Meet the New Oregon Ducks Starters for 2014
The Oregon Ducks will still look like the Oregon Ducks when they hit the bright green turf of Autzen Stadium in one of their neon uniform combinations on August 30th. They’re going to score a lot of points, they’re going to run the ball up and down the field and the defense is going to rotate more players than a hockey team doing 30-second line shifts.
While the Ducks were supposed to return nine starters to the second-ranked offense in the country from 2013, injuries to wide receiver Bralon Addison and left tackle Tyler Johnstone have decreased the number of returnees to seven. Fear not Duck fans, Oregon’s offense isn’t going to score less. There’s just likely to be some different names doing the scoring.
On defense, the Ducks only return five starters—defensive end Tony Washington, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, middle linebacker Rodney Hardrick, middle linebacker Derrick Malone and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. However, the Ducks, under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, use more defensive players than almost any team in the country. What that means is that the backups from last year have a lot of game experience and should be ready to take over.
Philadelphia Eagles coach, and former Oregon boss, Chip Kelly used to use the mantra “next man up” when discussing players having to fill holes on the roster. Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has taken his mentor's advice. It’s “next man up” in Eugene this year.
So who’s up next for the Ducks? It’s time to meet your new Oregon starters.
Running Back: Thomas Tyner (So.)
Yes, Byron Marshall is the incumbent and will be the Ducks starting RB this season; however, if you’ve watched Oregon over the years you’d know that the Ducks churn out running backs like Ben & Jerry’s turns out delicious ice cream. You’d also know that Oregon always features two or three running backs, and they’re usually pretty good.
Since Chip Kelly’s innovative “blur” offense came to Eugene in 2007, the Ducks have featured running backs such as Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. The tandems have included Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, Blount and James, James and Barner, James, Barner and Thomas, Barner and Thomas, and Thomas and Marshall. Now it’s time for Marshall and Tyner. If past results are the best indicator of future results, then there is likely something special brewing in 2014.
Last season, in a somewhat limited role as the third-string running back, Tyner rushed for 711 yards and nine TDs on only 115 rushing attempts. Imagine what this 5'11", 215-pound sophomore is going to do this season if he gets between 150-200 carries.
Tyner rushed for 6.2 yards per carry in 2013, a number that is in line with Oregon backs of the past. If Tyner rushes for 6.0 yards/carry this season on 200 attempts he’s going to gain 1,200 yards in 2014. Tyner also scored every 12.7 carries in 2013. If he keeps up that ratio this season he’d score just under 16 TDs this season.
1,200 yards and 16 TDs as the backup running back? That’s a pretty decent season.
The Wide Receivers
Dwayne Stanford (RS So.), Darren Carrington (RS Fr.), Devon Allen (RS Fr.)
Gone are the likes of Josh Huff (Eagles) and De’Anthony Thomas (Chiefs). Bralon Addison, Oregon’s breakout wide receiver last season, is out for a good portion of the year after tearing his ACL during spring practices. The Ducks have some concerns over their wide receiver core, but, as they say in Eugene, it’s “next man up”.
Senior Keanon Lowe will be Marcus Mariota’s main target; however, there are three other wideouts that figure to get major playing time this season. They’re all young and extremely gifted athletes, something we all know Oregon covets.
Sophomore Dwayne Stanford, and freshmen Darren Carrington and Devon Allen will be responsible for picking up the receptions left vacant by Huff, Thomas and Addison. Not to fear, because Stanford, Carrington and Allen are ready to accept the challenge.
Stanford, who is 6'5", is the only one with game experience, having caught 11 balls in 2012 as a true freshman before missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Allen, 6'0", is likely the fastest player on the Ducks roster. Allen won the 2014 USA Outdoor Track and Field Men’s 110M hurdles with a time of 13.16 seconds. Allen is so fast that the Oregon coaches probably feared they would lose him to track full time. He’s likely a future Olympian.
Lastly, there’s Carrington, 6'2", who also has track speed but figures to give Mariota a bigger target to find down field.
Left Tackle: Andre Yruretagoyena (RS Jr.)
This wasn’t supposed to be a position with a new starter this season. However, Andre Yruretagoyena is now filling the void left by incumbent Tyler Johnstone, who is likely out for the year with an ACL tear.
Yruretagoyena is a 6'5", 290-pound redshirt junior who has made 11 career appearances for Oregon. Johnstone had started 26 straight games for the Ducks at LT, meaning Yruretagoyena has some massive shoes to fill.
Oregon coaches seem confident in Yruretagoyena’s ability to fill the role, as does Mariota. Yruretagoyena saw most of the first-string snaps in spring ball while Johnstone recovered from his previous ACL tear, which he suffered in the Alamo Bowl in December against Texas.
Tight Ends: Johnny Mundt (So.) or Pharaoh Brown (Jr.)
The Ducks have a plethora of options at tight end; they just don’t have the top-end talent of Colt Lyerla anymore. Lyerla was a non-factor for the Ducks last season and left the program midway through the 2013 campaign, which opened the door for sophomore Johnny Mundt and junior Pharaoh Brown.
Duck fans will remember Mundt for his brilliant effort against Tennessee last year in Eugene, a game in which he caught five balls for 121 yards and two TDs. However, they’ll also remember he struggled to find his place in the offense following that performance. The 6'4" sophomore hasn’t separated himself from Brown or even third-string tight end sophomore Evan Baylis so far during fall camp.
