Thursday, April 7, 2011

It's not the final countdown, but the five months of preparation will tick off way faster than we think

Three weeks and ten practices to go.  The Ducks thus far have had a productive spring camp.  The players look stronger and faster, the newcomers are calm on the surface and paddling like mad beneath it. 

Here's a review of the major stories of spring football practice through the first two weeks:

There's only been one serious injury, to defensive end Terrell Turner, but his treatment and rehab is progressing normally.  His absence has given extra opportunities to the rest of the rotation, and the Ducks have experimented with Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo in the drop end role.  Brandon Hana, Dion Jordan and Tony Washington have gotten extra reps and a chance to assert themselves.  Turner's role is secure.

The quarterbacks have been steady with flashes of brilliance.  Yahoo Sports' Dr. Saturday calls Darron Thomas "the steady hand at the throttle" and this spring he seems larger and more in charge.  Clearly the starter and clearly in command, the growth in one year is very encouraging.  Think back to last spring, when the Ducks didn't have a starter.  Thomas has taken the lead in workouts and is working on improving his delivery, fundamentals and footwork, having already demonstrated a good grasp of what Chip Kelly needs him to do in the offense.

Bryan Bennett oozes talent and potential.  In spurts, he looks like a better quarterback than the starter, a better fit for the system with more speed, athletic ability and chops as a passer.  The experience gap means Thomas' job is absolutely secure, but it's exciting to see how quickly Bennett has come along in one year in the system.  The future looks bright at quarterback in Eugene, and Duck fans will look forward to Bennett's first live snaps this fall, which hopefully will be confined to mop-up duty as Oregon pursues a third PAC-10 championship with veteran starter.

First game opponent LSU seems to have settled on a quarterback.  Returning starter Jordan Jefferson has  followed up on a great performance in the Cotton Bowl versus Texas A&M, holding off a much-anticipated challenge from junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger in spring practice.  Matt Hayes of The Sporting News says Jefferson has impressed new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe with his command.

Jefferson getting a quick handle on the quarterback controversy solidifies LSU's standing as a contender in next fall's national championship race.  It means the Ducks will face a serious challenge in Dallas, from a team that returns 18 starters from a team that went 11-2 last season.  Jefferson is a true duel threat, and if he gets his passing game going under Kragthorpe, Oregon's retooled defense will begin the season with a serious test.  It's neutral site game in name only; the Tigers will travel with around 60,000 fans while the Webfoots aren't likely to bring a third that many.

After losing Spencer Paysinger, Brandon Bair, Kenny Rowe, Casey Matthews and Talmadge Jackson III, the Oregon defense is retooling this spring.  Ken Goe of the Oregonian says Nick Aliotti and the staff are experimenting with ways to fully utilize the speed and athleticism of returning contributors like Josh Kaddu and Boseko Lokombo.  Both have taken reps this week at Rowe's old drop end position, an intriguing prospect that could get both outside backers on the field at the same time.  Kaddu has good size and strength at 6-3 230, and both have the agility to cover, perhaps better than Rowe used to.  The improved flexibility could challenge offenses, allowing the Ducks to create multiple looks and pressure with the same personnel.

On offense, the two biggest challenges of the spring are rebuilding the offensive line and sorting out the rotation at wide receiver.  The wideouts are in a holding pattern this spring, as a crop of new arrivals arrive in June that should provide a big boost in talent, speed and potential.  Justin Hoffman has stood out as a steady, hard-working player who's done the work to earn more touches, but the summer arrivals, speed merchants Rahsaan Vaughn, Devon Blackmon and Tacoi Sumler, have more pizazz than any of the candidates currently on the roster.

The Ducks have to replace Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis, who combined for 119 catches, over 1500 yards, and 15 touchdowns last season.  Maehl, in particular, was all-PAC-10 with 65 of those catches and 1,076 yards, the Ducks go-to receiver, a four-year starter who made big plays and came through in clutch situations.  Lavasier Tuinei, Josh Huff, David Paulson and Kenjon Barner will be challenged to replace his production while maintaining their own.

When they needed a play in the passing game, Jeff Maehl made it.  Mad Mike 1951 has this great video clip:

On  the offensive line, Steve Greatwood is working toward producing his normally reliable unit, a rotation of guys who are versatile and able to play several positions across the line.  Rob Moseley says Karrington Armstrong seems to have the upper hand in the battle to replace Jordan Holmes at center.

The strong play of the defensive line contenders, particularly tackles Ricky Heimuli, Jared Ebert, Taylor Hart and Wade Keliipiki, will help the o-line to develop consistency.  If they can find consistency and communication working against this group, they'll be ready for LSU.

And the season takes a decided uptick if they handle the Bayou Bengals.

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