NCF Nation: Bryan Bennett

Before a relatively unknown kid from Hawaii committed to Oregon, and even after he enrolled, Darron Thomas and Bryan Bennett represented the present and future for the Ducks at quarterback. And after Thomas, then a sophomore in his first year as the starter, led Oregon to the BCS championship game in the 2010 season -- a game in which Bennett served as the backup -- there was no need to look past them to find reasons for optimism.

Four years later, as both continue to pursue professional football after departing Oregon with eligibility remaining, there’s no way for either to escape their association with Marcus Mariota.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDarron Thomas left Oregon with a year of eligibility remaining after the Ducks won the 2012 Rose Bowl.
In two years as the starter, Thomas put up big numbers and led Oregon to a 23-3 record (he missed one game with an injury), but inexplicably went against the advice of just about everyone and chose to make himself available for the 2012 NFL draft. Despite throwing a school-record 66 touchdown passes, he was not viewed as a good NFL prospect.

“I took my own advice. I always thought that the best players in college football get drafted and, at the time, I thought I was one of the top players in college football,” Thomas said. “I didn’t really care about where I was going to get drafted. All I knew was that I was a quarterback that went 23-3.”

The decision was so perplexing that many came to a seemingly logical conclusion that Thomas had simply been told by the coaching staff that his starting job was not guaranteed -- or even gone -- with Mariota set to come off his redshirt. After all, they’d seen Mariota practice all season and knew what they had. However, Thomas remains adamant job security didn’t factor into his decision.

“I was just upset that the [Oregon] coaches didn’t come back and say that wasn’t the case because a lot of people in the NFL asked me if that was the case, too,” he said. “That’s kind of why I disconnected myself from Oregon because that was surely not the case, at all.”

Bennett’s aware of the speculation regarding Mariota’s perceived impact on Thomas’ departure, but doesn’t buy it, either.

“I don’t think that Darron had that in his head,” Bennett said. “We knew Marcus was a good player, for sure, but we were all competitors. That doesn’t seem like Darron to me.”

Thomas went undrafted and unsigned and has yet to try out for an NFL team. Last year, he signed with the Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League and after experiencing minimal success while adjusting to the game -- he lost the starting job early in the season -- is preparing for a second year, while holding onto his fading NFL dream.

"All I'm looking for is a tryout," he said. "Hopefully I’ll get one soon."

It’s a dream shared by Bennett, who spent the last two seasons at FCS Southeastern Louisiana, where he transferred after serving as Mariota’s backup in 2012. The Lions went 20-7 in Bennett’s two years as the starter and he was named the Southland Conference Player of the Year in 2013 and Offensive Player of the Year in 2014.

“It was a great opportunity to get the best of both worlds,” he said. “Got to experience everything at Oregon and then play every week and compete [at SLU]. At end of the day, the only thing you can ask for is a chance to compete. It was a good experience and I grew as a football player and person.”

Unlike Thomas, Bennett’s association with Mariota has somewhat of a buoying effect -- at least for perception’s sake. By most accounts, including Bennett’s, his competition with Mariota for the starting job was truly that. He was given a fair shot but ultimately lost out to a generational talent.

“It was very competitive in the spring and through fall camp,” Bennett said. “Every day was a job interview. We both made plays, we both made mistakes, we both got better. It was awesome with a guy like Marcus, who is a great player, great kid, great friend.

“There was never any hard feelings. We were both trying to get better.”

Any stigma attached to playing FCS ball doesn't apply with Bennett. When he transferred, it was necessary and expected. And when he left, Bennett kept close tabs on the Ducks.

“I’ve stayed in touch with the guys. I couldn’t watch all the games because of my own games, but I definitely sat down and watched them when I could,” he said. “I’m very happy for them to get the opportunity to play for the national championship.”

Before the Rose Bowl, Bennett, who lives in Southern California, stopped by the team hotel and visited with former teammates and coaches -- many for the first time since he left.

As the Ducks prepare for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T, Bennett will be in Carlsbad, California, just outside of San Diego, preparing for the NFL draft at the EXOS facility with several other draft hopefuls, including Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion. Best-case scenario, the wildly-talented Bennett could be a Day 3 draft pick, but said he’s just looking for an opportunity to be in a NFL camp with a chance to compete.

Again, he stressed, "that's all you can ask for."
Sean Mannion, Cody VazGetty Images, Icon SMINeither Sean Mannion, left, nor Cody Vaz has separated himself in their QB competition this spring.
The clear reason to watch Oregon State's spring game on Friday (10 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) is to figure out who will be the starting quarterback for an intriguing Beavers team that will be ranked in the preseason top 25.

After all, spring games are always incredibly revealing of the inner workings of a program.

I jest. Hardy har har.

Spring practices are going to end for the Beavers with what coach Mike Riley called a "very difficult separation job for us" between quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, both of whom Riley said played "pretty well" over the past month or so.

Odds are if there is any separation, we won't be told about it.

See how much Riley enjoys the oft-repeated quarterback competition questions in this video. That might be a legitimate frump from the nicest guy in coaching when he replies to a query about "clarity" with, "That it's a tough competition. That's the clarity."

It will be a mistake to read too much into what will be a glorified practice Friday, just one of 15 at that.

Yet if Mannion or Vaz plays decidedly better than the other, then message boards and some professional opiners will light up with, "But, of course, it's got to be Vaz/Mannion. He just played so much better when the pressure was on!"

That reaction won't mean much, but it also won't be completely illegitimate. A rough parallel perhaps could be drawn to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Kelly" moment in the Ducks' spring game a year ago, when he decisively outplayed Bryan Bennett, who began the spring as the favorite to replace Darron Thomas.

While at the time it seemed smart not to read too much into a single afternoon, there also was plenty of "he's legit" buzz about Mariota. That proved entirely founded when the 2012 season rolled around. That's why Bennett migrated away from Eugene.

