The Oregon Ducks enter the 2014 season with expectations of a Pac-12 title and a trip to the first ever College Football Playoffs. They come into 2014 ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press and No. 4 by USA Today. This should come as no shock considering that the Ducks have Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota and playmakers at every position.
Around the country most pundits expect the Ducks to once again be one of the best offenses in college football. The Ducks finished second in the country in total offense in 2013, averaging 565 yards/game and third in points per game with 45.5. Despite the fact that the Ducks lost wide receiver Josh Huff and running back De’Anthony Thomas, the team should once again be one of the best in the nation with Mariota running the show.
More questions arise on the defensive side of the ball, where the Ducks have to replace six starters from their 2013 campaign. The Ducks have a new defensive coordinator in Don Pellum, who has been with the school for the past 21 seasons. While Oregon will miss former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who was the defensive leader since 1999, the defensive schemes will not change under Pellum. That means you can expect a 3-4 defense that shifts players in and out more similar to a hockey rotation than a football team.
The Ducks have three games this season against opponents who are ranked within the top 11, according to the Associated Press. Fortunately, two of those games will be played at Autzen Stadium (Michigan State and Stanford), while the other will come against seventh-ranked UCLA at the Rose Bowl in mid-October.
The question, as it always is for Oregon, is can it beat Stanford and can it win close games in November. The Ducks have been one of the best teams in the country for the better of the last decade but haven’t gotten to the top of the hill just yet. This season, with four teams competing in the College Football Playoff, may be Oregon’s best opportunity to win a title. Can it finally bring a title back to Autzen? That’s the question everybody in Eugene will be asking this year.
|Title||Name||Years On Team|
|Head Coach||Mark Helfrich||5|
|Offensive Coordinator||Scott Frost||5|
|Defensive Coordinator||Don Pellum||21|
|Offensive Line Coach||Steve Greatwood||27|
|Defensive Line Coach||Ron Aiken||1|
|Running Backs Coach||Gary Campbell||31|
|Linebackers Coach||Erik Chinander||0|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Matt Lubick||1|
|Secondary Coach||John Neal||11|
|Special Teams/Tight Ends Coach||Tom Osborne||13|
Mark Helfrich enters his second year as head coach of the Ducks. In his first season, Oregon went 11-2, which would have been an excellent first year for any head coach; however, at Oregon it was a bit of a disappointment. The loss to Stanford would have been acceptable if the Ducks had only lost that game and won the Pac-12 title.
However, the loss to Arizona, or the destruction at the hands of the Wildcats if you want to phrase it that way, was the killer for Helfrich and the program. That loss cost the Ducks a shot at the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl appearance. Some will say that the Ducks would have never lost that game under former head coach Chip Kelly. That’s fair considering the amount of success Kelly had with the Ducks.
While Helfrich is clearly a very competent head coach, there are concerns about his ability to motivate players, especially after a heart-wrenching loss like the one they suffered at Stanford. Year two will speak volumes about Helfrich as a leader and will give us a better idea of how long his tenure at Oregon will last. Chip Kelly delivered a trip to the national title game in his second season as head coach. Can Helfrich do the same? Those are the expectations for Helfrich and the Ducks in 2014.
The Ducks have an incredible tradition of retaining continuity across the coaching staff. When a coach leaves, like Chip Kelly did in 2012 or Nick Aliotti did in 2013, they're always replaced from within the ranks. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum enters his 22nd season with the Ducks, but this will be his first in charge of the entire defense. Don’t expect much to change on that side of the ball. Oregon is going to run a 3-4 defense that focuses on turnovers and creating pressure on the quarterback.
Because the Ducks offense operates at such speed, the Oregon defense usually spends more time on the field than any other program in college football. Pellum is going to use more players on defense than almost any other coach in the country, usually 20 or more during the course of a game.
While the name on the door may be different in Eugene, nothing is going to change schematically. It’s Pellum’s show now, but he’s going to be working within Aliotti’s scheme. It’s worked pretty well for the Ducks over the last decade.
The offense will be run by Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who led the Cornhuskers to a national title in 1997. Frost, entering his fifth season with the Ducks, is in his second year as offensive coordinator. Again, you shouldn’t expect anything different this season from the Ducks offense, just more speed.
