Oregon Football: 2014 Spring Practice Checklist for the Ducks
Year two of Mark Helfrich's tenure as Oregon head coach begins on the practice field next week. The Ducks once again open the offseason with high expectations.
Last season's 11-2 record marked the fifth consecutive season in which the Ducks won at least 10 games and the fourth straight year of 11 or more victories. But another thwarted effort to win the Pac-12 Conference title and an end to the program's four-year streak of BCS bowl appearances has Oregon facing some crucial question marks that need addressing before the kickoff of the 2014 campaign.
Oregon returns plenty of talented veterans but isn't without prominent roles to fill from departed playmakers. The Ducks are also without defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who manned that post for 15 seasons.
This is an important offseason for Oregon football, and a few particularly noteworthy points of emphasis during spring and into the summer will lay the foundation for yet another successful year in Eugene, Ore.
Establish Defensive Line Depth
New defensive coordinator Don Pellum will not deviate from the 3-4 base formation on which the Ducks defense has relied. Rather, in his introductory press conference in January, Pellum touted the benefits of the 3-4 with Oregon returning veteran linebackers but adjusting with an inexperienced defensive line, as GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley noted on Twitter.
Oregon loses three key defensive linemen in Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli. That is indeed a lot to replace up front. While talented DeForest Buckner is a star in the making, the unit as a whole faces some uncertainty.
Alex Balducci should take over at nose guard. He played in all 13 games in 2013 and stepped in for Keliikipi when he suffered a late-season injury.
The trio of Buckner, Balducci and Arik Armstead is the most veteran part of the defensive line. Sam Kamp played in 10 games last season and made nine tackles. After that, it's a very inexperienced bunch, which ups the ante on offseason practices. New linemen are going to have to develop into game-ready contributors in short order.
The need for some new blood to step up on the defensive front could become more pressing if Armstead moves to offense.
Find Arik Armstead's Spot
Among the more intriguing individual storylines heading into Oregon's spring practice is the future of former 5-star recruit Armstead.
Armstead left the Ducks basketball team to focus exclusively on football this winter. With his attention solely on the gridiron, Armstead can take long strides toward meeting his lofty potential this offseason. But a key to that goal is having Armstead on the right side of the ball.
Helfrich mentioned the possibility of Armstead working with offensive line coach Steve Greatwood to Andrew Greif of The Oregonian earlier this month. That lends credence to the suggestion some like NFL.com's Dan Greenspan have offered that a change of position might benefit the third-year player.
The sooner Oregon settles on a position for Armstead, the more he can work to master his role. That also gives Pellum a clearer picture of how the defensive line will be structured.
Improve Goal-Line Efficiency
One of the more telling statistical differences between Oregon's 2012 and 2013 offenses was a 14.6 percent drop in red-zone touchdown conversion rate and a more than 12 percent decrease overall.
The 2012 Ducks scored 59 touchdowns from inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The 2013 version reached the end zone from the red zone 10 fewer times despite one more opportunity. Indeed, Oregon left a surprising number of points on the field for the nation's No. 3 scoring offense.
The Ducks' red-zone inconsistencies were particularly noticeable in a 26-20 loss at Stanford, when they had a fumble and turnover on downs in the first two quarters, then suffered a second fumble just outside the red zone in the third quarter.
Some of what vexed Oregon against Stanford should be rectified in the coming offseason. The Ducks will have more experience and depth across the offensive line and red-zone playmakers in various skill positions.
A healthy Pharaoh Brown and talented Johnny Mundt will give quarterback Marcus Mariota options at tight end. Freshman power-back Royce Freeman does not arrive until summer, but spring practices are an opportunity for the Ducks offensive line to acclimate to goal-line blocking schemes in which the big freshman can run to paydirt.
Develop the Wide Receiving Corps
Wide receiver Bralon Addison is a tremendous talent and should have a big year, but Mariota needs more weapons to emerge with primary target Josh Huff gone.
Mariota and Huff were among the most prolific quarterback-receiver combinations in the country last season, connecting 62 times for 1,140 yards. Mariota also relied heavily on running back De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to enter the NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining.
Add Daryle Hawkins to the list of departing targets and the pass attack faces plenty of uncertainty. Keanon Lowe is the only returning wide receiver apart from Addison to have caught 10 or more passes in 2013.
Running backs Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall are capable pass-catchers, and tight ends Brown and Mundt should see more prominent roles. But Mariota will need more receivers to step up—a candidate whose progression should be tracked this spring is 4-star early enrolled signee Jalen Brown.
Along with 2013 4-star recruit Darren Carrington, Oregon could have a breakout youthful combination for the passing game.