This is a different sort of competition, though. Both Mariota and Bennett were unknown quantities at the time. We'd seen little of Bennett and nothing or Mariota, a redshirt freshman. Further, unlike Oregon State, Oregon had closed practices, so we had little idea what transpired in the other 14 practices.

So we extrapolated with the little we had and that purely theoretical exercise ended up validated.

But we know Vaz, a senior, and Mannion, a junior. Both have starting experience. Both have played well. And poorly. We know their strengths and weaknesses. Reporters have watched them the entire spring. And neither has earned front-runner status.

This from Gary Horowitz probably sums up the thinking of many observers, if they were to take a position: "My hunch is that Vaz would need to have a clear edge in fall camp to win the starting job because Mannion has two years of eligibility remaining, and college programs are always building toward the future."


What are Vaz and Mannion saying? Not much. I've not read a revealing quote from either yet, nor have their teammates intimated that one or the other is rising.

Here's a video of Pac-12 Networks’ Ashley Adamson chatting with Vaz. Did that help you figure things out?

Pac-12 spring practices began with five wide-open quarterback competitions. It feels like we know more now about the candidates at Arizona, California, Colorado and USC. There is more clarity with those four. Guys have been weeded out. You could hazard an educated guess -- B.J. Denker, Zach Kline, Connor Wood and Cody Kessler -- for each.

Yet Mannion/Vaz doesn't feel that way, unless you assume the tag will go to the younger guy if things are close to equal.

It probably would help Riley out if one or the other started an implacable surge on Friday, one that might provide credence to a budding hunch, inside and outside the locker room. As Riley said of the rest of his team, "We have a pretty good idea of who quite a few of the starters will be."

Still, whatever the post-spring game momentum, it can be reversed. For every Mariota, there's a Taylor Kelly, who got off the canvas after a poor spring a year ago for Arizona State and rose from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chat.

Oregon QB Bryan Bennett to transfer

January, 22, 2013
The slow news weekend for Oregon continues. Pretty boring, really. New head coach, high-profile backup quarterback leaving. Pretty standard stuff.

That's right, backup quarterback Bryan Bennett has decided to transfer to Southeastern Louisiana, which was first reported by DuckTerritory on Monday and later confirmed by several other news outlets.

Bennett also confirmed the report to CSNNW:
"I love and respect Oregon and everyone that was along that journey of my life. It's time for me to start another journey," he said. "It's just what I feel is right for me."

The news shouldn't be totally shocking. After Marcus Mariota beat out Bennett -- the primary backup to Darron Thomas in the 2011 season -- for the starting job last year, he was on the verge of transferring, but ultimately opted to stay. The quarterback competition last spring and fall between Mariota and Bennett was one of the most closely watched in college football.

Because Oregon blew out the majority if its opponents, usually in the first half, Bennett saw more time than the everyday backup -- completing 20 of 37 passes for 211 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed 39 times for 165 yards and six touchdowns while appearing in 10 games.

The announcement came a day after the school promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to head coach, replacing Chip Kelly who departed for the Philadelphia Eagles. Rob Moseley of the Register-Guard reports the moves are not connected, and that a team source confirmed to him that Bennett had made a decision to leave "some time ago."

Mariota, of course, went on to have a stellar season, leading the Ducks to a 12-1 record, a victory in the Fiesta Bowl over Kansas State and the No. 2 ranking in the final AP and coaches' polls. He was first-team all-conference and the league's Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.

The Pac-12 blog sees this as a good move for Bennett. He's a talented player and was a highly-regarded, four-star recruit. However, for the Ducks, it always hurts to lose an experienced backup. Even in 2011, Bennett appeared in seven games. There are a few quarterbacks in the pipeline behind Mariota, but no one with the experience of Bennett. No other Oregon quarterback attempted a pass in 2012 besides Mariota or Bennett.

He joins an FCS squad from the Southland Conference that went 5-6 overall in 2012, but 5-2 in its conference.

Ducks roll (this is not a recording)

October, 27, 2012

The Oregon Ducks jump out to a 56-0 lead in the first half, sit the starters, give up a couple of scores but cruise to a huge win.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The No. 4 Ducks kept to their 2012 script, pounding on the Colorado Buffaloes 70-14 at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks, per usual, struck early and often behind touchdown runs from Kenjon Barner, touchdown passes from Marcus Mariota and electrifying plays from De’Anthony Thomas on offense and special teams.

Barner put together his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game, needing just nine carries to reach 103 yards with a pair of touchdowns. Thomas was equally explosive, carrying five times for 97 yards and a score. But it was Thomas’ 73-yard punt return for a touchdown that was eye-popping. Thomas chased down the ball with his back to the opposite end zone, turned the corner, side-stepped a couple of tackles and then took off down the sidelines for the score.

In relief of Mariota, backup quarterback Bryan Bennett rushed for 73 yards and three touchdowns. Mariota finished the game 10-of-14 for 136 yards with a pair of touchdown passes. He also carried four times for 23 yards and a score.

Colorado (1-7, 1-4) picked up a pair of third-quarter touchdowns from Christian Powell, who rushed for 121 yards on 20 carries. But as many teams do, the Buffaloes found themselves in a 28-0 hole by the end of the first quarter.

Oregon (8-0, 5-0) has kept up its end of the deal and travels to Los Angeles next week undefeated for its much-anticipated showdown with USC.

Player of the Week: Pac-12

September, 3, 2012
Lots of great choices this week, but one stood out in the mind of the Pac-12 blog: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

What makes Mariota's debut so impressive wasn't the three touchdown passes or the 200 yards on 18 of 22 passing. Or even the fact that his Ducks dropped 50 in the first half on Arkansas State.

Most impressive was the way he handled his business; cool, patient and collected. There was almost no indication that it was his first collegiate start. He was poised and dangerously efficient with no interceptions and a sparkling 81.8 completion percentage.

