Oregon Football: Top Performers from the Ducks' Spring Game
Using an intrasquad spring scrimmage as the measuring stick for a team's performance in the fall is an inexact science, to which Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich alluded Saturday, per Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard:
I think there were probably 37,000 people who left [Autzen Stadium] today going, 'I don't know' and they’re probably right. Overall, we got a lot better. Through 14 practices, I’m really pleased with where we are. Now it’s a matter of building on that and not maintaining during the summer.
There are some developments Helfrich and his staff can take from Saturday's game, which Team Mariasu—named for captains Marcus Mariota and Hroniss Grasu—won 27-7 over Team Twifo, named for Tony Washington and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Several Ducks made notable impacts on both sides of the ball, perhaps providing a sneak peek of what's ahead for Oregon's 2014 season.
WR Devon Allen
The Oregon offense is predicated on speed, and dual track athlete and wide receiver Devon Allen has speed to spare. He used some of the same burst that makes him a standout hurdler for the Ducks track team to create separation from defenders in the spring game, and finish with a day's best 94 yards receiving.
Allen also scored two touchdowns, the first of which came on a 45-yard bomb from Mariota. That play exemplified how well Allen can blend his speed with football instincts.
"We practice scramble drills and he was able to implement what we did in practice into the game," Mariota said via Will Rubin of 247Sports.com. "That’s huge to see out of someone as young as he is, just to see his head on a swivel."
Allen's other score came on a 49-yard strike from Jeff Lockie.
With two such long scoring plays, Allen just may be the deep-ball threat Mariota needs in 2014.
DL DeForest Buckner
DeForest Buckner's breakthrough in the 2013 season appears to be carrying over in 2014. And as an experienced veteran, the rebuilding Ducks defensive line will take cues from Buckner's play.
Based on his effort Saturday, Buckner is a solid cornerstone for the defensive front. He finished with a game-high 2.5 tackles for loss, recorded a sack, recovered one fumble and forced another.
Buckner's tenacity proved difficult for the Team Twifo offensive linemen to contain, and his length made him difficult to get around once he was in the backfield. Using its collective size as an advantage was one goal defensive line coach Ron Aiken told Andrew Greif of The Oregonian that he was setting for his unit this spring.
"We're working right now to automatically get separation," Aiken said. "That’s what we’re trying to do with long arms. We talk 'lockout and separate' because then you can get off a block and onto the ball."
Buckner's ability to do just that will set the tone for the entire defense.
LB Rodney Hardrick
Defensive coordinator Don Pellum will look to redshirt junior Rodney Hardrick as a leader for Oregon's deep and talented linebacker corps. Hardrick's showing Saturday suggest he's ready to step up as a leading run-stopper for the Ducks.
He finished with six tackles, including one for a loss, and made a terrific play on the ball in the first quarter to strip running back Kenny Bassett for a fumble.
Hardrick said via GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley that the defense approached the spring game as an opportunity to stand out.
We wanted to go out there and have fun, be aggressive and do everything we've been practicing. There was less pressure because it's the spring game, but guys really wanted the opportunity to show what we could do. We did good in some aspects, bad in others, but overall it was a good day.
QB Marcus Mariota
Get the Heisman Trophy campaign ready. Redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota looked every bit the contender for college football's most prestigious individual honor in the spring game, breaking off long gains on the ground and spreading the ball among teammates effectively in the pass game.
Mariota finished the day 6-of-7 for 100 yards and two touchdowns, including his 45-yard bomb thrown on the move to Allen.
"It was kind of a busted play. I just happened to run a back-side post and was wide open. He made a perfect pass. Pretty much it was like playing catch," Allen said via GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley.
That kind of free and easy connection between Mariota and an unproven yet talented receiving corps could equate to some restless nights for opposing defensive coordinators, especially if Mariota continues to run with the speed and confidence he demonstrated Saturday.
Mariota finished the afternoon with 23 yards on five carries, though the final tally would have been much higher in a live-game setting. Plays were whistled dead upon first contact to protect the quarterbacks.
S Tyree Robinson
Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson impressed enough throughout spring practices to earn first-string opportunities as the coaching staff auditioned potential replacements for departed safety Avery Patterson.
Robinson faces stiff competition for the starting safety role, but his performance Saturday showed he's ready for a regular spot in the defense's rotation. Robinson expressed as much to Steve Mims of The Register-Guard:
I got an interception, didn’t miss any tackles. The spring game was good for me, it gave me a chance to let the coaches see that I’m getting ready, that they can trust me out there as a freshman. I’m trying to prove to the coaches that I’m ready.
Robinson snagged one of two interceptions on the day, going low to snatch an errant pass by quarterback Taylor Alie.
He broke up another pass and, in general, showed off a knack for getting involved in plays in the secondary. Robinson ended the day with four tackles, including a highlight shot on former basketball player-turned-wide receiver Johnathan Loyd.
Robinson knocked Loyd near the sideline after a short reception. Such a hard-hitting safety on the back line will certainly have a place in the defensive lineup next season.
DL Tui Talia
Newcomer Tui Talia will bring sorely needed depth to the Oregon defensive line, if his spring game performance is any indication.
The 3-star junior college transfer made an impact in his first appearance before an Autzen Stadium crowd, recording a team-high five tackles for Team Mariasu.
Among his tackles was a well-read snuffing out of a trick play attempt, in which quarterback Jake Rodrigues handed the ball off to wide receiver Johnathan Loyd. Talia gobbled up Loyd in the backfield as the play was developing for a big loss.
Aiken told Matt Prehm of 247Sports.com that his unit needed new players to step up into prominent roles. Talia continuing to contribute into the fall is exactly what the line needs.
RB Thomas Tyner
Arguably the overall star of Saturday's proceedings, sophomore running back Thomas Tyner put on a dual-threat show.
Tyner finished with 58 yards rushing on 10 carries, both game highs. As impressive as Tyner's rushing output was how he ran Saturday. Talk of his straight-up running style persisted this offseason.
Helfrich told Tyson Alger of The Oregonian that when it comes to rushing with their shoulder pads up high, "guys learn that lesson the hard way."
Running backs coach Gary Campbell told Jonathan Hawthorne of the Daily Emerald he was seeing Tyner improve in that regard.
He understands. And one thing about it, the defense will teach you to get your pads down. I think he’s learned. He’s a big strong kid. He can take those kind of hits straight up. I’ve seen a big improvement on him lowering his pads.
Indeed, Tyner ran low in the spring game with a powerful burst as he found holes paved by the offensive line. His play of the game came when he delivered a powerful shot with his pads low to Dominique Harrison, knocking the first-year cornerback over to avoid the tackle.
Tyner also caught the game's first touchdown on a 22-yard pass from Mariota, after leaking out behind the entire Team Twifo secondary. That added element of his game sets the ceiling high for Tyner in his second year at Oregon.