Tuesday, July 27, 9:00 a.m. PDT
Leading up to spring practice, I posted a series of position-by-position previews for 2010. While not all has changed since then, it's time for a refresher heading into fall camp.
It’s fair to say that the 2009 Oregon football team exceeded expectations. Led by a first-year head coach and picked to finish third in the Pac-10, the youthful Ducks won the conference by a two-game margin and earned the school’s fifth Rose Bowl trip in 114 seasons.
This wasn’t a “Little Train That Could” story - the Ducks finished the decade with their fifth season of 10 or more wins and have been to 17 bowl games over the past 21 seasons – but the postseason visit to Pasadena came a year earlier than many people anticipated.
2010 has long been forecasted to be a potentially big year, just based on core personnel and the experience level of those players. Add in last year’s No. 11 finish and 17 returning starters and now the coming season’s expectations will likely be among the highest in school history. Meet them and the Ducks will have a special year. Exceed them and UO will reach a level never before attained in the state of Oregon.
The Ducks won’t have the benefit of seven home games as they did in 2009 and must face road tests against traditional top tier Pac-10 foes USC (Oct. 30), Cal (Nov. 13) and Oregon State (Dec. 4). They will, however, open the season at home (New Mexico, Sept. 4) and never play back-to-back away games the entire year.
Oregon’s lone non-conference road trip could serve as a barometer for the rest of the season as the Ducks travel to SEC country for a Week 2 date (Sept. 11) with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Volunteers ranked 22nd in total defense in ’09 and held eventual national champion Alabama without a touchdown in a narrow defeat.
After a home game against FCS side Portland State (Sept. 18), UO opens Pac-10 play at Arizona State (Sept. 25). Home contests against Stanford (Oct. 2), UCLA (Thursday, Oct. 21), Washington (Nov. 6) and Arizona (Friday, Nov. 26), and a road swing through the Palouse to play Washington State (Oct. 9) fill out the slate.
The Ducks will have the benefit of a bye in Week 7, prior to the ESPN Thursday Night Football matchup against the Bruins, and again in Week 12 ahead of a Friday night home tilt versus the Wildcats.
Not since 2005 has Oregon gone into a season with a clear-cut, senior starter at the quarterback position. Kellen Clemens was the man then, and Jeremiah Masoli was in line for that distinction this year before being dismissed from the team in June. But even with a potential Heisman Trophy candidate out of the picture, the Ducks are in better shape than they may be given credit.
While Masoli’s mere presence as Oregon’s signal-caller would have made the Ducks a Pac-10 contender in 2010, it’s the quality of overall depth at QB that still gives merit to that prediction.
Fifth-year senior Nate Costa, now two-years removed from winning UO’s starting job before a knee injury wiped out his 2008 season, will be rewarded for his determination and perseverance in overcoming three major surgeries with the chance to compete for the top spot once again. When healthy, as he was for all of 2009, Costa has proven to be clutch, leading the Ducks to a key Pac-10 road victory at UCLA in his lone start last year, while making pivotal special teams plays in wins at Washington and Arizona. If not for his miraculous hold on the game-tying PAT in Tucson, which earned him Pac-10 player of the week honors, Oregon would not have played in the Rose Bowl.
The one-time heir apparent to Dennis Dixon is the only UO quarterback to own a higher career completion percentage (65.8 to 63.9) than Dixon over the past six years.
Pushing Costa will be redshirt sophomore Darron Thomas, who tantalized Oregon fans with his outstanding debut as a true freshman against Boise State in 2008. Three and a half games into that season, Thomas, who former head coach Mike Bellotti had hoped to redshirt, possessed the only healthy body of UO’s five quarterbacks. All he did over the game’s final 15 minutes was throw for 210 yards and three scores, nearly leading Oregon back from a 24-point deficit.
Thomas was able to redshirt last year, honing his throwing motion and mechanics while gaining insight into Oregon’s offense. He also developed physically, becoming a member of UO’s strength and conditioning “Iron Club,” a group that included only 16 Ducks in 2009. Pound for pound, Thomas rated as the strongest quarterback and ninth strongest player overall based on a ratio of weight lifted to body weight.
Redshirt freshman Daryle Hawkins begins his second-year in the program. Hawkins, who played just three games at the position over his final two prep seasons due to injury, manned the scout team as a true frosh and was prepared to back up Costa at UCLA last season while Masoli was sidelined with an injury. He saw plenty of regular practice snaps in the spring.