As we all know, Mariota was involved in a very private, very intense quarterback competition with Bryan Bennett -- last year's backup and a lot of people's pick as the presumptive starter following the departure of Darron Thomas.

But Mariota won the job and showed why he's Chip Kelly's guy Saturday night, carving up Arkansas State (with a little help from his friends) and calling it a night before the halftime festivities. For anyone who might have been on the fence following Kelly's decision, it's time to get off. Mariota's performance left little room for second guessing.

Hat trick for Pac-12 in night games

September, 2, 2012
After a rough start to the day for the Pac-12, USC pounded Hawaii and the conference swept the night games. Here's the breakdown of the three 7:30 p.m. kickoffs:

Oregon 57, Arkansas State 34: For 30 minutes Saturday night, Arkansas State outscored the No. 5 Oregon Ducks 24-7. That would have been great news for the Red Wolves, had the Ducks not dropped 50 on them halfway through the second quarter.

Marcus Mariota impressed in his debut as Oregon's starting quarterback, completing 19 of 23 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. Twice he connected with De'Anthony Thomas and another went to Josh Huff.

Thomas -- who enters the season with some Heisman hype -- didn't disappoint. The versatile player who comes at you from all angles rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on three carries to go with four catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns.

Kenjon Barner also added a pair of rushing touchdowns, carrying the ball nine times for 66 yards.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly pulled a large portion of his starters halfway through the second quarter when the Ducks had built a 50-3 lead.

Byron Marshall got plenty of work, carrying the ball 24 times for 65 yards and a score. In relief of Mariota, Bryan Bennett connected on 10 of 17 passes for 107 yards and a 7-yard touchdown pass to Rahsaan Vaughn.

Washington 21, San Diego State 12: It was a mixed-bag performance for Washington, which topped San Diego State 21-12.

The defense showed significant signs of improvement -- at times -- and the offense looked explosive -- at times -- but both also faltered at times leaving the end result in doubt until the final minutes.

Quarterback Keith Price completed 25 of 35 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown and Bishop Sankey rushed for 66 yards on 22 carries with a score. Washington's third score came on a 44-yard fumble recovery from Will Shamburger. The Huskies defense -- revamped under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox -- forced three SDSU turnovers.

The Huskies jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, but gave one back when SDSU receiver Tim Vizzi pulled the old Pop Warner, sneak-on-the-field-near-the-sideline play. No one picked him up and Ryan Katz hit him for a 47-yard touchdown.

But despite giving up 327 total yards (199 on the ground), the Huskies kept the Aztecs out of the end zone again until the fourth quarter, when Adam Muema scored on a 1-yard run. Both of SDSU's two-point conversion attempts failed.

Washington is sure to get a tougher test on both sides of the ball when it travels to face LSU next week.

Arizona 24, Toledo 17, OT: Matt Scott connected with Terrence Miller for a 10-yard touchdown in overtime to give the Wildcats a 24-17, bailing out kicker John Bonano, who missed a 25-yard field goal as time expired that would have given the Wildcats a victory.

Rolling to his right, Scott found Miller just in front of the end zone and released a dart just before being pulled out of bounds. He finished 30-of-46 for 384 yards and two touchdowns and helped make Rich Rodriguez a winner in his first game as Arizona's head coach.

Scott's first touchdown was a 30-yarder to Austin Hill, who laid out and made a fingertip catch in the end zone to put Arizona ahead 10-7 in the second quarter after Bonano's 26-yard field goal Arizona a 3-0 lead early in the game. Hill finished with seven catches for 136 yards and Dan Buckner also broke 100 yards, catching a team-high nine balls for 118 yards.

Running back Ka'Deem Carey turned in a strong performance with 149 yards on 20 carries that included a 73-yard touchdown run.

Arizona piled on 623 yards of offense, but also committed three turnovers, including two fumbles lost. By contrast, Toledo had 347 yards of total offense.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
So much has happened in the offseason that it might be hard to digest it all. No worries; we've got you covered. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Pac-12 kicks off with four games today, one tomorrow and the rest of the docket Saturday.

  • New coaches: The conference saw an influx of some big-name coaches in the offseason, and they make their debuts this week in the Pac-12 with some high hopes to turn their respective programs around. The consensus among many is that Mike Leach (WSU) will have the most success -- at least this season -- since he inherited a team that already has players for the style he wants to run. Jim Mora makes his collegiate head-coaching debut with UCLA, overhauling the Bruins on both sides of the ball. Rich Rodriguez brings his innovative spread offense to Arizona, and Todd Graham is trying to rehabilitate ASU's program. Leach has the toughest game (at BYU) of the four this week, but all four are winnable.
  • [+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
    AP Photo/ Arizona Daily Star/Benjie SandersRich Rodriguez and Arizona host Toledo -- a team that upset Rodriguez's Michigan squad in 2008.
    QB debuts: There were six quarterback competitions in the conference this year, and four quarterbacks will be making their first collegiate starts this week: Josh Nunes for Stanford, Brett Hundley for UCLA, Marcus Mariota for Oregon and Taylor Kelly for ASU.
  • Extra pressure? There are weighty expectations for all four QBs -- but the heaviest are probably on Nunes and Mariota. Stanford is coming off of back-to-back BCS bowl game appearances (2011 Orange and 2012 Fiesta), while Oregon has been to three straight (Rose in 2010, national championship in 2011 and Rose in 2012). Nunes replaces one of the greatest quarterbacks in conference history in Andrew Luck, and Mariota takes over one of the best offenses in the country.
  • Backup plan: While neither Chip Kelly nor Todd Graham is likely to stray from the vanilla aisle in Week 1, it still will be interesting to see whether/how they use their backup quarterbacks either this week or in the coming weeks. Bryan Bennett at Oregon was probably one or two bad practices away from taking over the reins, and Michael Eubank has been touted as an outstanding athlete whom the Sun Devils simply can't keep off the field.
  • Don't screw it up: The Pac-12 is favored in 11 of 12 games in Week 1, with Washington State being the only underdog. That means -- at worst -- the conference should go 11-1. While it would be fantastic if every team won, the reality likely is that there will be at least one team that messes up the curve. Wouldn't be a bad announcement to the rest of college football if the conference ran the table.
  • Reputation matters: Speaking of the Pac-12's reputation, this is the first time the conference enters a season with two teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll. USC checks in at No. 1, and Oregon is No. 5. You could say the hype and expectations for both these teams are, well, considerable.
  • Heisman hopefuls: Time to start number crunching for Matt Barkley, De'Anthony Thomas and Keith Price. All three have been mentioned as Heisman candidates, and Barkley has assumed the not-so-envious title as preseason front-runner.
  • Committee members: Two members of the 1,000-yard club from last season find themselves in larger committee roles. Curtis McNeal at USC is now sharing the ball with Penn State transfer Silas Redd, and Cal's Isi Sofele will see some of his carries go to C.J. Anderson.
  • Extra week for OSU: From all of us at the Pac-12 blog to Nicholls State, best of luck. Stay dry, stay safe.
  • Look ahead: While Cal and Washington won't be looking ahead, it wouldn't hurt for you to take a sneak peek at what LSU and Ohio State are doing against North Texas and Miami (Ohio), respectively. Those are the two biggest out-of-conference games on the schedule this season and important games for the reputation of the conference. As they say, know your foe.

