Oregon Football: Previewing 5 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
Perennial Pac-12 contender Oregon heads into the 2014 season with one of the conference's most veteran first strings. Only UCLA returns more starters than the Ducks.
Still, plenty of a positional competitions will play out when Oregon opens preseason camp in just a few weeks.
Roles crucial to the Ducks' pursuit of a Pac-12 championship and berth in the first College Football Playoff are up for grabs on both sides of the ball. Head coach Mark Helfrich and his staff face some important questions when filling out the depth chart this fall.
Competitors: Dominique Harrison, Troy Hill, Dior Mathis and Arrion Springs
Terrance Mitchell's early departure for the NFL draft leaves Oregon in need of a complement to All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Defensive backs coach John Neal has no shortage of talent on his unit, which should make for an intense competition.
Any one of the four of Dominique Harrison, Troy Hill, Dior Mathis and Arrion Springs could be a difference-maker, and all are likely to see significant playing time in the fall.
The junior college transfer Harrison enrolled in the winter and participated in spring practices, giving him a head start over fellow newcomer and 4-star prospect Arrion Springs.
Harrison's spring included an interception returned nearly the length of the field for a touchdown during one scrimmage.
Neither Harrison nor Springs has the experience of either Hill or Mathis, both of whom contributed last season. Hill played well in a reverse and multiple-defensive back formation role but was suspended in December.
Both Mathis and Hill have demonstrated big-play ability previously. Hill returned an interception for a touchdown in 2012, while Mathis had a 97-yard interception return against Virginia last season.
Competitors: Tyson Coleman and Torrodney Prevot
Much like the battle at cornerback, it's hard for coordinator Don Pellum's defense to go wrong, no matter who wins the starting outside linebacker job.
Tyson Coleman seemingly has the advantage given for two games last season, he actually beat out Boseko Lokombo for the starting nod. Lokombo is the departed Duck the two are vying to replace.
But an injury that sidelined Coleman for the Alamo Bowl also kept him out of spring workouts, while Torrodney Prevot shined.
"I’m more focused on the field, more confident out there," Prevot said in April, per GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley.
Prevot totaled 2.5 sacks a season ago in 11 appearances. Coleman had none, but he recorded seven more total tackles.
Competitors: Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner
When the Pac-12's top returning ball-carrier faces a challenge for his starting job, it's a pretty good indicator of just how strong a team is at running back.
Such is the scenario for Oregon at running back, where junior Byron Marshall returns from a 2013 campaign of 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. However, Marshall faces stiff competition for carries from rising sophomore Thomas Tyner.
Both will play prominent roles in the Ducks offense barring injury. Marshall has proven himself a valuable No. 1 back, while flashes of Tyner's potential suggest the sky is the limit for the local product.
Their preseason competition is likely more about how carries are divided and in what situations each back will appear.
The more heated competition should be among the reserves, like spring standout Kani Benoit and incoming freshman power back Royce Freeman. The departure of De'Anthony Thomas leaves a spot for a third ball-carrying option, and Benoit or Freeman could take on some of the considerable workload Thomas shouldered a season ago.
Competitors: Evan Baylis, Pharaoh Brown and Johnny Mundt
Colt Lyerla's early season dismissal and Pharaoh Brown's injury limited Oregon's use of the tight end in 2013. The absence of a reliable pass-catching target at the position was most evident in red-zone situations.
Brown returned in the final month of the regular season to strut his stuff, catching a pair of red-zone touchdown from quarterback Marcus Mariota. But a bowl-game suspension and an injury that kept him out of spring workouts leave Brown playing catch-up to Johnny Mundt.
The talented sophomore Mundt is a big-bodied tight end with the ability to block or act as a possession target equally well.
Both Brown and Mundt landed on the preseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. But don't count out Evan Baylis, who started the Ducks' Alamo Bowl win over Texas.
Competitors: Chance Allen, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington, B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford
The new-look Oregon wide receiver corps is perhaps the most intriguing and certainly the greatest unknown element to the Ducks offense. Every other offensive positional unit save tight end is a proven commodity.
Due to Josh Huff's departure for the NFL and Bralon Addison's knee injury, the wide receiver corps is banking on potential. Fortunately for the Ducks, there's plenty of it.
Senior Keanon Lowe is the only returner with substantial production to his credit in 2013, having made 18 receptions for 233 yards. Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, the redshirt freshmen who impressed Helfrich this spring, have zero combined catches at the college level.
The same is true of redshirt sophomore Austin Daich, who scored a touchdown in the spring game. Dwayne Stanford made 11 receptions in 2012 but missed the 2013 season with injury.
That leaves Chance Allen with five and B.J. Kelley with one as the only other Ducks receivers with catches a season ago. Kelley had another six catches in 2012.
Helfrich told Andrew Greif of The Oregonian that Kelley could be a difference-maker, so long as he addresses one particular area:
Consistency. He’s a guy with incredible natural ability from the speed standpoint but putting it all together … At times he looks great. The other day he had a big play at the end of the scrimmage to score a touchdown and five other ones that were either assignment errors or misalignments or busts or things that can’t happen. That consistency, count-on-me type of guy, if he could turn into that, it would be huge.
The coach's assessment of Kelley is something of a microcosm for the entire unit heading into the first practices for fall.