Oregon will again have the services of Dustin Haines, another redshirt freshman who had scout team duty last season. Haines is a walk-on from South Eugene HS, where he was a two-time MVP for the Axemen.
Joining the QB fray this fall is Bryan Bennett, a four-star prep recruit from Encino, Calif. (Crespi). Considered one of the top 15 prep quarterbacks in the country by both major scouting services, Bennett’s high school resume details a player with a combination of remarkable athleticism and an accurate arm, as evidenced by his 64-percent completion ratio and 27 touchdown passes compared to only six interceptions.
Like the quarterback position, Oregon is not lacking for talent or depth at running back for the coming year. Of UO’s 2,213 net rushing yards by running backs, 1,979 – or 89.4 percent – were produced by players with remaining eligibility. And two of those players, LaMichael James (1.546 yards, 14 TD) and Kenjon Barner (366 yards, 6.0 ypc) are only sophomores.
James, the Pac-10’s offensive freshman of the year and focal point of the nation’s sixth-most prolific rushing attack in 2009, is on pace to shatter every meaningful running standard in Oregon football history. In an offense that will likely have more overall speed and playmakers than a year ago, it’s not unreasonable to expect even more big plays (he led the nation with 21 runs of 20-plus yards in ’09) from the likely All-America and Heisman Trophy candidate.
James must sit out the season opener against New Mexico due to suspension, but could still have 12 games to pile up yardage. Last season he only garnered two carries in the opener and totaled 78 yards through the first two games, but still managed to run for the second-most yards in a single season at Oregon.
Initially recruited as a defensive back, Barner quickly morphed back into the offensive player that led the state of California and ranked fourth nationally in rushing as a high school senior. Lost amid James breakout season was the fact that Barner ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in all-purpose yards (1,534). And while Masoli’s first-down run on 4th-and-3 late in the fourth quarter against Oregon State is widely regarded as the clinching moment of last year’s Civil War, it was actually Barner’s five-yard dash on 4th-and-2 with 1:43 left on the clock that salted away the victory. Look for his touches, limited somewhat due to being banged up at times last year, to increase in 2010.
Depth at the position comes in the form of Remene Alston Jr. - the only running back on the roster with more than 13 career appearances, having played in 19 games over his three seasons. Alston was Oregon’s fifth-leading rusher a year ago with 133 yards and two scores.
Perhaps the most anticipated storyline surrounding Oregon’s running backs will be how blue-chip recruits Lache Seastrunk (Temple, Texas/Temple) and Dontae Williams (Houston, Texas/Aldine) affect the depth chart when they suit up in the fall. Seastrunk, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit regardless of position following his junior prep season, is UO’s first five-star running back recruit since Jonathan Stewart in 2005, and it didn’t take Stewart long to work his way onto the field.
Williams, a prep All-American and four-star prospect, has a physical running style that could compliment James and Barner, leading to early playing time.
Considered a huge question mark and potential liability prior to the 2009 season, an offensive line that started out inexperienced, young and lacking in numbers finished as a battle-tested group that played a significant role in Oregon’s Rose Bowl run.
As a result, the projected 2010 O-line is already factoring into the Ducks’ lofty preseason rankings as the backbone of UO’s vaunted offense. The Pac-10’s leader in scoring and rushing offense will be expected to expand on those numbers as Oregon brings back all five starters and did not lose a single lineman to graduation.
Bo Thran (LT), Carson York (LG), Jordan Holmes (C), RG Mark Asper (RG) and C.E. Kaiser (RT) appeared in every game, accounting for 63 of a possible 65 starting assignments along the offensive line. They paved the way for a record-setting tailback (James) and were the conference’s second-best squad in protecting the quarterback, conceding an average of one sack per game.
Reserves Nick Cody and Darrion Weems may see increased time in the regular rotation going forward after logging the first substantial minutes of their careers in 2009. Still relatively young – Cody has three years of eligibility remaining, Weems two - both have starting experience and have demonstrated marked improvement every year they’ve been in the program.
Competition for playing time and the remaining spots on the travel squad figures to be fierce among several other returnees along with newcomers Ryan Clanton (Bakersfield, Calif./Bakersfield Christian), Hroniss Grasu (Encino, Calif./Crespi) and Nick Rowland (Peoria, Ariz./Centennial). Clanton, a four-star JC transfer from City College of San Francisco, should be ready to make an immediate impact after arriving on campus in January to go through spring practice and UO’s strength and conditioning program, but he does have a redshirt year available.