Marcus Mariota wins Oregon QB job

August, 24, 2012

It turns out Marcus Mariota's strong spring game performance for Oregon was, in fact, indicative of where his quarterback competition stood with Bryan Bennett.

While Mariota made plays with his arm and legs and looked poised, Bennett struggled. At the time, it seemed unreasonable to extrapolate too much from one performance, considering every other Oregon practice has been closed. But the result -- Mariota was named the Ducks' starting quarterback on Friday, as first reported by The Oregonian -- is that Mariota eclipsed Bennett, despite Bennett having an edge in game experience.

Mariota will make his first appearance on Sept. 1 against Arkansas State in Autzen Stadium.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota won Oregon's QB competition with an impressive spring game, completing 18 of 26 passes, and rushing for 99 yards.
Is this an upset? Yes. A mild one. And not unlike coach Chip Kelly's decision to go with Darron Thomas over Nate Costa in 2010.

That one worked out OK. Thomas led the Ducks to the national title game and a Rose Bowl victory before opting to leave early for the NFL draft. No matter how bad Thomas' decision to leave early was -- and it was truly bad -- he's still perhaps the most accomplished quarterback in team history.

So, will Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 196-pound redshirt freshman from Honolulu with no game experience, match or even eclipse Thomas? Maybe. Folks have been raving about him since his first preseason camp. His "hello world" moment -- his only public performance as the Ducks' quarterback -- was the spring game, when he completed 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 99 yards and two scores, including an 82-yard scamper for a touchdown.

He's the quintessential quarterback for the Ducks' offense, a true dual threat with outstanding athletic ability and a quality arm.

It's reasonable to imagine Bennett, a redshirt sophomore, isn't thrilled. Who can blame him? The scuttlebutt on him has always been positive, at least until the spring game. In fact, more than a few Ducks fans previously wondered if he was going to legitimately challenge Thomas for the starting job -- and we're not only referring to if Thomas came back this fall.

Bennett played in eight games in 2011, going 25 of 46 for 369 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Bennett also carried the ball 23 times for 200 yards. He played well coming off the bench when Thomas was hurt against Arizona State, then won his only start at Colorado.

The good news for Mariota is he gets to ease into the starting job. The Ducks' first three games -- Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech -- function almost as a preseason, as the Ducks will be multiple touchdown favorites in each. He won't go on the road until Week 5 at Washington State.

And the Ducks will be heavy favorites until the visit to USC on Nov. 3, in a game with major Pac-12 and national title implications.

That game, when Mariota will be matched against Matt Barkley, will likely define Oregon's season, though there could be a rematch in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 30.

Of course, there are no guarantees. If Mariota struggles early, it will be interesting to see if Bennett gets an opportunity to show what he can do. And will Kelly want to get Bennett quality playing time early in the season in any event? He didn't feel the need to do that with Costa after Thomas won the job, but every situation is different.

What Ducks fans are surely excited about is Mariota probably had to look pretty good to beat out Bennett, who showed every sign he could be a quality starter. That certainly bodes well, not only for this season, but the future.
If you are not a member of the Oregon football team, and therefore don't get to see the Ducks practice, the first inquiry on your mind anytime you cross paths with someone who is a member of the Oregon football team and gets to watch the Ducks practice is obvious: "Hey, who's going to win the quarterback competition, Marcus Mariota or Bryan Bennett?"

"I have no idea," Ducks safety John Boyett said. "I think they're both good. They throw the ball well and run the ball well and both are pretty athletic. It will be interesting to see who can separate themselves and who can stay the most consistent throughout fall camp."

[+] EnlargeJohn Boyett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireOregon's John Boyett is an all-conference and All-American candidate at safety.
Hey, it was worth a try.

There are other interesting competitions this preseason. For one: Who is the best safety in the Pac-12? While a lot of folks would say USC's T.J. McDonald, a lot of others would say Boyett. And, yes, Boyett is paying attention.

So, John, who's going to be the first-team All-Pac-12 safety in 2012? This gets a quick laugh from Boyett.

"That's a good question," he said. "Hopefully the best player does."

Truth is, it almost seems preordained that McDonald and Boyett will be side-by-side as first-team All-Pac-12. They, in fact, could be in the same position on the postseason All-American team.

