Thursday, February 24, 2011

While You Were Sleeping: A Mid-Winter Review of Oregon and PAC-12 Football

(a thirteen-part series, with part 13 devoted to Oregon's nonconference opponents)

With Spring Practice just over a month away, it's time to summarize developments around the conference and compare notes on the competition.  For some of you this is review.  For others, it's a crash course on the essentials.  Call it a mid-winter mental workout, the fan equivalent of seven-on-seven and Olympic lifts at 7 a.m.

Oregon Ducks

Last season:

12-1, undefeated regular season, 2nd straight conference championship.  Lost National Championship on a last-second Auburn field goal 22-19.  Finished 3rd in the country.  LaMichael James honored as a consensus All-American at running back and winner of the Doak Walker Award.  Cliff Harris a consensus All-American at returner.  Led the nation in scoring at 47.0 points per game, while the defense held opponents to 18.7 per game while forcing 37 turnovers.

Way--too-early 2011 forecast:

13-0, National Champions.  Duh.  Seriously, with LaMichael James and Darron Thomas returning, a speed upgrade at wide receiver, a defense that should be even more athletic and attacking than last season,  the Ducks should be favored in every game on their schedule, and that includes the September 3rd showdown in Cowboy Stadium with LSU.

Biggest off season headlines:

LaMichael James passes up NFL draft, elects to return for his junior season
Ricky Heimuli decides to forgo religious mission; will make a bid to start at defensive tackle in 2011
Darron Thomas takes the lead in winter workouts
Ducks sign 9th rated recruiting class in the country, including 5-star athletes Colt Lylerla and De'Anthony Thomas
Redshirt freshman running back Dontae Williams elects to transfer

Important Dates:

Spring practice begins March 28th.  The Spring Game is Saturday April 30th, 1 p.m.  The Ducks open the 2011 season with a prime time ESPN game versus SEC power #5 LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Texas on September 3rd.

Key Losses:

DT Brandon Bair and Zac Clark.  LB Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews.  All-league defensive back Talmadge Jackson III.  Offensive linemen Jordan Holmes, Bo Thran, C. E. Kaiser,  plus reserve Max Forer.  Wide receivers Jeff Maehl and DJ Davis.  (All to graduation).  Reserve defensive back Javes Lewis declared for the NFL draft, while Houston native Dontae Williams has declared his intention to transfer and has been granted his release from the program.

link to official Oregon roster:

Why the losses won't matter:

Oregon rotated 26 players on defense last season, and Josh Kaddu, Bo Lokombo, and Michael Clay lead an athletic, hard-hitting group of linebackers that will live up to the example set by the departed Matthews and Paysinger.  They're gone, but they left a legacy of work habits and leadership that will live on in this corps.  The secondary returns three starters, all-everywhere playmaking safety John Boyett, who had 11 tackles in the national championship game, and 159 in two years. The Human Highlight Film, Cliff Harris, was seventh on the team in scoring without ever taking an offensive snap, returning four punts for touchdown, a school record, and an interception for a 76-yard score against Tennessee.  Three-year starter Eddie Pleasant is a hitter and blitz specialist at rover.  A host of extremely talented underclassmen, led by Anthony Gildon and special teams standout Brian Jackson, will compete for snaps at the other corner and nickleback.    Terrance Mitchell, Erick Dargan, Dior Mathis and Texas transfer Marcus Davis are strong candidates to see the field.

On the defensive line, Jerry Azzinaro and the rest of the coaching staff didn't land one of the standout tackles they were pursuing, but they got a huge break when Heimuli elected to stay for his sophomore year.   With a year in the program the 6-4 318 Heimuli is far more ready to start and excel than an incoming recruit would be--his decision to stay is the equivalent of landing a five and a half star prospect.  Dion Jordan and Terrell Turner are returning starters at the defensive ends, owing to last year's extensive rotation.  Wade Keliipiki, Taylor Hart, Isaac Remington and Tony Washington are ready for a bigger role.

Offensively, Mark Asper, Darrion Weems, Carson York and Nick Cody all have starts and snaps.  Redshirt freshman Nick Rowland, transfer Ryan Clanton, 6-7 315 Everett Benyard and  redshirt freshman center Hroniss Grasu will push them.  There have been web rumors, and a brief mention from Rob Moseley, that one or two of of the linemen may wind up leaving football due to chronic injury problems. 

