Power Ranking Oregon's Positional Units for 2014

Kyle KensingContributor IJune 25, 2014

Power Ranking Oregon's Positional Units for 2014

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    An offense of unmatched versatility characterizes the 2014 Oregon Ducks. Not surprisingly, the perennial Pac-12 contenders feature some of the best offensive units in the nation, including a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback and a stout offensive line paving his way. 

    The defensive outlook is not as clear. There are plenty of changes in store for this year's squad, which loses half of its starters from the 2013 defense. 

    Nevertheless, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is working with strengths on both sides of the ball. His staff faces questions, as well. 

9. Special Teams

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    Top Players

    Matt Wogan could have a full plate before him in 2014. The Ducks placekicker in 2013 retains his old job, in which he connected on 7-of-9 field-goal attempts and 42-of-44 extra-point attempts. 

    But Wogan is a candidate to replace Alejandro Maldonado as Oregon's punter. Wogan averaged better than 41 yards per attempt in the spring game, while competing punter Ian Wheeler managed 14 yards on his one kick. 

     

    Question Marks

    De'Anthony Thomas and Bralon Addison could change the entire complexion of a game with one play on special teams. Their lightning speed and elusiveness in space made them the ideal returners, but Thomas is gone for the NFL and Addison is sidelined with a knee injury.

    Erick Dargan, Dior Mathis and Jalen Brown handled return duties in the spring game. Keanon Lowe could also have opportunities come fall.

    The bar is set high, as special teams plays have been integral in setting the table for Oregon's offense.  

     

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Special teams coordinator Tom Osborne certainly faces challenges in 2014. Losing Addison may impact his unit more so than it does the receiving corps—and that's saying quite a bit, given Addison was primed for a huge season as the primary target.

    And while Oregon does not often attempt field goals, Wogan can improve his accuracy. His one attempt in the spring game, a 43-yarder, went badly awry. As a loss to USC in 2011 proved, kicking matters—even for a team that attempts so few field goals as Oregon.

8. Defensive Line

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    Top Players

    DeForest Buckner was excellent in 2013. The defensive lineman used his length at 6'7" to harass opposing quarterbacks and his quickness off the line to shed would-be blockers.

    Buckner is the unquestionable leader of this unit in 2014, as he is likely to build off a season with 39 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.  

     

    Question Marks

    Line play was a major concern for Oregon down the stretch in 2013. Taylor Hart was outstanding and Buckner developed, but mounting injuries late in the season exposed depth issues that Stanford and Arizona exploited with power-run attacks. 

    Former 5-star recruit and defensive end Arik Armstead is still after his breakthrough season. The pressure is on him to effectively complement Buckner. 

    This unit's depth is uncertain. There are plenty of potential difference-makers, including junior college transfer Tui Talia. Stetzon Bair and Sam Kamp must also play prominent roles. 

     

    Why They're Ranked Here

    New defensive coordinator Don Pellum has made no bones about Oregon's need to toughen up in the trenches. The Ducks' losses in recent years have routinely come against opponents able to control the line of scrimmage and pound the football effectively via the rush.

    With opponents Michigan State and rival Stanford on the docket, Oregon's defensive line needs an answer for this style of play.  

7. Tight Ends

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    Top Players

    The unexpected loss of Colt Lyerla early last season greatly diminished Oregon's use of the tight end position. Coupled with an injury that sidelined Pharaoh Brown for the first half of 2013, a major weapon in the Ducks offense was rendered spotty at best. 

    Look for the tight ends to bounce back in a big way. 

    Brown's 6'6" frame will prove useful in red-zone situations, but the breakout star could be Johnny Mundt. Mundt was a favored target of quarterback Marcus Mariota in the spring game, tying for the team lead with three receptions. 

     

    Question Marks

    Certainly the potential for Oregon's tight ends to have a huge season is there. Brown and Mundt have two of the highest ceilings of any Ducks. Evan Baylis provides a third option.   

    Much like the wide receiving corps, the question facing the Oregon tight ends isn't so much if they have the ability to produce. 

     

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Great pass-catching tight ends have come through Oregon in recent years: from Ed Dickson, to David Paulson, to Lyerla. Brown or Mundt can be the next one, but both must consistently step up.

    The Ducks need a full season from Brown, who missed the spring due to injury. Mundt can build on flashes of brilliance from his freshman campaign.

6. Wide Receivers

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    Top Players

    With top returning receiver Bralon Addison likely lost for the year with a knee injury, the Ducks passing game will rely heavily on mostly unproven commodities. 