Boyett and McDonald are connected as very good -- if very different -- safeties in the same conference. And they are also connected because many see the Ducks and Trojans, both preseason top-five teams, as inexorably headed for an epic clash on Nov. 3, with the Pac-12 title as well as, perhaps, a national title at stake for whoever prevails.

Further, it's not difficult to see the recent history here. From 2002 to 2008, USC ruled the conference. When the NCAA came a-calling at Heritage Hall, Oregon stepped into the void and has won three consecutive conference titles. It's easy to see the balance of power in the conference being at issue -- North vs. South, the Old School Power vs. the New School Upstart, Chip Kelly vs. Lane Kiffin, Boyett vs. McDonald.

And it's probably worth noting that Oregon has its own NCAA questions looming, though it's unlikely the Ducks will get hit even nearly as hard as USC was.

The interesting twist for the Ducks and Trojans in 2012 is USC is the sure-thing on offense, and Oregon looks like the sure-thing on defense. While Matt Barkley will quarterback a crew of potential All-Americans, the Ducks aren't too far behind on defense, with potential all-conference performers at all three levels.

Boyett isn't ready to crow about the Ducks defense just yet, but he's clearly excited about their prospects. And, yes, he has noticed that so-called pundits have started to show respect for the Ducks D.

"I think we've got a lot of very good players," Boyett said. "You can't really tell until you get to the games and see how guys are performing. But we've got a good group of guys, guys who want to win, guys who have that competitiveness, that desire to win. I think that's the biggest intangible that makes a defense great."

Oregon doesn't yet have certainty at several positions on offense, most notably quarterback. But Boyett and the defense should be able to hold things down during the early schedule as the offense tries to find itself.
USC might be No. 1 in the College Football Live spring Top 25 rankings. But it's No. 4 Oregon that has the best chance to knock the SEC off its six-ringed mountain. So says ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard, who laid out three reasons (all extremely sound and logical) why Oregon is actually the team to beat Insider in the Pac-12 this season.

Here's a minor re-hash of his three points.
Regarding the quarterback situation: Cam Newton and AJ McCarron won BCS titles the past two seasons as first-year starters under center. McCarron filled the role of game manager, while the Heisman Trophy-winning Newton was the ultimate game-breaker. For Oregon in 2012, either redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota or sophomore Bryan Bennett will be under center as a first-year starter, a point that isn't lost on coach Chip Kelly, but also one that doesn't scare him, either.
The Ducks have an SEC-worthy defensive front: "Yeah, our group thinks they could be [on that level]," Kelly said. "We have some size with Wade Keliikipi [6-foot-3, 300 pounds] and Ricky Heimuli [6-4, 321] that will match some of those guys. Football starts up front. We've learned that in our battles with LSU and Auburn. I really think our defensive line will be the strength of this football team."

Throw in returning first-team all-conference defensive end Dion Jordan (6-7, 245), lengthy and productive redshirt junior Taylor Hart (6-6, 289) and four-star recruit Arik Armstead (6-8, 297) and it becomes clear as to why the normally reserved Kelly gets so excited about his team's prospects up front.
The schedule favors the Ducks: The only road trip in the first six weeks is to face the Washington State Cougars, and not even in Pullman, but rather at Century Link Field in Seattle where the Green and Gold could very well equal the Crimson and Grey in the stands. The easy early slate will provide a soft landing for Oregon's first-year QB.

This will obviously be a major point of contention for both USC and Oregon fans, assuming both teams do as expected, until Nov. 3 rolls around. [Utah fans, feel free to jump in on this until Oct. 4 -- and beyond if your team can top the Trojans at home]. Still, it doesn't mean we can't stoke the fires a little early.
How much can we really learn from spring? Funky scrimmages with backwards scoring systems; depleted depth charts; completely new installs for four teams. Actually, more than you'd think. Here are five things we learned about the Pac-12 during spring.

  1. Quarterbacks are still in limbo: Be it Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon or Colorado, almost half of the teams still don’t know who is going to be under center when the season starts. Stanford funneled its list of five down to two, Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. ASU still has a three-way battle with Michael Eubank, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly -- though coach Todd Graham said they have a better idea than they are probably letting on publicly. The very private competition between Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett at Oregon remains in question -- though Mariota was spectacular in the spring game while Bennett faltered. Still, coach Chip Kelly said that one game isn’t going to be his basis for comparison. UCLA coach Jim Mora wanted to name a starter by the end of spring, but no one has “grabbed” it, so we’ll have to wait until August before learning whether Brett Hundley, Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut gets the gig. And at Colorado, the competition was put on hiatus when Nick Hirschman broke a bone in his foot and couldn’t compete in spring drills. One has to think that was a huge advantage for Connor Wood to get almost all of the reps with the first-team offense.
  2. Not everyone has quarterback issues: Teams thought to have quarterback question marks heading into spring seemed to have resolved them. In Utah, Jordan Wynn is completely healthy, and both coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson have declared Wynn their guy. While Mike Leach hasn’t officially declared Jeff Tuel his starter, it’s hard to imagine anyone else winning the job in the fall, short of Tuel suffering a significant injury or amnesia. He had a splendid spring, and appears to be a great fit for Leach’s offense. And at Arizona, Matt Scott seized the job early and left little room for any competition. Coach Rich Rodriguez has been gushing about how quickly Scott has adjusted to the offense. At Cal, Zach Maynard, once thought to be challenged by freshman Zach Kline, appears to not only have held on to the job, but distanced himself from pursuers.
  3. Wide receivers aplenty: And there are plenty of those in the conference. USC has probably the best tandem in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Cal’s Keenan Allen (though he missed spring drills) should continue to put up big numbers, and Washington State’s Marquess Wilson should flourish in the Cougars’ new system with Tuel as his quarterback. Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks could challenge the USC duo statistically if quarterback Sean Mannion continues to develop. There are stars on the rise at Arizona State (Jamal Miles) and Stanford (Ty Montgomery), and a potential star at Washington (James Johnson). Look out Biletnikoff, the Pac-12 is a comin'…
  4. The conference of defense? The Pac-12 might never bunk its reputation as an offensive-centric conference (especially when it keeps churning out offensive talent). But there is a surplus of talented defenses and defensive players who were on display this spring. Washington seems to have plugged its leaks with new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. There’s a 3-4 trend sweeping the conference, and with notable playmakers like Star Lotulelei (Utah), John Boyett (Oregon), Dion Jordan (Oregon), Chase Thomas (Stanford), Josh Shirley (Washington), T.J. McDonald (USC) and DeAndre Coleman (Cal), it’s easy to see why some of the Pac-12 defenses will get the same kind of love as the offenses do in 2012.
  5. Confidence is at an all-time high: As it should be in the spring. The four new coaches all feel confident about the systems they have installed. Stanford feels as good as it ever has about its running game. USC and Oregon should get lofty preseason rankings, and this is the time of the year when fans go through the schedules game by game and always seem to come up with a minimum of six wins. Sorry to say, there are teams in the conference that won’t make it to a bowl game this season. But when you hear the coaches talk about their teams, you’d think the conference is going to go 12-0 in the postseason. This is a magical time for fans filled with hope and possibility. Enjoy it while it lasts.
There were a lot of new and few answers this spring in the Pac-12.

