by Rob Moseley
The loss of standouts like receiver Josh Huff, cornerback Terrance Mitchell and starting safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson left Oregon will some significant holes to fill entering the 2014 offseason. When spring drills begin Tuesday, we'll start to get an idea of which returning players are poised to step into those jobs come fall.
Given that a full summer and all of preseason camp awaits, it's unlikely any of these position battles will be completely settled at the conclusion of the spring game, which will be played May 3 in Autzen Stadium at 11 a.m. But that doesn't need to keep us from discussing the candidates, and how things might flesh out.
Here, then, are five positions fans seem to be tracking closely in the transition from 2013 to 2014:
1. Wide receiver
All Huff did as a senior in 2013 was set a UO record with 1,140 receiving yards, plus 12 touchdowns on 62 receptions. He bought in completely to the physical blocking style Oregon demands of its wideouts, and his clutch catch to win the Civil War will be on highlight tapes for years to come. Now the Ducks need to identify his replacement in the starting lineup, alongside the top returning receiver, Bralon Addison, and the position group's heart and soul, senior Keanon Lowe.
Statistically, the top returning candidate is Chance Allen, a big body and Addison's childhood friend. But he had just five receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown last season, hardly a big enough body of work to make Allen the clear frontrunner. Also back is the speedy B.J. Kelley, who caught one pass for 13 yards in 2013.
The other veteran face is Dwayne Stanford, an impact guy as a true freshman in 2012 who sat out last season while rehabbing a knee injury. And there are newcomers to watch, too, in redshirt freshmen Darren Carrington and Devon Allen, and true freshman Jalen Brown, who enrolled in January. They may be younger, but they will feature just as prominently in the battle for playing time this spring and come fall.
2. Tight end
With all five starters back along the offensive line (assuming Tyler Johnstone recovers from his Alamo Bowl knee injury) plus the starting backfield returning, the other area besides receiver in flux offensively entering 2014 is tight end. The Ducks didn't graduate a starter, losing only Colt Lyerla from the depth chart at midseason, but the three returning veterans all had roller-coaster seasons in 2013.
Johnny Mundt charged out of the gate in Lyerla's absence, but faded a bit late in the year. Pharaoh Brown stepped up around midseason. And then Evan Baylis recovered from a fall camp injury and played well down the stretch. So, which guy will seize the starting job come fall, even given the likelihood all three will play significant snaps?
3. Offensive guard
There isn't technically a job open here, with starters Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt both back this season. Then again, coaches will tell you nothing is set in stone at this time of year (OK, Marcus Mariota, you're probably safe). The assumption here is, JC transfer Haniteli Lousi could make things interesting at the two guard spots, where he's said to be bringing the sort of physical, nasty style of play the Ducks need up front.
Combined with Mariota's knee injury, the loss of 2012 starting guards Kyle Long and Ryan Clanton contributed to the Ducks experiencing a significant drop-off in red-zone productivity last season. With another year of experience, both on the field and in the weight room, Stevens and Hunt figure to be much improved in 2014, making the Ducks a more formidable unit near the goal line.
But that doesn't mean Lousi won't challenge them for snaps, or at least provide even more incentive for the returners to keep improving. Lurking in the wings as well is redshirt freshman Jake Pisarcik, who nearly saw the field last season and figures to be a key rotation guy in 2014 — if he doesn't play an even more prominent role.
Several months ago, it figured Oregon would be moving on without a guy who started at corner as a junior in 2013. It's just that, the safe assumption was that guy would have been Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, projected by some as a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. Instead Ekpre-Olomu chose to stay in school and continue his development, while Mitchell opted to forego his final year of college and enter the draft.
As much as any of the others, this is a spot that doesn't figure to get much clarity in April. Based on experience, the frontrunner at the start is probably Dior Mathis, who really opened coaches' eyes with the way he finished the 2013 season. Another veteran on hand is Troy Hill, who missed the final two games of the year due to suspension.
Like receiver, though, there are also some intriguing new faces. Redshirt freshman Chris Seisay practiced with the travel squad rather than the scout team last fall, an indication of his readiness to step up. JC transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled in January, and looks well-suited to at least challenge for playing time as the nickelback, given his combination of cover skills and physical play. And the Ducks signed a couple of corners in February, too, though they won't arrive until this summer at the earliest.
Just as Mathis' experience should provide a leg up in the battle at cornerback, Erick Dargan's wealth of playing time over the past few seasons could pay dividends as the Ducks look to replace Jackson and Patterson.
Yes, Dargan was suspended the final two games of the 2013 season. But his effort with the scout team in December was so impressive that Mark Helfrich, in his postgame remarks to the team in the locker room, noted Dargan by name as a key to the Ducks' Alamo Bowl preparations. Dargan responded as well as could be hoped to his suspension, and seems poised to parlay that into a significant role in 2014.
If the Ducks want a physical option at the other safety spot, veteran Issac Dixon could provide it. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson is a ballhawking future star, and the future could be as soon as this season. Reggie Daniels also has been waiting in the wings while Jackson and Patterson held down the safety spots. Which one steps up and makes the best case for playing time in the fall?