Brown, who is 6'6", is the elder statesman of the position. Brown missed most of spring practice with an undisclosed knee injury, but according to tight ends coach Tom Osborne Brown is “the smartest of the group”.
The top-end talent may not be there for the Ducks at tight end this year, but the duo, or trio, may be greater than the sum of its parts. Mundt is a fantastic receiver. Brown is intelligent. Baylis may be the best blocker of the bunch. Put that all together and you may have something special. Especially with Mariota throwing the ball around.
Defensive Line: DE DeForest Buckner (Jr.), DT Alex Balducci (Jr.)
Both DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci have seen significant playing time for the Ducks during their two seasons in Eugene. This is due to Oregon’s preference to play as many as 20 or more defenders every game. Like we mentioned, Oregon’s defense plays more like a hockey team than a football team.
Bucker, who is 6'7" and 286 pounds, and Balducci, 6'4", 305 pounds, will team with Arik Armstead, 6'8", 296 pounds, to form one of the tallest and most athletic front lines in the entire country. The group has been turning heads in fall practice and will likely make the Pac-12 forget that Taylor Hart isn’t on the team anymore.
This tall and athletic line will be used in a 3-4 scheme, though that sometimes changes with incumbent Tony Washington playing a hybrid/rover role. Washington will either be dropping into coverage or rushing the edge.
Buckner is the true game-changing talent of the group and may end up being a little bit like Dion Jordan. That would be a good thing for the Ducks considering that Jordan was drafted third overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 NFL draft.
Linebacker: Tyson Coleman (Jr.)
The Ducks got 230 tackles last season from incumbent starters Tony Washington and MLBs Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone. Those three also represent the Ducks defensive leadership group, along with CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
The lone newcomer to the group this year is junior Tyson Coleman, who will be filling the role left by Boseko Lokombo. Coleman, 6'1", 240 pounds, missed the Alamo Bowl and spring practices with an injured knee but will start this season for the Ducks barring any setbacks.
While Coleman is set to begin the season as the starter, he will have competition from Torrodney Prevot, Danny Mattingly and Joe Walker. The Ducks rotate defenders at an incredibly high rate, so Prevot, Mattingly, Walker and hybrid LB Christian French are all likely to see significant playing time this season.
The Defensive Backs
CB Dior Mathis (RS Sr.), FS Erick Dargan (RS Sr.), SS Reggie Daniels (RS So.) or Tyree Robinson (RS Fr.)
Here’s what we know about Oregon’s defensive backs: They have one of, if not the, best cornerback in the country in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who potentially would have been a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft had he come out. We also know the Ducks lost three starters from last year's defensive backfield: CB Terrance Mitchell, free safety Avery Patterson and strong safety Brian Jackson. However, it’s not exactly like inexperienced guys are replacing them.
CB Dior Mathis and FS Erick Dargan are both redshirt seniors and have seen plenty of game action over the course of their careers, especially Dargan who played in 11 games for the Ducks last season.
The strong safety spot is up for grabs, and there’s no telling who is going to be starting by the time Michigan State comes to Eugene on September 6. The leader in the clubhouse right now is probably sophomore Reggie Daniels, but redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson is 6'4", compared to Daniels who is 6’1”, and is a freak athlete who position coach John Neal is bound to love.
Special Teams: P/PK/KO Matt Wogan (So.), KR/PR Keanon Lowe, Devon Allen
Gone is Alejandro Maldonado, who punted for the Ducks last season and was previously the team's place-kicker. Now all of the kicking duties rests on the shoulders of last year's kicker Matt Wogan. Wogan, a sophomore, was 7 of 9 on field goals last season and 42 of 44 on PATs. Kicker has always been a position that has left something to be desired for the Ducks. We’re not really sure what to expect from Wogan as a kicker or a punter this season.
As for the return game, the Ducks will miss the presence of De’Anthony Thomas, who was an otherworldly talent as a returner. However, the Ducks do not lack speed or explosiveness on their roster.
While there are currently six players in contention for the returning spots, WR Devon Allen, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, WR Keanon Lowe, WR Charles Nelson, WR Darren Carrington and former basketball player turned WR Johnathan Loyd, it is likely that Allen and Lowe will be the selections.
As we mentioned, Allen is a world-class track athlete with speed to burn. Lowe has the best hands of the bunch. While there will certainly be a drop-off from a talent like Thomas, the drop is likely to be smaller at Oregon than it would be at another school.
The Wild Card: Royce Freeman (Fr.)
Much like De’Anthony Thomas in the past, you never know where or when true freshman Royce Freeman is going to show up, but when he does you’re going to remember it.
Freeman, who rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior at Imperial High School (Calif.), figures to find himself playing on special teams this season; however, it would not be a surprise to see him play some running back this year, especially if Tyner or Marshall goes down due to injury.
The Oregon coaches are raving about Freeman’s abilities all over the field, according to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian.
Running backs coach Gary Campbell, who has been with Oregon for 31 years, told Alger that Freeman is already where Thomas Tyner was at the end of his freshman season:
He's at the point where Tyner was at the end of last year. He's fast. He's big and he's tough. A lot of times you get guys like him that come in and have great success in high school and they haven't really had to work at it and when they get into tough competition at the college level they shy away from it. He steps right up.”
That’s high praise. Don’t be shocked if you see Freeman in the starting lineup somewhere on the field sometime this season.
Follow Jason Gold on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.