Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How Good Can the Oregon Passing Game Be in 2011 and 2012?

Here's a preview from the past:  Oregon 39, Michigan 7, The Beatdown in The Big House, September 8, 2007.

In that game Dennis Dixon dazzled the country with a Statue of Liberty and a Statue of Liberty fake, 16-25 passing for 292 yards, three touchdowns and no picks, including scoring strikes of 85, 61 and 46 yards.

Here's the exciting thing:  Darron Thomas, a full-time starter as a sophomore in 2010, may be a better pure passer than Dixon was, and this season and next, he'll have the most awesome array of speed and receiving talent ever assembled at Oregon.  With a full year of experience running the offense, and the determination Thomas has shown in the weight room and off season workouts, his 363-yard performance in the national championship game becomes the standard for his future, minus the early jitters.  He'll continue to learn and improve.  He'll grow, because he has a tremendous will to do so.

He has a great corps of targets to rely on.  Returnees Josh Huff, Lavasier Tuinei and David Paulson were three, four and five in receptions for the Ducks last year.  Huff made a big impression as a true freshman, averaging 15.9 yards a catch, including a 54-yard touchdown against Arizona State, a 41-yard touchdown against Stanford, and an 85-yard touchdown run against Arizona.  He also averaged 17.8 yards a carry on the ground.   Tuinei, a tough blocker and a strong runner after the catch, nabbed 36 balls in 2010, including a 29-yard touchdown against Tennessee and a 33-yard catch-and-run versus USC.  He had a terrific grab in the national championship game, a 43-yarder where he tipped the ball to himself, tripped up by a shoelace at the three.

Tight end Paulson made a lot of big plays for the Webfoots.  In all, he accumulated 24 receptions for a 17.4-yard average, Darron Thomas finding him for touchdowns versus New Mexico, Tennessee, UCLA, and Arizona.  Paulson showed a knack for the clutch catch and the big play.  In the ncg he broke loose for a 33-yard catch on a 3rd and 18 from the Oregon eight yard line.  Thomas, under pressure, gets a great chip block from LaMichael James on the blitz pickup, and throws a strike to Paulson in the seam.

With plays like these, the three veterans earned their quarterback's trust.  That's huge for 2011.  Leading targets Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis have moved on, both hoping to catch on at the next level of football, but Thomas knows Tuinei, Huff and Paulson will be where they're supposed to be and finish the play.  The rangy Tuinei has a knack for the tough catch.  He was an accomplished basketball player in high school, and knows instinctively how to use his body for leverage.  His first td catch of last season, against Tennessee, was a good example.  Huff is sturdy and explosive; Paulson, consistent and reliable.

The three make a great nucleus.  Add Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James, who both improved their pass-catching out of the backfield as sophomores, James with an 84-yard touchdown on a wheel route versus Washington State, and a 25-yard grab as the fifth option the following week against UCLA.  James, the Doak Walker Award winner last year, can do the most to improve his NFL draft stock by continuing to improve as a receiver out of the backfield, increasing his value in third down situations.  For Barner, he's likely to get additional touches in the slot and tazer roles this year, and more practice reps running routes can only improve his consistency and effectiveness.  Barner in space, with Thomas' soft touch on the football, is a scary prospect for defenses.

Adding to the potential the passing game has in the coming season are a promising group of newcomers.  Two or three are certain to step up and make significant contributions, because there is so much potential, and Scott Frost has shown himself to be a terrific teacher and motivator as receivers coach, beginning with the way he's instilled a pride in downfield blocking. 

Colt Lyerla, Devon Blackmon, Rahsaan Vaughn, Blake Cantu, Nick Cole, Eric Dungy, B.J. Kelley, Tacoi Sumler, Brandon Williams, Curtis White, and Justin Hoffman are going to square off in a WWE Ladder Match for playing time this spring and next summer in "fall camp," and the Oregon offense is sure to benefit from the competition.  The Ducks have never had such an awesome array of speed and talent in the receiver corps.  It's utterly crazy, with several of these guys clocking in between 4.3 and 4.6 in the 40.  Several different sources identified Sumler as the fastest recruit in the nation in the 2011 recruiting class, and the 6-5, 240-lb. Lyerla has a range of athletic skills that has Duck fans raving about his future.

While it's generally a mistake to count on a gigantic contribution from one newcomer, the Ducks have so many promising ones that one or two are virtually certain to emerge with an immediate impact.  Think Demetrius Williams in 2004.  Lyerla, Blackmon and Vaughn are the most likely candidates.  But Cole has good speed, Dungy showed himself to be tenacious and savvy, a hard worker in practice in his redshirt year, and  Hoffman is a hard worker who earned a scholarship with his blocking and toughness.  Cantu was a four-star recruit coming out of Texas two years ago, and if can rise above the shoulder problems that have held him in his first two years in the program, he could become a player.   Kelley and Sumler were sought after by schools all over the country, Kelley with offers from Florida and USC, Sumler from Auburn, Florida State and Nebraska.

Darron Thomas, throwing to a group like this, will make the Oregon passing game a perfect complement to the rushing offense that's produced 10,374 yards in the last three years.  In the words of the immortal Casey Stengel, you could look it up.


  1. I'm really excited about the prospect of the Ducks' passing game in the next couple of years. If one or two of the younger receivers step up the way they're expected to, it will really stretch the field and make our running game that much better.

    Back to the 'Natty, Ducks !!!

  2. I agree, GD. It will be fun to see how it comes together. I think this may be the most anticipated spring practice season ever.