The only newcomer to the staff this season is Erik Chinander, who will replace Pellum as the team's outside linebacker coach. Chinander, who was with the Ducks as an intern and graduate assistant from 2010-2012, spent last year as the assistant defensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Chinander, 34, will be focusing on the “drop-end” or “hybrid/rover” position the Ducks utilize, which will be manned by redshirt senior Tony Washington.
What to Watch for on Offense
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Marcus Mariota||Jeff Lockie||Taylor Alie|
|RB||Byron Marshall||Thomas Tyner||Royce Freeman|
|WR||Keanon Lowe||Devon Allen||Bralon Addison|
|WR||Darren Carrington||Chance Allen||B.J. Kelley|
|WR||Dwayne Stanford||Jalen Brown||Johnathan Lloyd|
|TE||Johnny Mundt||Pharaoh Brown||Evan Baylis|
|C||Hroniss Grasu||Doug Brenner||Brigham Stoehr|
|OG||Cameron Hunt||Jake Pisarcik||Tyrell Crosby|
|OG||Hamani Stevens||Haniteli Lousi||Jamal Prater|
|OT||Andre Yruretagoyena||Elijah George||Tyler Johnstone|
|OT||Jake Fisher||Evan Voeller||Matthew McFadden|
|K||Matt Wogan||Eric Solis||Hayden Crook|
|KR/PR||Keanon Lowe||Devon Allen||Chance Allen|
The Ducks offense begins and ends with Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota. Mariota is one of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in college football and will likely be a top-five pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In two seasons with the Ducks, Mariota has thrown for 63 touchdowns, run for 14 more and only thrown 10 interceptions along the way.
Mariota is also one of the most accurate QBs in the nation, having completed 65 percent of his throws over the past two seasons. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost told Daniel Uthman of USA Today that he would like to see Mariota to get even better this season in terms of completion percentage.
"I'd like to see him have an absurdly high completion percentage, because that's the kind of passer that he is," said Frost.
The only thing that can slow down Mariota is his health. While he has started every game for the Ducks over the past two seasons, he sprained his MCL against UCLA, which cost him his mobility for the rest of the season. The Ducks offense stalled without Mariota’s ability to scramble and throw on the run.
In the five games after Mariota’s injury, the Ducks produced four of their five worst offensive outputs of the season. If Mariota is going to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national title, then he’s going to have to stay healthy.
While Oregon has produced some solid quarterbacks since the “blur” offense was implemented in 2007, it’s the running backs who have benefited the most from Chip Kelly’s scheme. Since 2007, Oregon has produced running backs such as Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. This year's attack features a two-headed monster that may be the most dynamic in school history.
Oregon will start with Byron Marshall, who is powerful and quick at 5’10” and 205 pounds. In 2013 as the main ball-carrier, Marshall gained 6.2 yards per carry while totaling 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on 168 carries. Marshall’s “backup” will be sophomore Thomas Tyner, who may be Oregon’s most talented running back.
Last season as a backup to Marshall and Thomas, Tyner also gained 6.2 yards a carry while totaling 711 yards and nine touchdowns on 115 carries. Tyner caught 14 balls out of the backfield while Marshall caught 13. To say they’re both extremely talented, versatile and interchangeable, would be an understatement. Throw in freshman Royce Freeman, who we’ll talk about later, and you may have the best group of running backs in the entire nation.
While we likely know what the Ducks are going to get from their quarterback and running backs, the same cannot be said about their wide receivers. Gone are Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins and Thomas. Second-leading receiver Bralon Addison may be out for the year with an ACL injury, something we’ll discuss in a bit.
That means Oregon is without its top four receivers from the 2013 season. While some teams would suffer dramatically due to the lack of experience, Oregon is uniquely positioned to fill the holes due to the type of athletes it has on the roster.
Mariota will now rely on senior Keanon Lowe, who caught 18 passes last season, to lead the group of young wide receivers. Lowe will likely be Mariota’s main target, and at 5’9”, 186 pounds, he will see a lot of time as a slot receiver. Joining Lowe in the wide receiver corps will be sophomore Dwayne Stanford and freshmen Darren Carrington and Devon Allen.
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, likely causing his coaches to fear he'd turn to tack and field instead. 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. Beyond Stanford, Allen and Carrington, the Ducks will be using sophomore Chance Allen and junior B.J. Kelly.