Other than quarterback, the only position on offense not fully stocked with returning starters is tight end, thanks to Ed Dickson’s ascendance to the NFL. Dickson, UO’s lone first-team all-conference selection from last year’s Pac-10 championship squad and one of only three Ducks to see the field for more than 1,000 plays in 2009 (Talmadge Jackson III and Casey Matthews were the others), won’t be easily replaced, but his absence is not reason for panic.
David Paulson, a five-time starter as a sophomore, should have the inside track going into fall camp. A strong blocker with arguably the best hands on the team, Paulson’s above-average speed at the position is often overlooked. He led the team with an average of 15.4 yards per reception a year ago and the Ducks scored on 11 of the 12 drives in which he made a catch.
Paulson and fellow veteran Malachi Lewis can expect to be pressed by a dynamic duo from the most recent recruiting class. Transfer Brandon Williams (Merrionette Park, Ill./Eisenhower) joined the squad in January after a stint at Joliet Junior College where he was a JC All-American. And speaking of All-Americans, five-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American Curtis White (Eugene, Ore./Sheldon) may be as physically ready to play as any true freshman in the Pac-10, making tight end one of the most intriguing position battles to watch heading into September.
During his press conference on signing day, head coach Chip Kelly quipped that while some athletes make an early jump from college to the pros, White, from a physical standpoint, could have left high school early for the FBS ranks.
Depth at tight end includes the versatile Sam Doman, who has also played quarterback and running back during his UO tenure, and a pair of redshirt freshmen in Clint Sager and Brian Teague, the team’s offensive scout team player of the year last season.
Several position groups have been bolstered from a season ago, but if there is one that became instantly better the second the final whistle was blown in the Rose Bowl it is wide receiver. A unit that began 2009 with a ton of question marks returns all three starters in D.J. Davis, Jeff Maehl and Lavasier Tuinei, and gets deeper and more talented overall.
The durability and effectiveness of UO’s top three wideouts allowed the Ducks to gain a full year of seasoning for other players expected to make contributions in 2010 and beyond.
Sophomore Justin Hoffman got a taste of playing time a year ago and emerged from spring practice as the likely No. 4 receiver thanks in large part to his tenacious blocking ability. Fellow sophomore Will Murphy and second-year freshmen Ben Butterfield and Garrett Davis also showed flashes in the spring, taking advantage of increased reps due to injuries at the position.
Redshirt freshmen Blake Cantu and Nick Cole will add to competition within the unit. Cantu, who was originally a member of the 2008 recruiting class, is a former high school All-American from Texas who should be primed and ready to go after delaying enrollment and redshirting in ’09.
Recruited as an athlete, there is a good chance that incoming freshman Josh Huff (Houston, Texas/Nimitz) finds himself under the tutulege of position coach Scott Frost. Huff, a member of the 2010 Junior National Team, ranked as the No. 7 all-purpose back in the nation by Rivals.com.
Local product Keanon Lowe (Portland, Ore./Jesuit), a U.S. Army All-American and standout prep track athlete, could also be a factor. Primarily a running back on offense, the true freshman-to-be did enough at receiver to earn first-team all-state honors at that position. The Oregon 6A defensive player of the year as a defensive back could also get an early look as a returner on special teams.
Eric Dungy (Tampa, Fla.), a receiver/defensive back for three-time state champion Plant HS will also join the mix.
As was the case heading into last season, Oregon’s depth and experience along the defensive line is not at an ideal level. But after the magic act position coach Jerry Azzinaro performed during his first year in Eugene, the Ducks have reason to believe that the veteran assistant will find a way to field and develop a formidable front line once again.
Down key starters to graduation in end Will Tukuafu and tackle Blake Ferras, the Ducks need players to emerge to claim those spots alongside returning starters Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe. Bair was extremely impressive during his first year playing defensive tackle, and both he and Rowe will look to build on a season where they earned all-Pac-10 honorable mention. Rowe will start his senior season fresh off being named the Rose Bowl defensive player of the game with his record-tying three-sack performance.
Thanks to a consistent rotation employed last season, veterans Zac Clark, Terrell Turner and Tyrell Irvin have plenty of snaps under their belts and received additional seasoning with the first unit during the spring. Clark is the leading candidate to replace Ferras inside and Turner will attempt to hold of converted tight end Dion Jordan, who enjoyed an often dominant spring, for Tukufu’s vacated spot.