The new is four new coaches: Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State. The lack of answers comes mostly at quarterback, though it now seems in vogue for coaches to downplay -- or refuse to provide -- a post-spring depth chart, thereby leaving just about every position allegedly up for grabs.

Or as Oregon coach Chip Kelly cryptically explained when asked if any Ducks questions were answered this spring, "I don’t know what that phenomena is, but we don’t have answers that are answered after spring, Grasshopper."

He didn't say "Grasshopper," but it seemed to be strongly implied.

[+] EnlargeJeff Tuel
AP Photo/Dean HareA strong spring game helped Jeff Tuel in his bid to be Washington State's starting QB.
USC and Washington entered and exited spring with QB certainty, with Matt Barkley and Keith Price ranking among the nation's best. California, Utah, Arizona and Oregon State appear solid at the position. Washington State is just short of set with Jeff Tuel, as Tuel's lights-out performance in the spring game -- 19-of-21 for 285 yards and two touchdowns -- made his position seem strong with an injured Connor Halliday on the sidelines.

That leaves Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. All five entered spring with QB uncertainty, and they exit it that way.

The Ducks QB situation was a national story after Darron Thomas surprisingly -- and unwisely -- opted to enter the NFL draft. Before spring began, Bryan Bennett, who played well in relief of Thomas last year, seemed like a strong frontrunner over Marcus Mariota. But Mariota overwhelmingly outplayed Bennett in the spring game, an ESPN3 broadcast that was the Ducks' only open practice, looking good as a runner and passer.

Still, Kelly only acknowledged what everyone saw and said onward to the summer.

Arizona State and UCLA started spring with three legitimate challengers at QB. While it seemed as though there was daily speculation of an emerging pecking order, both programs placed "ORs" between their troikas on their post-spring depth chart. While it would seem that Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank are ahead of Taylor Kelly for the Sun Devils, and Brett Hundley and Richard Brehaut are ahead of returning starter Kevin Prince for the Bruins, those competitions are unresolved, according to both head coaches.

Same can be said for Stanford, though the Cardinal only have a two-man race with Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes. Neither played terribly well in the spring game, so Andrew Luck's very, very large cleats remain unfilled.

Still, know that the coaches have a pretty good idea of the pecking order, even as they opt to be coy. Mora said he'll name his starter by Aug. 16, while Graham intimated his ultimate decision isn't far away.

"We're a lot closer than what it appears probably from the outside," he said.

Colorado's QB competition never really got started. Pre-spring frontrunner Connor Wood, a Texas transfer, was pretty much handed an opportunity to take the job with Nick Hirschman out with a foot injury, but Wood failed to break through. While Wood may well still be the frontrunner, it's also possible incoming freshman Shane Dillon could get into the mix, as could Jordan Webb, a former starter at Kansas who may end up in Boulder via transfer.

Embree isn't eager to prolong the indecision.

"If it's a clear cut deal, I'm not going to waste time," he said. "I think it's important that the team knows and that quarterback know that they're going to be leading the team."

What this all means is that nearly half the Conference of Quarterbacks is undecided at the position and likely will remain that way until mid-August. Or later.

Of course, feel free to consult the heavens -- or the message boards -- for hints at what might lay ahead.
The Pac-12 blog loves hype. It loves to throw down bait and watch you folks go at each other.

Such as: Oregon's recent success trumps Washington's historical dominance of the Northwest ... discuss.

But with our subject today -- Oregon's quarterback competition -- we're resisting hype, hyperbole and grand pronouncements.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota had an impressive performance in Oregon's spring game, completing 18 of 26 passes.
Yes, the Pac-12 blog watched Oregon's spring game. Yes, redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota impressed me. A lot. And it wasn't just him completing 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Or an 82-yard TD run that included an option fake that screamed, "DENNIS DIXON!"

It was his smoothness. He looked poised and completely in control. And Bryan Bennett did not.

Yet the best reaction to this as we head into the offseason probably should be, "Hey, that was interesting!" And little else. For one, if both were lousy, Ducks fans, would you be in a panic? No. Everyone would be insisting, "There's no need to panic. This, really, is the Pac-12 blog's fault."

Every spring, players break out or flop. And then they do the opposite in the fall when we play actual games. Last year, I wrote that Colorado defensive tackle Conrad Obi and UCLA defensive end Datone Jones looked like dominant players. I wrote that because they looked like dominant players when I watched them and their coaches supported what my eyes told me.

My eyes were wrong.

