The return of three likely early round NFL draft picks to Oregon for the 2014 campaign is reason for the Ducks to think a return to the Pac-12 pinnacle is possible.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu all put the professional ranks on hold for another year to finish what they started at Oregon.
The Ducks will again start the season ranked in the top 10 of every major poll, and they will again be favorites to compete for both the conference and national championships.
Central to Oregon's title chances is avoiding a late-season slip-up. Each of the last three years, the Ducks have dropped Pac-12 games in November. Last season's team lost twice in the final month as injuries tested the Ducks' depth.
Mariota and Grasu represent two factions within the explosive Oregon offense that feed off each other quite nicely. Mariota is the most celebrated of the Ducks' skill position players—a two-time All-Pac-12 honoree and 2014 Heisman Trophy contender.
Mariota's rare blend of pocket passing ability and explosiveness via the rush make him one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in college football. And defenses are unable to hedge their bets by focusing primarily on the dual-threat redshirt junior.
The Oregon backfield is overflowing with talent. Running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner are individually two of the best ball-carriers in the Pac-12. Marshall is tops among returning players in the conference with his 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games.
Tyner excelled in limited opportunities as a true freshman, racking up 711 yards and nine touchdowns. With De'Anthony Thomas gone for the NFL, expect Tyner to get a heftier workload—and Oregon to produce a pair of 1,000-yard running backs.
Setting the stage for them is the offensive line.
Grasu is the captain of this, a unit that is typically a strength at Oregon. The 2014 group may be one of the program's best yet, boasting experience and depth. Jake Fisher, Tyler Johnstone and Hamani Stevens all saw significant playing time alongside Grasu while sophomore Cameron Hunt jumped into the mix late in his debut campaign.
Matt Pierson and Andre Yruretagoyena competed for a first-string spot this spring while Johnstone rehabilitated a knee injury. Those repetitions will go a long way in helping the Ducks establish their offensive line depth.
Defensively, the secondary has long been the Ducks' most recognized facet. Ekpre-Olomu's return ensures little regression, even with three starters to replace. But this year, Oregon's linebackers are the decided strength on that side of the ball.
The linebacker unit features leading sacker Tony Washington and top overall tackler Derrick Malone. Tyson Coleman and Torrodney Prevot are jockeying to replace Boseko Lokombo in the starting rotation, and either could be a breakout performer in 2014.
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The most glaring weakness at Oregon in its losses last season was, quite simply, its weakness. Longtime Ducks assistant coach and first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum said bluntly upon being hired that Oregon had to "push more weight" along the line, per GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley.
Solidifying the defensive front was a primary concern heading into the offseason. Oregon is replacing starters Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi as well as key reserve Ricky Havili-Heimuli.
Returning tackle De'Forest Buckner is a solid anchor, but he'll need Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci to step up their production to avoid opposing offensive lines from keying in on him.
Depth was an issue for the Ducks defensive line a season ago, but reinforcements arrived in the form of junior college transfer Tua Talia. Talia and returning reserve Stetzon Bair both had impressive spring game performances—Bair finished with seven tackles and a sack while Talia's five tackles led his team.
There's plenty of potential along the Oregon defensive front, but turning that potential into production is paramount in the Ducks' championship pursuit.
Oregon football is typically good for a number of surprises each year, and 2014 will be no different. Marshall and Tyner can and will produce big numbers, but supplementing their efforts are incoming freshman Royce Freeman and redshirt freshman Kani Benoit.
Freeman's hardly a secret. The 4-star prospect was among the most highly recruited running backs in the 2014 signing class, and his 215-pound frame makes him a potentially invaluable asset on short yardage and goal-line situations.
But offensive coordinator Scott Frost's ability to plug Benoit into the lineup gives the Ducks added options in an already multidimensional attack. Benoit shined this offseason, capping the 15-workout slate off with a team-high 50 yards on 8.8 yards per carry in the spring game.
Benoit will give the Ducks yet another look for which opposing defensive coordinator must game-plan.
The secret on Devon Allen is probably out after his standout performance in the spring game. Allen caught touchdowns of 45 and 49 yards. His presence in the lineup alleviates some of the pressure of losing top returning receiver Bralon Addison.
Still, without Addison or 2013 leading receiver Josh Huff, the Ducks have almost 2,000 unaccounted-for receiving yards. Oregon needs more pass-catchers to step up—look no further than sophomore tight end Johnny Mundt.
Mundt's three receptions in the spring game were tied for most on his team, and the 20 additional pounds of muscle 247Sports' Matt Prehm reports he added in the winter should make him a tough matchup for opposing defenses.