Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has guided the Ducks to 24 wins over the last two seasons and a No. 2 finish after last year’s defeat to Ohio State in the national championship game. Helfrich has Oregon poised to win the Pac-12 North once again, but it won’t be easy replacing standout quarterback Marcus Mariota. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is expected to win the job, and the senior will be surrounded by a deep group of skill players.
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Previewing Oregon’s Offense for 2015
Oregon enters a new era after the loss of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, who led the FBS with a passer rating of 181.75 and averaged 9.01 yards per play of total offense. To replace him, the Ducks signed fifth-year transfer Vernon Adams — who led the FCS with a passing rating of 183.13 and averaged 9.0 yards per play of total offense. Adams wasn’t on hand for spring drills, however, giving a big head start to his primary challenger, returning junior Jeff Lockie. The bulk of Lockie’s experience came in mop-up duty the last two years. Coaches have expressed confidence in Lockie’s experience and decision-making, but Adams is far more proven as a playmaker.
As usual, there’s an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. Running back Royce Freeman is drawing Heisman buzz, after teaming with junior Thomas Tyner to rush for nearly 2,000 yards last season. The receiving corps, led by Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford, welcomes Bralon Addison back into the fold after a knee injury. But sophomores Devon Allen (ACL surgery) and Darren Carrington (suspension) are question marks entering the fall, as is tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a knee injury.
The offensive line needs to replace four-year starting center Hroniss Grasu; one candidate is former walk-on Matt Pierson, pressed into action last season and now considered a dependable veteran.
Previewing Oregon’s Defense for 2015
The Ducks got a big boost when defensive end DeForest Buckner opted to return for his senior season. He was easily the most disruptive player in the front seven last season, even more so than Arik Armstead, who left early for the NFL.
The linebackers hope to make this year’s defense more well- rounded up front. Senior inside backer Rodney Hardrick and Joe Walker need to find their way into the backfield more often, and outside backers Tyson Coleman and Christian French want to boost their sack totals. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum was criticized at times in 2014 for rushing as few as three players, and the Ducks intend to be more aggressive in 2015.
That said, they may have to protect a secondary that’s young at the cornerback spots. Sophomore Chris Seisay replaced the injured Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the postseason last year and held up well, but he’s far from a proven commodity. Sophomore Arrion Springs, true freshman Ugo Amadi and converted receiver Charles Nelson also will compete for time at corner, supported by two solid safeties in Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson.
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Previewing Oregon’s Specialists for 2015
The good news: Oregon returns both specialists, kicker Aidan Schneider and punter Ian Wheeler. The bad news: Both joined the Ducks as walk-ons and beat out scholarship players for reps. Schneider was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman, making 11-of-12 attempts, but Wheeler battled inconsistency. The return game will be bolstered by the return of Addison, who averaged 14.1 yards per punt return in 2013. All of last season’s top kick returners are back.
“It’s a new day in Oregon football,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost acknowledged during the first week of spring practice. The upcoming season will be one of major transition after the graduation of a group of seniors who led the program to four postseason victories, two in the Rose Bowl. In 2014, the Ducks debuted a number of future stars in the freshman class: Freeman, Allen, Carrington, offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby and defensive backs Seisay, Nelson and Robinson. How quickly they can reach their potential — and what kind of quarterback play the Ducks get from a couple of intriguing candidates — could determine whether Oregon’s run of success continues to 2015, or if this fall merely serves as a bridge to 2016.