Fall camp marks an official beginning of the A.M. era for Oregon football: After Marcus.
The absence of three-year starter and 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota looms over the opening of the reigning Pac-12 champion and national runner-up Ducks’ new season. But don’t expect too much of a regression from Oregon in 2015.
That advice might come too late for some pollsters, who tabbed the Ducks to win the Pac-12 North, but finish second overall behind USC.
“We tend not to focus too much on that,” said Oregon linebacker Rodney Hardrick. “At the end of the season, we’ll look up and see where we’re at.”
Where Oregon’s been at season’s end every year since 2008 is in double-digit-win territory. Since 2009, the season’s ended with the Ducks hauling in the conference championship four times. Fall camp begins, in earnest, their march for a fifth.
Oregon's Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Quarterback Battle
Jeff Lockie’s head start in the competition to replace Mariota gets an added three days. Lockie impressed head coach Mark Helfrich in Oregon’s spring practices, and he’ll be in the spotlight for the first three days of fall camp that Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams will miss, as he finishes his academic obligations.
Lockie’s jumpstart does not negate Adams’ edge in meaningful Pac-12 snaps, however. Adams may have played in the FCS the previous three years, but the graduate transfer torched Oregon State and Washington in 2013 and '14, giving him a significantly more accomplished resume against the conference than Lockie.
Fall camp may not definitively answer the lingering quarterback question.
2. Rebuilding the Offensive Line
In front of Mariota throughout his time in Eugene was another All-American, center Hroniss Grasu. Grasu is one of three starters from the 2014 Oregon offensive line whose eligibility lapsed. Combined with the retirement of tackle Andre Yruretagoyena this offseason, the Ducks will operate with a largely fresh front five heading into 2015.
Tyler Johnstone, an All-America-caliber talent at tackle, is working his way back from a knee injury. At 100 percent, he’s an excellent cornerstone for the offensive line. Still, replacing both Grasu and Jake Fisher is a tall order for offensive line coach Steve Greatwood.
3. Rebuilding the Secondary
From one regular Oregon strength facing uncertainty to another, the Ducks' secondary is typically one of the best in the conference. Last season was no exception with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu still locking down the conference’s wide receivers, and Troy Hill emerging as a star.
Both are gone, leaving the defensive backline in something of a state of flux. Oregon also is replacing Erick Dargan, the team’s leading tackler, and Dior Mathis, who was key in some of the team's multiple-defensive back sets.
Reggie Daniels had a breakthrough 2014 campaign and returns as the secondary’s foundation for the coming year. Fall camp will help determine who’s going to operate alongside him.
Highly touted 2014 recruit Arrion Springs should get an opportunity to slide into the starting rotation, along with Chris Seisay. Tyree Robinson and Juwaan Williams have high upside at safety, but heading into camp, upside is mostly what the Duck defense is banking on.
4. Continued Toughness in the Front Seven
The emphasis of the Oregon defense heading into last season – longtime assistant coach Don Pellum’s first at defensive coordinator – was on a more physical style in the front seven.
With DeForest Buckner leading the way, the Ducks made strides to that end, and that became a critical factor in Oregon reaching the championship round of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Oregon’s front seven loses Tony Washington and Arik Armstead, but is loaded with returning talent surrounding Buckner, now entering Year 2 of what Hardrick called a “shift in the culture.
“We improved a lot in the weight room,” Hardrick said, explaining the mantra. “Strain in the summer so in December, everything comes easy.”
5. Sorting Out the Kicking Competition
Oregon has the unique problem of having two proven kickers at its diposal. Aiden Schneider stepped in effectively enough for Matt Wogan last season while Wogan was injured to land on this year’s Lou Groza Award watch list.
The Ducks’ kicking competition might be as interesting as their quarterback battle. Given the success of Oregon’s special teams play in recent years, this competition might have equal relevance to the Ducks’ season.