    But unproven only means a chance for new talent to shine. 

    When he wasn't winning on the track as a hurdler, redshirt freshman Devon Allen was wowing with his performance in spring football practices. Allen stole the show in the spring game with two long receptions for touchdowns, something likely to become a trend in his Oregon career.

    His ability to blend the breakaway speed Allen shows off on the track, combined with natural football instincts, gives the youngster a star quality. But it's his demeanor Helfrich praised to Andrew Greif of The Oregonian

    That guy has a ton of potential obviously in both sports and he ramped up his game in spring football and toned up a little bit. He's such a competitor and hates doing things incorrectly. He's got a big future ahead of him.   

    Helfrich also spoke highly of redshirt freshman Darren Carrington this spring. The coach said on the May 1 coaches teleconference call that Carrington was meeting his potential as a 4-star recruit, via Pac-12.com

     

    Question Marks

    The potential is there, but turning it into production is of the highest priority for the Oregon offense. Josh Huff and Addison gave Mariota a dynamic combination with which to operate. Replicating their combined production is a tall order that will likely require more than just two players stepping up.  

    Redshirt senior Keanon Lowe is the most experienced returner and has the most production to his credit. Dwayne Stanford has size and could be a valuable possession receiver. 

     

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Whether former head coach Chip Kelly or Helfrich, Oregon has arguably recruited more effectively at wide receiver than any other position. The abundance of untapped potential within this unit is an exciting prospect for 2014, particularly when paired with the ever-improving Mariota.

5. Secondary

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    Top Players

    If a unit is only going to return one starter, a former All-American is the player to have back. 

    Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's surprising decision to play one more season at Oregon means Pellum and secondary coach John Neal are not building the unit completely from scratch. Instead, the Ducks defensive backs can lean on a solid foundation while restructuring. 

    Ekpre-Olomu intercepted four passes in 2012. The only Duck with more that season was Erick Dargan, a leading candidate to fill one of the three vacant spots in the starting secondary. 

    With Dargan at one safety spot, look for redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson to have an impact at the other. Robinson garnered high praise from Helfrich during offseason workouts, and he validated the coach's kudos with an interception in the spring game. 

     

    Question Marks

    The trio of cornerback Terrance Mitchell and safeties Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson is not easily replaced. Mitchell led the Ducks with five interceptions a season ago, while Patterson snagged three. 

    Patterson and Jackson were also two of Oregon's top five tacklers, with 80 and 71, respectively. 

    Indeed, the bar is set high for the new starters. But while Oregon is welcoming newcomers into the first string, the secondary is not lacking for experience. 

    Cornerbacks Troy Hill and Dior Mathis, as well as the safety Dargan, all have extensive experience in reserve and multiple defensive back formations, easing the unit's overall transition. 

     

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Oregon's potent offense has long fed off the ability of its defense to generate turnovers. A greedy secondary is key to garnering the takeaways vital to the Ducks' suffocating style.  

    Dargan could be in for a monster season feeding off Ekpre-Olomu, and Robinson's versatility will benefit the Ducks both against the run and pass.  

4. Offensive Line

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    Top Players

    Hroniss Grasu's decision to hold off on the NFL draft for one more year immediately established the 2014 Oregon offensive line as one of the best in the Pac-12. 

    The senior center is the anchor of a five-man returning corps of starters. Around him are senior Hamani Stevens and sophomore Cameron Hunt at the guard spots. Hunt joined the starting line late in the season. 

    Jake Fisher mans right tackle, while Tyler Johnstone is recuperating from a knee injury with eyes on returning at left tackle. Johnstone went down in the Alamo Bowl win, but he should be back in time for the start of the season. 

    CBSSports.com NFL draft analyst Rob Rang loves Johnstone's breakout potential: 

    Johnstone's frame and athleticism is befitting more of a tight end rather than a traditional offensive tackle but don't think for a moment that it keeps him from being successful. Johnstone, in fact, may be the most underrated element of Oregon's success the past two seasons, as he's emerged as one of the country's most reliable blockers on the perimeter.

     

    Question Marks

    While Oregon's starting five is rife with experience, depth is a question mark. Matt Pierson and Andre Yruretagoyena saw heightened repetitions in the spring with Johnstone sidelined, and transfer Haniteli Lousi was 247Sports' top-rated guard prospect from the junior college ranks. 

    All three must provide the necessary depth to keep the Ducks offense clicking. 


