Can the Oregon Ducks win their fourth straight Pac-12 title in 2012?
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Oregon Ducks 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12
Spring practice: April 3-April 28
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 6
Passing: Bryan Bennett, 25-of-46, 369 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Kenjon Barner, 939 yards, 11 TD
Receiving: Josh Huff, 31 rec., 430 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: John Boyett, 108
Sacks: Dion Jordan, 7.5
Interceptions: Four tied with 2
Redshirts to watch: WR B.J. Kelley, WR Tacoi Sumler, QB Marcus Mariota, WR Devon Blackmon, DT Jared Ebert (JC), OL Andre Yruetagoyena, LB Tyson Coleman, TE Christian French, OL Tyler Johnstone
Sept. 1 Arkansas State
Sept. 8 Fresno State
Sept. 15 Tennessee Tech
Sept. 22 Arizona
Sept. 29 at Washington State
Oct. 6 Washington
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 18 at Arizana State
Oct. 27 Colorado
Nov. 3 at USC
Nov. 10 at Cal
Nov. 17 Stanford
Nov. 24 at Oregon State
Offensive Strength: Those with ball in hand. Josh Huff, Justin Hoffman and Colt Lyerla will offer talented options with the ball on the edge and down the seam, but the real fireworks will come from Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. Both have game changing ability and will be on the field at the same time. Needless to say, Chip Kelly has plenty of toys to play with on offense.
Offensive Weakness: The pass-catchers are relatively unproven and will need to be developed. The running backs lost a Doak Walker winner in LaMichael James. Quarterback Darron Thomas left school early. And two studs departed the offensive line. Yet, every position on this offensive two-deep has elite level skill and talent. This offense has no weaknesses, but if one area was a biggest "unknown" it would have to be the quarterback position.
Defensive Strength: All three layers of this defense are in similar shape: losing a couple of starters but return talented stars and loads of depth. The constant rotation of fresh bodies has given this unit loads of depth and talent. The defensive line, led by all-everything end Dion Jordan and all-league tackle Taylor Hart might be the strongest unit on the team. But Kelly's ability to build depth through playing time has worked incredibly well at this position (and others).
Defensive Weakness: There is really isn't a glaring area of weakness as there is depth and talent on every level. Linebacker loses two all-conference performers, the secondary lost first-teamer Eddie Pleaseant and the D-Line replaces a pair of productive ends. Yet, each level returns experience and upside to every position. Pinpointing any specific weakness on this unit is virtually impossible.
Spring Storylines Facing the Ducks:
1. Darron Thomas' announcement to go to the NFL might have been a shock to the masses — and possibly some NFL scouts — but wasn't to those inside the Ducks' program. As shocking as it sounds, the school's all-time leader in touchdowns was going to face pressure from a trio of talented passers: Sophomore Bryan Bennett, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and early enrollee Jake Rodrigues. Despite the rumors that Bennett and Mariota might actually be better than Thomas (gasp!), very few teams can simply replace someone who accounted for 6,334 yards of total offense and 71 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Bennett (6-3, 205) should have the early lead after showing well in a win over Arizona State and a start against Colorado (156 yards, 2 TD, 6 att., 69 yards rushing) as a freshman last season. Mariota was the star of the scout team a year ago and is extremely similar to Bennett in skillset, size (6-4, 205) and personality but has yet to play in a college game. Even true freshman Jake Rodrigues (6-3, 210) is already enrolled and working to learn Kelly's offense. All three are unquestioned athletic fits for the Ducks' spread attack, but all three also need development as passers and efficiency could be the determining factor in picking a starter.
2. Finding some big-play pass-catchers will be a focus of the spring workouts. Josh Huff and Justin Hoffman will likely be the starters most of the time — aka whenever De'Anthony Thomas is in the backfield. Rahsaan Vaughn also figures heavily into the mix as well. Certainly, losing Lavasier Tuinei and tight end David Paulson, who combined for 79 receptions and 16 touchowns a year ago, and any suspension doled out to Huff, will hurt the offense. However, Lyerla, Thomas and even Barner combined for 17 of their own touchdown receptions last year and should only get better this fall. And the list of potential big-play talents champing at the bit to get the ball is long and is the envy of most teams in the nation: Eric Dungy, Devon Blackmon, Keanon Lowe, Daryle Hawkins, Tacoi Sumler, Will Murphy, Curtis White and Brian Teague.
3. Replacing two starters along the offensive line will also be an area of focus this spring, especially considering left guard and veteran Carson York won't be practicing (knee). Departing all-league talent Mark Asper and Darrion Weems leave holes at key positions up front. That said, the Ducks have recruited well along the line and always seem to plug holes with relative ease. Jake Fisher saw plenty of action as a freshman last season and redshirts Andre Yruretagoyena and Tyler Johnstone have loads of raw talent. These three will push veterans Everett Benyard, Ryan Clanton and junior college transfer Kyle Long for the empty starting positions. The good news is Hroniss Grasu should only get better and become more of a leader at center while right tackle Nick Cody returns for his senior season. Like most spots on this roster, Oregon will miss some key pieces but has a glut of riches waiting in the wings.
4. Losing honorable mention All-Pac-12 end Terrell Turner and fellow starter Brandon Hanna, like the O-Line, shouldn't be too painful but needs to be addressed. Taylor Hart returns to the interior and Dion Jordan return to the outside, but Kelly rotates so many bodies that most of the "back-ups" have seen extensive playing time. Tony Washington, Isaac Remington, Rickey Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi will all continue to grow into bigger roles while early enrollee and super-stud recruit Arik Armstead gets his first taste of big-time college football this spring.
5. As the knit-picking continues with the Oregon defense, filling starting spots in the back seven left by first-team all-conference linebacker Josh Kaddu, honorable-mention performer DeWitt Stuckey and first-teamer Eddie Pleasant at the Rover position should be surprisingly easy. Michael Clay is a tackling machine while Kiko Alonso is finally beginning to take advantage of his obvious physical gifts. Alonso got better as 2011 went along, culminating in a Rose Bowl MVP performance against Wisconsin. Boseko Lokombo enters the starting lineup with tons of stat-stuffing playing time as well (33 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT). John Boyett, the only starter from the 2010 BCS title game still on the roster, is the unquestioned leader of the secondary from his free safety position. With Anthony Gildon (and Cliff Harris) gone for good from the corner spot, youngsters Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ikpre-Olomu should grow into potential play-makers after receiving a baptism by fire a season ago. Erick Dargan, Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson also got hefty playing time a year ago. Expect Patterson and Jackson to compete for the starting safety spot. The positive effect of over-using the depth chart (and recruiting really well) will never be more obvious than in Eugene this fall as replacing outstanding starters on all three levels appears to be no big deal whatsosever.
6. Possibly the only thing that could derail the Ducks fourth consectutive trip a BCS bowl — besides the USC Trojans — will be the potential off-the-field questions. This is a team that has dealt with multiple knucklehead blunders by players, a coaching flirtation with the NFL and one man named Willie Lyles. Transgressors Thomas, LaMichael James and Harris have moved on the program and Kelly seems to be committed to the Ducks longterm success (at least for 2012), however, the NCAA's investigation into the Lyles scandal could be hanging over the program for the forseeable future.
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
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College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
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