Mariota will also be depending on tight ends Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown, who replace Colt Lyerla. Mundt and Brown aren’t nearly as talented or physically imposing as Lyerla was; however, together they may be more effective for the Ducks offense than Lyerla was. Expect both players to catch between 25-35 passes this season.
Lastly, we cannot mention the Oregon offense without talking about the offensive line. The Ducks were set to return all five starters from last year’s team; however, left tackle Tyler Johnstone re-tore his ACL in fall camp and will miss the entire 2014 season. While Johnstone’s loss will be felt across the line, his replacement, Andre Yruretagoyena, has been practicing with the first-team offense since spring camp. He’s more than ready to fill the role.
The rest of the projected starters are left guard Hamani Stevens (6’3”, 307 pounds), center Hroniss Grasu (6’3”, 297 pounds), right guard Cameron Hunt (6’4”, 285 pounds), and right tackle Jake Fisher (6’6”, 299 pounds). Grasu is the unquestioned leader of this group and is the most vocal leader, along with Mariota, that the Ducks offense has.
Overall, the Ducks have the potential, the playmakers and the quarterback to once again be the best offense in all of college football. If the wide receivers live up to their potential, and Mariota is healthy all season, the Ducks will score over 45 points per game and average more than 550 yards per game.
What to Watch for on Defense
|Positon||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DT||Arik Armstead||Jonathan Kenion|
|DT||Alex Balducci||Sam Kamp||Stetzon Bair|
|DE||DeForest Buckner||T.J. Daniel||Ryan McCandless|
|ROVER||Tony Washington||Christian French||Cody Carriger|
|MLB||Rodney Hardrick||Joe Walker||Danny Mattingly|
|WLB||Derrick Malone||Joe Walker||Danny Mattingly|
|SLB||Tyson Coleman||Torrodney Prevot|
|CB||Ifo Ekpre-Olomu||Troy Hill||Dominique Harrison|
|CB||Dior Mathis||Troy Hill||Stephen Amoako|
|FS||Erick Dargan||Issac Dixon||Juwaan Williams|
|SS||Reggie Daniels||Tyree Robinson||Eric Amoako|
|P||Matt Wogan||Ian Wheeler|
Oregon’s defense will be spending a lot of time on the field this season, as it does every season. In fact, in 2013 the Ducks defense spent 447.8 minutes on the field, more than any other team in college football. You can expect more of the same this year as the Ducks offense continues to push the tempo even further.
Due to the offense’s propensity to score quickly (and often), Oregon’s defense faces unique challenges that other defenses around the country don’t have to deal with. This is why the defense, under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, will continue to rotate players in and out of the lineup about as often as a hockey team shifts lines.
Under former coordinator Nick Aliotti, the Ducks defense routinely used as many as 20 players per game, if not more. The Ducks will not change that rotation schedule under Pellum, nor will they change from the 3-4 scheme that has worked relatively well for them in recent years.
While Oregon ranked a respectable 33rd in total yards allowed in 2013, the defense is actually much better than that when you account for how many more plays Oregon had to face than a normal college defense. In terms of yards per play, Oregon’s defense ranked seventh in college football by only allowing 4.6 yards/play.
The downside for the Ducks defense is that it only returns five starters from a year ago. The good news is that because of the rotation schedule Oregon employs defensively, the backups from last year have a significant amount of playing time already under their belts and should be ready to take over more full-time roles.
Oregon’s best defensive player is cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who likely would have been a first-round pick if he had left school and entered the 2014 draft. Ekpre-Olomu isn’t necessarily a “lock-down” corner, but he is a physical player who is solid against the pass and will come up and make tackles against the run. He will need to be the leader in the secondary this season due to the fact that the rest of the defensive backs will feature new starters.
The new starters in the secondary will be senior cornerback Dior Mathis, senior free safety Erick Dargan, while sophomore Reggie Daniels or redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson will man strong safety.
The Ducks strength comes up front where they feature one of the longest and most athletic defensive lines in the Pac-12. 6’8” defensive tackle Arik Armstead and 6’7” defensive end DeForest Buckner are agile, long and will be able to put pressure on every quarterback in the Pac-12 this season.
Throw in 6’4” defensive tackle Alex Balducci and rover/hybrid linebacker Tony Washington rushing the edge, and you have a group that should be able to take over games and impose their will on inferior offensive lines.