Two springs back, I felt fairly confident that Nate Costa would beat out Darron Thomas for the Ducks' starting job. That's what my eyes told me. And it was also a strong hunch. My eyes and hunch were wrong. Two springs ago, I wasn't very impressed with Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. Three days ago, he was picked in the second round of the NFL draft. In 2000, I saw nothing from Washington's spring game that suggested the Huskies were going to win the Rose Bowl and finish ranked in the top 5.

My point: While it's impossible to not be impressed with Mariota and to give Bennett a deduction, it's premature to hand the job to Mariota. Based on the little we know coming out of closed spring practices, the distance between the two during the previous 14 workouts wasn't great.

Remember how well Bennett played coming off the bench for an injured Thomas against Arizona State last year? Remember how well he played in his one start at Colorado? While it wasn't good that Bennett seemed rattled Saturday, the guy already has shown poise in pressure situations. Know what I think was bothering him? I think -- and this isn't really a good thing -- that he was frustrated by how much worse his offensive line was performing compared to Mariota's

Bennett's team, which lost 41-14, couldn't run the ball and it yielded three sacks. Bennett was consistently under pressure, Mariota was not. Mariota also had De'Anthony Thomas and a much better cast of receivers. Bennett had Kenjon Barner, who had one carry. For one yard.

Bennett labored under adverse conditions, but he did have some nice moments. Mariota thrived under better conditions, but he wasn't perfect.

This isn't over.

So what are some fair takeaways?

  • Rumors of Mariota's impressive potential are true.
  • Oregon has two solid options to replace Thomas. This is not a position that will keep Chip Kelly up at night.
  • Whatever they did in previous scrimmages behind closed doors, Mariota, er, won the day when the doors were opened and the pressure was on.
  • At the very worst for Mariota, he and Bennett head into the offseason in a dead-heat.
  • Mariota now knows his candidacy is serious. And so does Bennett. Now how will each react to that knowledge?
  • Closing 14 practices -- and two previous scrimmages -- may have skewed perception of this competition. The burden for that now falls on Bennett, who will have to deal with everyone acting like Mariota will win the job. Yes, it will be annoying for him.

Before spring practices, I believed Bennett was a solid favorite. As of today, I'd rate -- again, with limited information -- Mariota a slight favorite. My opinion, by the way, means not a thing.

The spring game was interesting. Perhaps even revealing. But we probably won't know the accuracy of anyone's hunches until a week before the opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1.

Watch Oregon! Secrets revealed!

April, 25, 2012
Oregon's spring game will be televised Saturday at 2 p.m. ET -- 11 a.m. PT -- on ESPN3.

Go here and look at the schedule. Notice anything?

Yes, the Ducks spring game is the last televised college football before Texas A&M visits Louisiana Tech on Thursday, Aug. 30. So that's a reason to watch right there. It's going to be a long, hot summer. Reports on changes to the college football postseason are only so fulfilling.

Further, it's the only time anyone -- fans or media -- will get to see Oregon play this spring, perhaps even the only time before the season-opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1. Ducks coach Chip Kelly opted to, for the first time in program history, completely close spring practices. So media reports have been unusually scarce.

The Ducks have been evenly divided into two teams via a draft -- Team Aliotti and Team Helfrich -- and they will play two 12-minute quarters, with a running clock in the second half. Obviously, that's defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti vs. offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.

So, now that Kelly is letting civilians look at his super-secret football team, what's at issue?
  • Quarterback! It's not only Aliotti vs. Helfrich, it's Bryan Bennett vs. Marcus Mariota. Team Aliotti has Mariota at QB and some key playmakers, including De'Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff and Colt Lyerla. Team Helfrich will feature Bennett and runnning back Kenjon Barner.
  • Who replaces defensive end Terrell Turner and rover Eddie Pleasant? Those, really, are the only two questions on a defense that should be very good. Of course, with the teams split up, it might be difficult to figure out what the exact pecking order is.
  • The Ducks most questionable position is receiver. Well, it's supposed to be questionable, at least until we see how much redshirt freshmen Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler and B.J. Kelley have improved. If all three look good, well, then the position looks brighter. It also will be good to see how Josh Huff, Rahsaan Vaughn and Daryle Hawkins look.
  • More than a few Ducks fans are eager to see how touted true freshman offensive tackle -- just kidding! -- defensive lineman Arik Armstead looks.
  • Word is defensive end Dion Jordan and linebacker Kiko Alonso have looked good this spring. Will they -- both members of Team Helfrich -- dominate the spring game?

According to the official website, the game will benefit the local Food Bank as well as pay tribute to the U.S. Armed Forces. Admission will be three non-perishable food items, which will be donated to Food for Lane County

For those who are planning to attend, a Fan Fest starts at 9 a.m. PT. From the website: "Much of the pregame, halftime and postgame festivities will include participation from the armed services, including a joint service color guard and ceremonies to honor the men and women from the state and their families for the sacrifices of their time overseas, a halftime flag-folding ceremony and a pre-game fly-over by military aircraft."

The Ducks spring game drew a team-record 43,468 spectators last year.
Earlier in the week, we noted that Athon Sports ranked Pac-12 QBs 1-12.

Here's the Athlon ranking again:

  1. Matt Barkley, USC
  2. Keith Price, Washington
  3. Jeff Tuel, Washington State
  4. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
  5. Bryan Bennett, Oregon
  6. Zach Maynard, Cal
  7. Brett Nottingham, Stanford
  8. Kevin Prince, UCLA
  9. Jordan Wynn, Utah
  10. Matt Scott, Arizona
  11. Mike Bercovici, Arizona State
  12. Connor Wood, Colorado

For one, Athlon went ahead and named QBs for teams with on-going QB competitions. Obviously, many of you had thoughts on the pecking order. It should come as no surprise that we did, too. So here's what we think.

