Friday, April 1, 2011

Tales from the Stat Sheet: How Good Can a Freshman Be?

The safe answer is, wait until the season is over and find out.

But whenever the team gets an exciting freshmen prospect, it's only natural that speculation arises about his role and impact in the coming season.  Conventional wisdom says not to expect much from freshmen and newcomers, but no one ever rises to low expectations.

Vontaze Burfict had 69 tackles as a freshman.  In 2009, redshirt freshman LaMichael James had 1546 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The easiest places for a freshman to make an immediate impact are the instinctive athletic positions: running back, wide receiver, and cornerback.  Offensive and defensive linemen typically need a season to develop physically.  Linebackers and quarterbacks have to master the system in all its complexity.  It's a steeper learning curve.

A lot of attention has been placed on Colt Lyerla this spring, for a number of reasons.  One, he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, and historically, Oregon has only had a handful of those.  Two, he was an Oregon product, who enrolled early (along with Tyson Coleman of Lake Oswego, who's also making a bid to play early in his Duck career), and three, he has some outlandish physical skills, uncommonly tall, fast and strong for an eighteen-year-old athlete.

How good can Lylerla be in his freshman year?  Here's a look at the freshman contributions of some recent Ducks, and the top freshman performers in last year's PAC-10:

Notable Ducks as Freshman:

Josh Huff 2010: 19 catches  303 yds 15.9 ave 57 long  3 tds

Ed Dickson 2006:  4 catches  45 yds  11.3 ave  16 long  0 tds

Jaison Williams 2005:  15 catches 245 yds 16.3 ave  66 long  3 tds

Dante Rosario 2003:    12 catches  131 yds  10.9 ave  3 tds

Keenan Howry 1999:   29 catches  452 yds  15.6 ave  5 tds

Josh Huff, rushing 2010:  12 carries  214 yds 17.8 ave 2  tds 85 long

top freshman, PAC-10, 2010:

Marquess Wilson WSU: 55 catches 1006 yds 18.3 ave  83 long  6 tds

Robert Woods USC:       65 catches   792 yds  12.2 ave  61 long  6 tds
In order to repeat a third time as conference champions, the Ducks have to replace the production of Jeff Maehl in the passing game.  Lavasier Tuinei is likely to be the go-to receiver, Huff's touches will increase, and Oregon has one very reliable tight end/H-back in David Paulson.
After that, in the words of the immortal Nick Foles look-alike Tom Petty, "the future is wide open."  Chip Kelly is bringing in a bumper crop of young receiving talent this fall, but Lyerla has the jump on his classmates, getting here now.  In two sessions of P.E. class football he's shown himself to be a quick study, jumping right in to the deep end of the pool.  If he makes some plays in full pads workouts, in competition periods and scrimmages, including the Spring Game, he could make a very strong bid to be another crucial weapon in the Ducks' attack in 2011.
Chip Kelly has two uncommon gifts.  He's a shrewd evaluator of talent, and does a great job of using all his weapons to put the maximum stress on a defense.  In 2007, there was uncertainty among fans about who should be quarterback, the steady Brady Leaf or the talented but mercurial Dennis Dixon.  Dixon left for the summer to play baseball after an up-and-down junior year.  Kelly evaluated, then nutured and instructed.  Dixon blossomed into a star.  Last spring and summer Duck fans were up in arms about who should start again at quarterback after Jeremiah Masoli self-destructed.  Kelly worked patiently with Nate Costa and Darron Thomas through spring, let them compete into fall camp, each testing themselves against that pressure until a week before the opener, when Kelly named his starter.  First-year starting quarterbacks aren't supposed to contend for conference championships.  The Ducks went 12-1, and Thomas threw 30 touchdowns.
This year's team has question marks at receiver, both lines, and linebacker.  There are questions about leadership after saying good-bye to core of starters with experience and tremendous heart.  Expect Chip Kelly and his staff to again blend the old and the new, and find the right roles for the right players.  If Lyerla applies himself and proves his readiness, he can be as good as he wants to be, right away.

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