonna play afraid of what might happen," Frost told USA Today in October 2013. "That's been one of our hallmarks: playing with our foot to the gas all the time."

Rather, the Ducks are simply adding new wrinkles to stay ahead of trends—quintessential evolution. 

Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com

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