The Oregon Ducks are going into the 2009 season with lofty expectations. Prestigious sports sources such as Athlon Sports and ESPN have included the Ducks in their preseason top 15.
At first glance, these expectations seem well placed, as they return Jeremiah Masoli and LeGarrette Blount.
Masoli is built like a linebacker. He runs hard and developed as a passer as the season wore on. Masoli accounted for more than 1,000 yards in the Ducks' last three games of 2008.
As a junior, Blount ran for a Pac-10-best 17 touchdowns. Blount is regarded as one of the top running back prospects in the upcoming NFL draft and hopes to use this season as a springboard to a first round selection.
The Ducks also return a few key pieces on defense. Walter Thurmond is a terrific corner and will provide senior leadership to a relatively young secondary.
Safety T.J. Ward and linebacker Spencer Paysinger, the Ducks' two leading tacklers, also return.
But with the exception of the players mentioned above, tight end Ed Dickson, and defensive end Will Tukuafu, the Ducks lack experience and proven players.
The Ducks lost a few key players who transferred this offseason, including backup quarterback Justin Roper (who is actually quite important because the Ducks' quarterbacks have been hit hard by the injury bug), emerging receiver/quarterback Chris Harper, and receiver Aaron Pflugrad, who also was in the mix for minutes.
The losses of Pflugrad and Harper leave Dickson and Jeff Maehl as the only proven receiving options for the Ducks.
The Ducks always recruit well and should have a handful of talented players who can fill the void, including Jamere Holland. Holland is a junior who is regarded as the Ducks' top downfield threat.
The seeds of success are there, but will the new receivers mature and adapt to the college game?
The Ducks' offensive line only returns two starters. The Ducks' losses include center Max Unger, who was one of the nation's best at his position. Again, the Ducks recruit well and have traditionally had a strong line, but replacing starters who had a wealth of experience is never easy.
Thanks to Masoli, Blount, and the unique offense (one of two Pac-10 teams that run the spread), the Ducks' offense should find success in 2009, but Masoli and his receivers will have to make plays through the air. If the Ducks' offense becomes one-dimensional, they will not struggle, but they will find it hard to win games.
In 2008, the Ducks set school records for total offense and points. In 2009, they will score but won’t come close to the 41.9 points per game they averaged last season.
In 2008, the Ducks had the Pac-10’s second-best rush defense. This was partly due to the sack master Nick Reed (for those of you who don’t know, sacks count against your rushing yardage) and partly because the opponents would be passing at will.
The Ducks' secondary was talented and even had two players picked in the NFL Draft’s second round, but the team surrendered many yards through the air and ranked as the Pac-10’s worst pass defense.
In total defense, the Ducks were eighth.
Now, the Ducks only return one member of their line and only three members out of their front seven.
At best, the Ducks' defense is considered decent. But hey, usually when you return only five starters to a defense that gave up nearly 30 points per game last season, success is minimal.
Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore must be licking his lips right now.
I’m sure Duck fans reading this will be quick to point out that, due to their explosive offense, teams had the ball more often and were forced to score points, as the Ducks usually opened up big leads.
In response to Duck fans: Boise State, Utah, California, Oregon State (assuming Jacquizz Rodgers will be healthy this time they play), and USC all can establish a run game that will keep your defense on the field for many minutes at a time.
These teams won’t have to play catch-up because they can run the football. Also, their defenses should—key word should—be able to reduce your big-play ability.
Besides the offensive and defensive questions, the third issue the Ducks have is how well new coach Chip Kelly will fare. Kelly is new to head coaching—this experiment could turn out smoothly or end up being the Ducks' biggest hurdle if Kelly and his players don’t see eye to eye.
Duck fans, don’t get me wrong—I believe Oregon is a bowl-caliber team that will finish in the Pac-10’s top half. But I’m not sure if a top-15 preseason ranking and goal of a national championship are reasonable.
If these are your goals, then be prepared for the Ducks to disappoint in 2009.