by Rob Moseley
Among fans, the most excitement at this point in the season is generated by two classes of players: returning stars, and intriguing newcomers.
The latter group includes guys like Thomas Tyner and Torrodney Prevot, and hinges on potential rather than proven performance. They were all-world recruits, and the sky's the limit until we see otherwise.
All of that is well and good. But it overlooks an important, third classification: guys who didn't necessarily make an instant impact, but who have been working hard and are poised to emerge as sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Here, then, are five guys who might be a tad overlooked for the Ducks as we hit the midway point of August.
Rahim Cassell, inside linebacker
With Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso having graduated, there's no returning star for the Ducks in the middle of the defense. Joe Walker fulfills the intriguing newcomers role for good reason, but he can only play one of the two spots. And the Ducks want to use a rotation of players anyway.
Cassell, you may remember, started on all four special teams early in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, which tells you what kind of football smarts he has. He also started the spring game; in part that owed to the injuries being nursed by Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick. But this is a guy Don Pellum trusts at this point. He belongs in the conversation regarding potential replacements for Clay and Alonso.
Issac Dixon, safety
The Ducks don't need a lot from Dixon at this point. Brian Jackson returns at safety after starting every game in 2012. Also back is Erick Dargan, a starter for the final three games of last season, and the guy he replaced, Avery Patterson, who looks good as new following knee surgery. Those guys figure to play a ton in 2013. But by definition the two-deep requires a fourth player. Enter Dixon?
As a redshirt freshman, the Florida native appeared in seven games last fall before a lower leg injury ended his season. That was one of a number of injuries to befall the safety group, and by the end of the year Reggie Daniels was considered as an option, even though he was redshirting. The Ducks did manage to preserve Daniels' redshirt, but the buzz he generated carried over into this fall. Don't overlook Dixon, though, as another good bet to fill out the two-deep.
Daryle Hawkins, wide receiver
If you've been reading practice reports and profiles in the media over the last two weeks, this one is probably no surprise. Hawkins has been a revelation early in preseason camp.
The senior from Nebraska started eight games a year ago, so his contributions aren't a huge surprise. What's different is the nature of those contributions. In the past he's been a solid possession receiver, a dependable target for Mariota when the Ducks need a short- to medium-range gain. This month he's been dangerous stretching the field, too, a new dimension to Hawkins' game.
Koa Ka'ai, tight end
The returning star here is obviously Colt Lyerla, and there are three intriguing young guys in Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt. The overlooked guy is Ka'ai, who played defensive line in 2011 as a redshirt, moved to tight end in the 2012 offseason and then played both ways over the course of last fall after injuries took their toll on the defensive line.
Ka'ai is best suited for a physical, line-of-scrimmage role, the way David Paulson complemented Ed Dickson before both guys moved on to the NFL. But Ka'ai looks like he's been able to slim down a bit this offseason, with his focus now on playing on the offensive side of the ball. He's more mobile than you might think, and accordingly could draw more playing time than you might be expecting.
Jamal Prater, offensive line
The 2011 offensive line class was a dandy, with Jake Fisher breaking into the rotation right off the bat as a true freshman that fall, and Tyler Johnstone joining Fisher as the Ducks' starting tackles for nearly every game in 2012. Classmate Andre Yruretagoyena emerged in the spring as a candidate for reps at both guard and tackle. The overlooked guy was Prater. That may change this season.
The sophomore from Etiwanda, Calif., has been a mainstay in the two-deep, potentially mitigating the possibility the Ducks will need to play another true freshman on the offensive line this season. Also worth a mention here is senior Everett Benyard, who started two games at right tackle last year and is solidly in the mix with Mana Greig and Hamani Stevens for playing time at guard in 2013.
Other guys who could easily have made the cut: Isaac Ava, linebacker; Kenny Bassett, running back; Eric Dungy, wide receiver; Jared Ebert, defensive line; Blake Stanton, wide receiver.
Note: This was written without input from UO coaches. Just one guy's take after two weeks of practice.