Lastly, the Ducks will run Washington alongside Rodney Hardrick, Derrick Malone and newcomer Tyson Coleman. Washington, Hardrick and Malone combined for 230 tackles last season and should form one of the strongest linebacking corps in the Pac-12.
Overall, the Ducks have a strong defense, but it has room form improvement. While there are six starters from last season to replace, the players coming in are more than qualified to fill the holes adequately. The Ducks should once again finish within the top 10 in the country in terms of yards-per-play allowed.
The only concern for the Ducks should be getting beat over the top against Pac-12 offenses, where nine of the other 11 teams in the conference feature returning starters at quarterback. If the defensive line does live up to its potential, then the inexperience in the secondary shouldn't be an issue.
|Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Bralon Addison||Torn ACL||November|
|Tyler Johnstone||Torn ACL||Out for Season|
The good news for the Ducks is that there have only been two causalities so far during spring and fall practices. The bad news is that the two injuries were catastrophic, and they happened to two of Oregon’s best and most reliable players.
The Ducks lost wide receiver Bralon Addison during the spring to an ACL tear. Addison, a junior, caught 61 catches for 890 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He figured to be Mariota’s favorite target this season.
While most expect Addison to miss a large portion of the season, at the least, Mariota isn’t so sure about that. According to an NFL.com report by Bryan Fischer, Mariota says that Addison is targeting the Michigan State game for a return to the lineup.
"He looks good," Mariota told Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. "I'm excited. Hopefully he gets ready for that second game."
For the record, a September 6 comeback for Addison would mean a five-month recovery from an ACL tear. Comparatively, Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back, took nine months to recover from a similar knee injury, which is considered the fastest comeback in professional sports history from an ACL tear.
The other big loss for the Ducks was that of left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who had started that past 26 games for the Ducks at that position. Johnstone re-tore the ACL in his right knee, an injury he originally suffered in the Alamo Bowl against Texas in December. Johnstone was a mainstay along Oregon’s offensive line, a line that was set to return all five starters from the 2013 squad.
In to replace Johnstone is Yruretagoyena, the 6'5" and 290-pound redshirt junior who has made 11 career appearances for Oregon. Yruretagoyena won’t be completely unfamiliar to the rest of the Ducks offense, as he has taken first-team reps during the spring and summer as Johnstone’s replacement.
While both injuries are certainly blows to Oregon’s offense, they won’t define how the offense operates or how successful it can be. Oregon has plenty of speedy and talented wide receivers ready to fill the hole left by Addison, and Yruretagoyena has the experience and the size necessary to fill Johnstone’s spot along the line.
As they say in Eugene it’s “next man up”.
The clear X-factor for the Ducks this season will be freshman running back Royce Freeman. 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 reason he’s going to be an X-factor for the Ducks this season is because no one really knows that much about him, other than he’s been an absolute stud in fall camp so far. The Ducks coaches, specifically running backs coach Gary Campbell, who has been with the Ducks for 31 years, have been raving about Freeman’s abilities all over the field, according to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian.
Campbell thinks so highly of Freeman that he told Alger that Freeman is already where Thomas Tyner was at the end of the 2013 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 extremely high praise from a coach who has seen Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas come through the program in recent years.
There’s no telling how much playing time Freeman is going to get this season, especially when he’s working behind Tyner and Marshall. However, Oregon usually figures out a way to get speed and talent onto the field, regardless of experience.
It would seem that Freeman will fill a role similar to De’Anthony Thomas’ during his freshman year in 2011. Look for Freeman to find a place as a returner, slot receiver and running back at different times during the course of the 2014 season.
|Aug. 30||South Dakota||Eugene, OR|
|Sept. 6||Michigan State||Eugene, OR|
|Sept. 13||Wyoming||Eugene, OR|
|Sept. 20||Washington State||Pullman, WA|
|Oct. 2||Arizona||Eugene, OR|
|Oct. 11||UCLA||Pasadena, CA|
|Oct. 18||Washington||Eugene, OR|
|Oct. 24||California||Santa Clara, CA|
|Nov. 1||Stanford||Eugene, OR|
|Nov. 8||Utah||Salt Lake City, UT|
|Nov. 22||Colorado||Eugene, OR|
|Nov. 29||Oregon State||Corvallis, OR|
|Dec. 5||Pac-12 Championship||Santa Clara, CA|
The Ducks first big game of the season will come against Michigan State on September 6 in Eugene. However, that’s not a make-or-break game for them. If Oregon loses to Michigan State and sweeps the Pac-12, that would make them 12-1 on the season and undefeated in Pac-12 play. That would likely be good enough to get into the College Football Playoff. While it’s a big game, it won’t make or break the Ducks 2014 campaign. Games against UCLA and Stanford will.