The incoming recruiting class included five outstanding line prospects, and if injuries and/or defections deplete this group, Steve Greatwood may have to rush one or two of them into the rotation.  Tyler Johnstone, Andre Yruretagoyena, Jake Fisher, Jamal Prater and James Euscher have a world of promise, but ideally need a year in the weight room and at the training table to achieve it.

Impact Newcomers:

It was a terrific recruiting class, and five or six of the newcomers could contribute right away.  Junior college defensive tackle Jared Ebert, 6-5, 285 and 4.8 in the 40, has the speed, quickness and motor to replace Brandon Bair in the middle of Oregon's defensive line.  One of the top-rated junior college tackles in the country, he's among the most field-ready defensive linemen the Ducks could have acquired.

Wide receiver Rahsaan Vaughn, a 6-1 190-lb. speedster from the college of San Mateo, was signed to play right away.

Oregon's entire recruiting class is very talented, but most of them are two or three years away from being difference makers.  The most likely candidates for immediate impact are 6-5, 240-lb. wide receiver Colt Lyerla of Hillsboro, a superb athlete with uncommon leadership and maturity who scored 40 touchdowns and won a state championship as a junior,  and playmaker Devon Blackmon, an Under Armour All-American who played quarterback, running back and receiver in high school, but will utilize his 4.4 speed at receiver for the Ducks.  Defensively, linebacker Anthony Wallace, 6-2, 220, sought after by Nebraska, Texas, Ohio State and nearly every other division one program in the country, could also play as a true freshman.  The son of a former NFL linebacker, he's enrolling in time for spring drills, and has the strength and aggressiveness to be Vontaze Burfict with more discipline.

Critical Spring Practice Questions:

Will the 2011 Ducks find the leadership and commitment that made the 2010 team special?  Will they bring the same kind of effort and intensity to spring drills?  Who replaces leaders and playmakers like Matthews, Paysinger, and Maehl?

How quickly will Lyerla, Blackmon, Wallace and Ebert acclimate, learn the playbook and establish themselves?

Who starts at center, and can the offensive line get healthy and gel in time for a crisp effort at the Spring Game on April 30th?

Is Darron Thomas ready to make this his team, and take the downfield passing game to another level of efficiency and execution?  Can he find dependable targets among the newcomers at receiver and the kids who've been waiting their turn?  Will Eric Dungy, Keanon Lowe, Blake Cantu, or Nick Cole make a leap forward, or will one of the freshmen, perhaps Blackmon and Lyerla, or even Sumler and B.J. Kelley in fall camp, refuse to be denied?

The Ducks didn't land the Haloti Ngata-type defensive line stud they were hoping for on the recruiting trail.  Given that, will Heimuli, Hart, Ebert, Jordan, Turner, Washington, Keliipiki and company achieve enough improvement to replace Rowe, Bair and Clark?  Can they improve enough through weight training and technique to become a stalwart defensive line?  Bold prediction:  Heimuli, Hart, Ebert and Keliipiki will surprise, and develop into the best interior defensive line rotation since 2001.

Early Look at the 2011 schedule:

Sept 3 vs LSU in Dallas
Sept 10 home vs Nevada
Sept 17 home vs Missouri State
Sept 24 at Arizona
Sept 31 bye
Thurs October 6 home versus Cal
October 15 home versus Arizona State

Oregon plays 4 road games, one nuetral site game, and seven home games in 2011.  They have Cal, Arizona State, USC and Oregon State at Autzen.  Their critical road games are Arizona on September 24, Washington on November 5th, and Stanford on November 12th.

If the Ducks prevail in their marquee season opener versus the Bayou Bengals, in a stadium that will almost certainly be 85% purple and gold, the schedule sets up very well for another league title run and contention for a BCS bowl.  No one ever rises to low expectations.

Next:  the Stanford Cardinal


  1. It all starts with that LSU game. I think it's more of an advantage for us in that LSU isn't going to know what to really expect.

  2. You are kidding, right? LSU doesn't know what to expect? Like Auburn didn't know what to expect? Oregon will plug in players into the system, perhaps have a little more deep threat (but probably not in the first game). The rest is: Can any team stop them (well, Auburn did).