The Oregon Ducks have their spring game scheduled for May 3, and it will be the first chance the nation gets to see if the Ducks have found a way to manufacture big pass plays for the 2014 season. Oregon has plenty of pieces pushing to make plays and the spring game will be another opportunity for the athletes to show stability and productivity in the passing game.
In 2013 the Ducks threw for 3,789 yards, up 900 from the previous year and the highest total for the program since the 1998 team, led by Akili Smith, threw for 3,856 yards. Mark Helfrich, thanks to the development of Marcus Mariota, is opening up this offense, and while running is still job one, a formidable passing game was a problem for opponents.
Gone from that 2013 push is Josh Huff, the team's leading receiver. Daryle Hawkins and De'Anthony Thomas are also gone, the team's third and fifth-leading receivers from a season ago. And, following a spring ACL injury, gone is the top returner, Bralon Addison.
With Addison's injury coming early in April, the Ducks have had time, behind the closed doors of spring practice, to at least push to remedy the problem. As Andrew Greif of The Oregonian told B/R's Adam Lefkoe, replacing Addison won't be easy because he was the most reliable, explosive weapon returning in Eugene.
Although Keanon Lowe is the most experienced returner, it is the other, younger players on the roster that will have to step up, into the void left by Addison's injury. Chance Allen, Devon Allen, BJ Kelley and Dwayne Stanford are the prime candidates in that regard. Devon Allen, a speedster who has been stellar for Oregon's track team, has the speed to be a problem for defenses, if he can put it all together.
Stanford, who missed 2013 with an injury, showed flashes in 2012, and at 6'5", he has a unique size that makes him a big target for Mariota. However, due to Oregon's shuttered practice sessions, Saturday's spring game will be the rare chance to see how Stanford's progressed, much like Chance Allen, another player expected to step up.
There have been reports of missed assignments, struggles in blocking and players trying to grow into roles in The Oregonian, all of which will be on display in the game broadcast on the Pac-12 Network. Newcomers Jalen Brown and Johnathan Loyd will also get a chance to show just how much they can contribute to the receiver cause.
Brown, a 4-star early enrollee, entered with plenty of accolades, and at 6'2", he also adds some height to the group. Loyd, who Ducks fans know from the basketball team, has been a bit of a surprise as an addition to the football team. The transition has not been easy, but Loyd does have a record as an accomplished football player while in high school in Las Vegas.
Finding a reliable threat from this group is a must if Oregon hopes to continue to advance its offense. While running will remain the focal point, being able to spread teams horizontally and vertically down the field proves beneficial to the run game and to the quarterback.
The Ducks are looking to push their way into a playoff spot and Marcus Mariota has a Heisman in his sights. Both goals will likely require a Pac-12 Championship, and that means beating out the likes of Stanford, UCLA and USC along the way.
Helfrich's team has made a push to get bigger, stronger and play more physical in the face of losing the Pac-12 North to Stanford for the last two seasons. Adding the dynamism of the expanded passing game is another feather the Ducks need in their cap for a successful campaign. On Saturday, the progress toward that goal, without Addison, will be on display.