Also joining the D-line following a position switch is former linebacker Brandon Hanna. Now a junior, Hanna has always shown promise but has yet to secure consistant playing time.
Junior college transfer Isaac Remington, an early enrollee this past winter, will have a head start on other newcomers as he became immersed in UO’s strength and conditioning program in early January and participated in spring ball. Originally offered by Oregon out of high school, he should be able to build a case for playing time with a strong fall camp.
Ricky Heimuli (Salt Lake City, Utah/Brighton)and Tony Washington (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Los Osos), both part of Oregon’s most recent prep signing class, arrived on campus in the summer ahead of fall camp. Heimuli, a 6-4, 290-pound tackle, was a consensus four-star recruit and considered a major signing at the position for the Ducks. If he can contribute early, the unit becomes very formidable.
A group of four redshirt freshmen will be looking for their first collegiate game action in 2010, including end Anthony Anderson, who was the team’s defensive scout team player of the year a season ago.
It could be argued that multiple position groups were snubbed when conference awards were handed out last season. After all, the Pac-10 champion and Rose Bowl participant garnered only one first team player (Ed Dickson) out of 27 possible awards.
But if there was one unit that had a bigger beef than most it was the linebackers. The good news is they will have an opportunity to make another impression in 2010 as position coach Don Pellum didn’t lose a single player to graduation.
Led by seniors Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews, there may not be a deeper or more experienced position on the team. Paysinger, the Ducks’ second-leading tackler, has started 19 straight games at weakside linebacker and his 25 career opening assignments are the most by any defensive player and second-most on the team (WR Jeff Maehl, 29).
Matthews, a second-team all-conference choice, has 20 consecutive starts at middle linebacker and was one of only three players to surpass 1,000 plays in 2009.
After Paysinger and Matthews, Oregon is confident enough in its depth that 11-game starter Eddie Pleasant was moved from strong side linebacker to safety. Junior Josh Kaddu and senior Bryson Littlejohn both have starting experience, and true sophomore Michael Clay, the team’s first-year player of the year last season, has performed like a savvy veteran from the minute he arrived in Eugene.
Junior Dewitt Stuckey, a one-time prized prep recruit as a weakside linebacker, still has a mark to make at Oregon. After giving up a potential redshirt midway through his freshman season because of injuries, he was injured himself during fall camp as a sophomore, limiting his chances of breaking into the regular rotation.
Boseko Lokombo was able to redshirt a year ago and his play in the spring was impressive enough to create a legitimate battle with Kaddu and Littlejohn for a starting role while allowing Pleasant to leave for the secondary.
Derrick Malone (Colton, Calif./Colton) was UO’s only prep recruit at linebacker, but he is also a potentioal candidate at safety.
A year ago, Oregon’s 2010 defensive backfield figured to be not so much of a concern as a question mark. With the pending graduaton of cornerback Walter Thurmond III and safety T.J. Ward, both NFL draft picks, who would take their spots?
The answer came a season early as injuries to the senior duo pushed John Boyett and Cliff Harris into prominent roles. Boyett ended the year as UO’s leading tackler and garnered freshman All-America honors at safety, and Harris came out of a potential redshirt in the sixth game of the year to lead the team in breakups with eight.
Returning starters Talmadge Jackson III at corner and Javes Lewis at rover/safety would appear to give the Ducks an incumbent starting foursome in the secondary, but improved veterans and an influx of talent will give position coach John Neal options when it comes time to settle on a backfield lineup.
Spring practice was expected to complicate matters - in a good way - and it didn’t disappoint. The stable of talent is a strength - a situation that no doubt played a role in Neal being named one of the Pac-10’s top recruiters by Rivals.com. Joining the returning group, which includes Eddie Pleasant, an 11-game starter at linebacker in 2009 who made a seamless switch to safety, veterans Scott Grady, Marvin Johnson and Anthony Gildon, and dynamic redshirt freshman Avery Patterson, to name few, will be at least four prized prep recruits.
Three of those players, four-star’s Dior Mathis (Detroit, Mich./Cass Tech) and Terrance Mitchell (Sacramento, Calif./Luther Burbank), and Prepstar Magazine All-American James Scales (Greensboro, N.C./Northern Guilford), went through spring drills with the Ducks with Mitchell distinguishing himself as a possible starter at corner.
Four-star safety Erick Dargan (Pittsburg, Calif./Pittsburg), arrived for summer term and will add to the mix come fall.