    Why They're Ranked Here

    The offensive line provides the fuel for Oregon's offensive motor. This year's group has the potential to be among the best the Ducks have seen since former head coach Chip Kelly introduced the hurry-up spread offense. 

    Grasu and Johnstone are the ideal cornerstones, and their fellow starters complement them well. Should the reserves get up to speed, opposing defenses will have even more difficulty slowing the Ducks.

3. Linebackers

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    Top Players

    Oregon's linebacker corps boasts proven strength both at stopping the run and applying pressure in the backfield. Returning starters Derrick Malone and Tony Washington led the Ducks in tackles and sacks last season, respectively.  

    The duo powers a formidable group that boasts as much depth as it does experience. 

    Joining Washington and Malone from the 2013 starting rotation is Rodney Hardrick, another leading tackler from a season ago. The group loses nothing when turning to reserves Joe Walker and Rahim Cassell, who combined for 69 tackles in 2013.  

     

    Question Marks

    Although there are not many question marks with this unit, the most glaring this offseason lingers at strong-side linebacker. Boseko Lokombo was integral to the Oregon pass rush a season ago.

    He's gone, leaving either Tyson Coleman or Torrodney Prevot (or a combination of the two) to fill his vacancy. Coleman and Prevot are talented, and either should transition smoothly to solidify the starting group. 


    Why They're Ranked Here

    The entire Oregon defense should feed off the performance of its linebackers. Former coordinator Nick Aliotti's hybrid version of the 3-4 base defense allowed and required linebackers to play with flexibility. 

    Pellum will adhere to the core elements of this defensive principle, in which versatility is a necessity. This year's unit has versatility to spare. 

2. Quarterbacks

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    Top Players

    The label "top players" describes redshirt junior Marcus Mariota not just as the leader of Oregon's offense, or as a two-time All-Pac-12 honoree.

    Mariota is in the conversation for top player in all of college football, embarking on the 2014 campaign with some of the gaudiest dual-threat numbers ever compiled and still more to be added. 

    ESPN.com's Phil Steele tabs Mariota as the Heisman Trophy front-runner, via the Detroit Free Press: 

    [In 2013], Mariota became the first Oregon quarterback to top 4,000 yards of total offense (4,380) while accounting for 40 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. He accomplished this despite wearing a knee brace for much of the second half of the season, which limited his mobility. With added rest for the bowl game against Texas, he ran for a season-high 133 yards.


    Question Marks

    Jeff Lockie is just about guaranteed the backup spot after both Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs transferred this spring. Lockie and Rodrigues shared mop-up duties in 2013, combining for all of 19 pass attempts and one touchdown. 

    Of course, Mariota had zero collegiate experience when he took over. But Oregon is thin, not only on experience behind him, but also numbers. The two transfers mean either walk-on Taylor Alie or newcomer Morgan Mahalak is the No. 3 option. 


    Why They're Ranked Here

    Checking in at No. 2 is no slight on Mariota, arguably the leading contender for the 2014 Heisman. The Ducks face uncertainty should Mariota go down with injury. Mahalak is a promising recruit and Lockie has familiarity with the offense, though ultimately that's more of a concern for 2015.  

1. Running Backs

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    Top Players

    The Oregon backfield packs a potent one-two punch in the form of running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Marshall extended Oregon's streak of seasons with at least one 1,000-yard back to seven, accumulating 1,038 despite a late-season injury.

    With Marshall back at full strength and Tyner coming off an impressive spring, look for the duo to become Oregon's first running back tandem to each post 1,000-plus yards since Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount accomplished the feat in 2008.   

     

    Question Marks

    The greatest uncertainty as far as the Oregon running backs are concerned is how carries will be divided.

    Marshall averaged 19.4 carries per game before suffering an injury at Arizona on Nov. 23. His workload was more substantial once conference play began and competition was stiffer. Tyner made an impact from the outset of his career, scoring at least one rushing touchdown in each of his first four games. 

    He proved effective as the feature back with Marshall sidelined, and he is too valuable in that role to not see a greater share of the carries in 2014. And, with change-of-pace option De'Anthony Thomas gone, there are more touches to be split.

    Some of the 96 carries Thomas accounted for in 2013 could go to rising redshirt freshman Kani Benoit. Incoming freshman Royce Freeman is also expected to get some looks. 


    Why They're Ranked Here

    Oregon has the deepest and most diverse group of running backs in college football. There are a rare few teams that can match the Ducks, such as Alabama, but no team boasts more talent or options in its backfield.  

     

    Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com. Spring game stats via GoDucks.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores.