By Rob Moseley
The Ducks are coming off an 11-2 season in which they finished at No. 9 in the final Associated Press top 25, losing two November games after a knee injury slowed quarterback Marcus Mariota, then rebounding to thrash Texas in the Alamo Bowl. The 2014 team is generally considered one of the top five in the country at this point, but there’s plenty of work to be done in the 15 spring practices that culminate with the spring game, May 3 at 11 a.m. in Autzen Stadium.
Here are five key issues Oregon fans are watching entering April:
1. Don Pellum takes over the defense
After the last 16 years under Aliotti, the UO defense is now under the direction of long-time linebackers coach Don Pellum, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in January. Pellum takes over a unit that led the Pac-12 and was seventh nationally in yards per play allowed last fall, but which suffered critical breakdowns against Stanford and Arizona; with Mariota injured for those games, Oregon needed stouter defense to complement a less explosive offense, and instead the Cardinal and Wildcats controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly on third down.
The personnel issues facing Pellum include the loss of three starters in the secondary and two on the line, plus outside linebacker Boseko Lokombo. Schematically, he has stated his intention to stick with what Oregon has done well the last few years, but also to “hone things down” so that players can process concepts quicker and play faster. Pellum has also preached an improved focus on fundamentals, and that above all else may be the area where the Ducks can make the biggest strides in April.
2. How will carries be distributed?
In 2013 the UO offense boasted both a sophomore who topped 1,000 yards, Byron Marshall, and also a newcomer who set the school record for rushing yards by a true freshman, Thomas Tyner. Had he not been injured, Mariota probably would have threatened to reach 1,000 yards as well. So, how will carries be spread around in 2014, given all that returning talent?
Running backs coach Gary Campbell has shown the tendency to identify one workhorse, and then mix in carries for the other backs. So April could be a time for Tyner to potentially challenge Marshall for that role come fall. But also, the coaching staff will try to identify particular situations in which each guy excels, and then play to the strengths of each during the season.
The expected addition this summer of freshman signee Royce Freeman has the potential to complicate things even more, but for now all eyes will be on Marshall and Tyner. Entering his junior year, Marshall has the edge in experience and maturity, so if there’s a front-runner, it might be him.
3. Developing depth on the defensive line
Despite the loss of underrated starters Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi up front, the Ducks return a solid group of potential starters on the line. DeForest Buckner blossomed into a starter as a sophomore last fall, and classmates Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead have played a lot of football the past two seasons. Armstead also focused on strength and conditioning with football this winter after leaving the basketball team at midseason, suggesting he’s poised to really take a big step in 2014.
Those three have a wealth of experience in part because Oregon plays its backups so much, and therein lies the issue in April. The guys behind Buckner, Balducci and Armstead have limited game experience, and while that won’t change this spring, they’ll get a ton of reps against the No. 1 UO offense. Sam Kamp is the most experienced of the next tier, and Stetzon Bair is a big body in the middle. There’s also the intriguing presence of T.J. Daniel, who starred for the scout team after switching from tight end last fall, and JC transfer Tui Talia.
4. How things stack up behind Mariota
Backup quarterbacks Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues combined for 16 appearances in 2013, valuable game experience for the next generation of UO quarterbacks. But because they combined to throw just 19 passes and rush nine times, the future of the position is still a concern to some in the fan base, given that Mariota won’t be around forever.
Lockie was the “1A” to Rodrigues’ “1B” off the bench last season, so the assumption is they’ll remain in that order to open April. But much can change in a month, and through the summer into fall. The roster also includes redshirt freshmen Damion Hobbs and Taylor Alie, and freshman Morgan Mahalak was signed at the position in February.
5. Impact from the newcomers on hand
The defensive lineman Talia isn’t the only new face set to be on hand next week. Another JC player, offensive guard Haniteli Lousi, will join the Ducks for spring term as well. And three players enrolled back in January – receiver Jalen Brown, cornerback Dominique Harrison and linebacker Johnny Ragin III.
While Ragin is currently slated to redshirt, the door is open for the other four to make an early impact, making their presence in April hugely beneficial to both them as players and to the team. Talia can help address the depth concerns on the defensive line, Lousi can bolster an interior offensive line with room to improve over a year ago, Brown brings a ton of skill to a position group with opportunities on the two-deep, and Harrison will raise the level of play at a position where the Ducks need to identify a new starter.
Those are just a few of the major storylines for the Oregon football team entering spring drills, though they’re the ones that seem to be of the most immediate concern to fans. What are your thoughts on the issues above, and what else will you be watching for in April?