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New head coach Mark Helfrich’s transition will be eased by the presence of two potential Heisman Trophy candidates in sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota and junior running back De’Anthony Thomas.
Mariota, who combines laid-back Hawaiian cool with textbook dual-threat abilities, set school records for completion percentage (68.5) and total touchdowns (38) in his first season as the starter.
Used as a complement to LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner the last two years, Thomas will get a shot as the primary back in 2013, though the Ducks will limit his carries to protect the 176-pound jitterbug. Sophomore Byron Marshall and 5-star recruit Thomas Tyner will also be involved in the running game.
There are enough veteran targets on hand in receivers Josh Huff, Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison, plus tight end Colt Lyerla, that speculation around Eugene is that the Ducks will throw more often this fall, after being predominantly a running team under Chip Kelly.
The offensive line features a trio of all-conference candidates in center Hroniss Grasu, left tackle Tyler Johnstone and right tackle Jake Fisher, but the guards will be relatively new faces. Senior Mana Greig started two games last fall before a knee injury ended his season, and junior Hamani Stevens is a big body who could provide the physical presence the Ducks need to prove they’re not just a finesse offense.
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The Ducks return six of their top seven defensive linemen and their entire two-deep in the defensive backfield, including All-America candidate Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at cornerback.
The question mark is at inside linebacker, where Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso have graduated, and juniors Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick sat out spring practices. Junior college transfer Joe Walker and converted outside linebacker Tyson Coleman could be factors there.
Oregon also needs to replace top NFL Draft pick Dion Jordan, but his shoulder injury late in 2012 provided a chance for backup Tony Washington to earn the confidence of his coaches and teammates. On the other side, the Ducks are waiting for senior Boseko Lokombo to blossom into a consistent impact player, after flashes of greatness the last three seasons.
Marcus Mariota, QB – Had 11 TDs and four INTs in his first five games, then 21 TDs and two picks in the final eight.
De’Anthony Thomas, RB – Ducks need to limit his exposure, and hope his explosiveness makes for quick drives without a lot of carries.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB – Turnover machine in 2012 could face less work in 2013 now that opponents have seen what he can do.
The Ducks could have two new kickers, with heralded freshman Matt Wogan set to challenge inconsistent placekicker Alejandro Maldonado, and Dylan Ausherman replacing punter Jackson Rice. Ausherman is a junior college transfer who redshirted last fall. Thomas is a threat in the return game — he scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the Fiesta Bowl — but he struggled with his decision-making as a punt returner last fall. Addison is a more sure-handed option on punt returns.
The Ducks enter their most intriguing season since Kelly took over in 2009, with the Helfrich era kicking off and the Ducks looking to regain their throne after failing to win a fourth consecutive conference championship in 2012. They “settled” for their second straight BCS bowl victory, over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, but the departure of Kelly to the NFL a few weeks later made 2013 a potentially historic transition year for the program.
The promotion of Helfrich was intended to maintain momentum, and he managed to keep the bulk of the coaching staff and the recruiting class together. But in six years with the Ducks, Kelly grew to become one of the most respected football minds in the country, and a hiccup or two in his absence wouldn’t be surprising, particularly against Stanford, the only team to beat Kelly twice in his four years as head coach.
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