Oct. 11 at UCLA
The Ducks have won the last five games against the Bruins and have done it with ease. Last year in Eugene, UCLA played Oregon tight for the first half, 14-14, but the Ducks exploded in the second half to win 42-14. Don’t anticipate another blowout.
UCLA has two of the best players in the country in quarterback Brett Hundley and running back/linebacker Myles Jack. Jim Mora, UCLA’s head coach, is one of the best in the business as well. The Rose Bowl, during UCLA games, isn’t the most hostile territory, and the house will likely be filled with a sea of green, yellow, black, silver, white and whatever other color the Ducks decide to wear on October 11.
While the Ducks should have confidence in their ability to beat UCLA, they should not take this game lightly. UCLA is talented all over the board and comes into the season preseason ranked seventh in the country. The Ducks and Bruins could potentially meet three times this season (October 11, Pac-12 Title Game, College Football Playoffs). The Ducks need to make a statement in Pasadena. That statement should be that they’re still the class of the conference and that they’re here to win a championship in 2014.
Nov. 1 vs Stanford
This is the big one. Stanford has been Oregon’s kryptonite over the past two seasons. In 2012 and 2013 Stanford derailed Oregon’s chances of making it to the national title game. If Oregon would have taken down Stanford in Eugene in 2012 it would have gone undefeated and played Notre Dame in the BCS title game in Miami. That was probably Oregon’s best shot at a title, outside of 2010.
Last year the Ducks dug themselves a 26-0 hole before miraculously climbing out of it to make it a game late in the fourth quarter. However, they couldn’t muster enough to take down the Cardinal. Once again, Stanford had taken down the beast and kept it from a shot at the title.
In 2011 it was the Ducks who spoiled Stanford’s shot at the BCS title, taking down an undefeated Cardinal team in Palo Alto by the score of 53-30. Stanford and Oregon are single-handedly responsible to derailing each other’s national championship aspirations. Will 2014 be any different? Will either Stanford or Oregon finally get over the hump?
If Oregon has any shot at reaching the College Football Playoff, it's going to have to beat Stanford on November 1 in Eugene. There’s no way around it. If you were to look up the definition of “Make or Break Game” in a dictionary, it would simply say “Stanford vs. Oregon."
Can you expect new uniforms from the Oregon Ducks this season? That’s like asking Bill Gates if he has a lot of money. Of course you can expect new uniforms from the Ducks. In fact, you can expect new uniforms for every single game Oregon plays in this season.
We got a sniff of what the Ducks have planned attire-wise this season in the Alamo Bowl. The new design featured an updated shoulder “wing” pattern that the Ducks have utilized since 2010. The Ducks will continue wearing their winged helmets, which are mesmerizing.
Expect to see new variations every week. As always, the Ducks will awe us every week with their outfits.
The Ducks have all the ingredients a team needs in order to compete for a national championship. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, a great coaching staff, playmakers at all of the key positions and a good enough defense to keep them in games in which the offense stalls a bit. Of course, you could have said the same thing about the Ducks for each of the past four seasons.
The real key for the Ducks this season will be winning close games, something they’ve struggled with for the past couple of seasons. If Oregon can squeak out victories when it's not destroying opponents, then this team should win the Pac-12 North, the Pac-12 title and should be in the College Football Playoff come January.
So, you want a prediction? Oregon will go 12-1 this season, 8-1 in the Pac-12 conference and win the Pac-12 title game. For their efforts, they will be rewarded with a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff as the third seed.
Here’s another prediction: Marcus Mariota will win the Heisman Trophy, which would be a first for the University of Oregon. Hroniss Grasu will also win the Rimington Award as the top center in College Football.
As for how they’ll fair in the College Football Playoff, we’ll have to wait and see.
Follow Jason Gold on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.