Coming off a 10-win season and an exciting bowl win over a highly regarded Oklahoma State team, expectations are extremely high for Oregon football in 2009. However, though the Ducks return prominent skill players on both offense and defense there are plenty of questions about this team.
Rather than breaking down each position player by player as any number of other previews have, I’ll be giving my overall impressions of what I’ve been hearing this off season and my opinions on what to expect from the Ducks in all areas of the game for the 2009 season.
If it weren’t already named for his old boss, former head coach and now athletic director Mike Bellotti would probably have his name plastered on the field at Autzen Stadium by the time of the first home game.
Taking a team that had finally become relevant in its conference in 1994 to heights undreamed of before, Bellotti had only one losing season in 14 years at the helm and has more wins than any other coach in Oregon football history.
His handpicked successor is former offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. An offensive coach of the highest order, Kelly has overseen units that account for the two highest season rushing totals in school history. He also deserves a tremendous amount of credit for turning around Dennis Dixon’s career after he was benched at the end of the previous season and turning him into a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2007.
But success as a coordinator doesn’t necessarily translate to success as a head coach. It worked for Bellotti, but time will tell if Kelly has what it takes to be the head man. Most in question will be his ability to keep players motivated and his game management, as he has no experience as a head coach at any level.
If Oregon wants to get where the pundits think they can get this year they will have to win some close games, and the head coach’s decision making can be all the difference when it goes down to the wire.
The offense is loaded in the backfield with QB Jeremiah Masoli and RB LaGarrette Blount. The receivers have shown potential but are unproven or have histories of inconsistency. The biggest question is the young offensive line.
The players have some experience in games, but four of them are new starters and many of them are moving to new positions. There will be growing pains while this unit develops, but they need to stay few and far between if Oregon’s season is to be a success.
By the numbers the Duck’s defense was mediocre, and absolutely dreadful against the pass.
The argument has been made that the number of snaps the defense has to play and the fact that opposing teams are often playing from behind because of the high-octane spread option offense the team runs has some bearing on these numbers and that the defense is better than it appears. Oregon fans hope this is true as there are many holes to fill.
The secondary loses two key starters, but shutdown corner Walter Thurmond III is healthy again and should lock down one receiver per play. The linebackers may be one of the best groups Oregon has had in recent years. They will need to be to help out a defensive line that is inexperienced and low on bulk.
Up front the defense loses three senior starters, one sack master and a pair of big and technically sound defensive tackles. Their successors have no starting experience (though have played in mop up time). One of the new starting tackles is listed at 251 lb., and a starting end at 215 lb.
With veteran end Will Tukuafu returning the pass rush should be decent to great depending on how well quick “little” Kenny Rowe performs. Stopping power running games might prove to be a challenge though.
Oregon returns the placekicker who took over last year after Matt Evenson’s struggles, Morgan Flint. He will be pushed by highly regarded redshirt freshman Rob Beard, who will also probably handle kickoff duties. A highly touted true freshman takes over at punter as well, Jackson Rice.
Assuming these new arrivals live up to their billing Oregon should be OK on special teams with some talented kick at punt returners on the roster. But Oregon must also break in a new long snapper. I won’t mention his name (as I can’t find it online). If we still don’t know his name after the season is over, he’s done a great job.
For the Ducks to succeed, it is imperative the offensive line matures quickly and the running game continues to thrive. With a year of experience under his belt, Masoli and his inconsistent receivers should be able to put enough of a passing game together to keep opponents from keying on the run (as happened last year against Boise State and Cal).
Assuming the defense doesn’t take a step backward from last year (which is, unfortunately, possible) Oregon should be in the running for eight or nine wins.
The worst case scenario is the Ducks have growing pains on both lines of scrimmage and have to scrape together enough wins to make a bowl game.
The dream would be if Kelly becomes as good a head coach as he was a coordinator, the O-line matures rapidly, the D-line plays better than it looks on paper, Masoli and the receivers improve to make the offense two dimensional and the pass defense tightens up.
If all those pieces fall into place, the Ducks can look forward to double digit wins and being in the conference title race.
NEXT WEEK: Weekly game preview, “Onto the Turf of Smurf, Into the Mouth of Hell!”