Kevin Gemmell: Here are my thoughts.
    [+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
    Kirby Lee/US PresswireNot many would argue with USC's Matt Barkley being ranked as the Pac-12's top QB.

  • I don't think there is any debate about Nos. 1 and 2. That's where I'd put them.
  • Whoever wins the Stanford job is way too high for No. 7 -- considering neither Nottingham nor Josh Nunes have even started a game. Until proven, Stanford's QBs belong in double-digit country.
  • Jordan Wynn is ranked too low. As the Athlon folks admit, he's a tough one to gauge simply because of his past injury problems. But when he's healthy, he's one of the top five quarterbacks in the conference. And right now he's 100 percent healthy. I'd put him in the Nos. 4 to 5 range.
  • I like Jeff Tuel and I like his potential. And I think that's what these rankings are banking on -- what he'll be able to do in Mike Leach's system. But he's still a first-year player in the system and he'll still have Connor Halliday clawing for the job in the fall so I'm not sold on the No. 3 spot. Probably 6 or 7.
  • I think Mannion is poised for a big year. If the offensive line can get squared away and he has the time to throw in relative comfort, he'll have a big season. The 4 spot seems about right, give or take.
  • Due to the media blackout at Oregon, we don't have much of an idea of what's happening with Bennett or Marcus Mariota. I can only go on what I saw from Bennett last year and he was very capable of running the offense. And anyone capable of running Oregon's offense is going to be good. If it's Mariota, that means he's played better than Bennett and that's impressive. I'd bump Oregon to No. 3.
  • Maynard has a good running back, good receivers and he ended the year on a decent clip. Middle of the pack seems about right.
  • Like Tuel, I think Scott is loaded with potential. Plus he's a veteran guy with some experience under his belt. Doesn't belong in double digits.
  • UCLA just escapes double digits in my opinion because at least there is some experience within the three-way competition. If it ends up being Brett Hundley, it's because he beat out two guys with starting experience. And we all know what Noel Mazzone can do with an offense.
  • ASU is another major question mark. Inexperience plus a new system equals potential quarterback struggles. But whoever gets the job at least has some good weapons around him and an offense that is potentially explosive.
  • Colorado's quarterback to be has a tough road, no matter who wins the job. I've read mixed reports about Wood, but had the chance to speak with him and he comes across as confident and poised. Unfortunately, confidence and poise doesn't equal receivers.

So, with that said, here's my list as of right now.

  1. Matt Barkley, USC
  2. Keith Price, Washington
  3. Oregon quarterback to be named
  4. Jordan Wynn, Utah
  5. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
  6. Jeff Tuel, Washington State
  7. Zach Maynard, Cal
  8. Matt Scott, Arizona
  9. UCLA to be named
  10. ASU to be named
  11. Stanford to be named
  12. Colorado to be named

The floor is yours, Mr. Miller. Have at it.

Ted Miller: I can't wait for this: "Miller, you're an idiot. Our TBA QB is way better than their TBA QB! DO THEY PAY YOU FOR THIS!!! I HATE YOU!!!! ARRRRRR!"

I ditto Kevin on Nos. 1 and 2. Barkley is the No. 1 QB in the nation and Price is in the preseason top 10. After that, well, things are pretty fluid.

Here's my ranking:

1. Matt Barkley, USC
2. Keith Price, Washington
3. Jeff Tuel, Washington State
4. Jordan Wynn, Utah
5. Oregon QB to be named
6. Matt Scott, Arizona
7. Sean Mannion, Oregon State
8. Zach Maynard, California
9. UCLA QB to be named
10. Stanford QB to be named
11. Arizona State QB to be named
12. Colorado QB to be named

[+] EnlargeJeff Tuel
AP Photo/Dean HareA strong spring game helped Jeff Tuel in his bid to be Washington State's starting QB.
I've typed this before, but folks forget how good Tuel is when healthy. He's passed for 3,845 yards in his career with 25 TDs. I think he will get drafted in 2013.

Wynn is a lot like Tuel: When healthy, he's good. He's passed for 4,390 yards in his career with 31 TDs and 16 interceptions.

Not a big fan of giving a high ranking to a TBA, but Oregon's TBA gets special consideration at No. 5 because Chip Kelly has yet to fail when it comes to breaking in a new QB. We know Bryan Bennett is capable based on what he did when Darron Thomas was hurt last year, so if he gets beaten out by Marcus Mariota, well, Mariota will have to be pretty good, too. Still, this is an unknown with two ultimately unproven players.

Scott, with just five career starts, at No. 6 might surprise some folks. Here's my thinking. In 2009, Scott initially beat out Nick Foles for the starting job. In 2010, he came off the bench for an injured Foles and won a pair of starts, playing just short of brilliantly. His 150.95 efficiency rating would have finished fifth in the Pac-12 this season. He threw for a career-best 319 yards against UCLA, and won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week with a near-flawless performance against Washington (just ask Huskies fans). Finally, he's a great fit for Rich Rodriguez's spread-option offense.

Mannion and Maynard were a toss-up. Maynard had better numbers overall and surged late in the regular season, but Mannion has better upside. What tipped my rating to Mannion is his better receivers. They should help Mannion put up big numbers in 2012.

Then we come to the TBAs, non-Oregon. UCLA is tops among them because you have two veterans with plenty of starting experience in Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut. If redshirt freshman Brett Hundley is good enough to beat out both, well, then he'll be pretty promising.

I think, at worst, Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes, both once top recruits for Stanford, will be at least adequate. But neither has started a game or even seen meaningful action.

I also don't think Arizona State is in a jam at QB. Mike Bercovici, Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly all have their pluses. But each is inexperienced.

As for Colorado, the job was Texas transfer Connor Wood's to win this spring, and it appears he was not consistent enough to do that. He remains the favorite though, and there's no question about his potential. Still, as Kevin noted, the Buffaloes have receiver issues.