By most football standards, last season in Eugene, Ore., was a success. Under a first-year head coach the Ducks had an 11-win season while their 273.5 rushing yards per game and 291.5 passing yards per game were among the best in the country. But there was no Pac-12 championship and no BCS bowl game (ending the Ducks’ run of four-consecutive BCS bowl game appearances). So, year two is going to be as big of a test as the first for Mark Helfrich & Co.
With spring practices beginning Tuesday, the first steps of 2014 will be taken as the Ducks look to build on what they did last season and fix the mistakes that were made and the shortcomings that plagued them.
Offensively, their identity is set. Marcus Mariota decided to return to Oregon, and with that decision expectations soared for what this offense could do. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers but with Mariota slinging it behind an offensive line that returns abundant talent and experience, even average receivers could look great. The receiver depth is far better than average. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison need to continue to contribute at a high level as they look to make up for the loss of two of the top three receivers from 2013.
However, since the receiver experience is limited, look for Helfrich to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game as the Ducks return a trio that could help take some of the yardage burden off those WRs. In 2013 the tight end trio of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis accounted for five touchdowns and 475 yards on just 30 receptions.
The run game, again, will be no surprise to anyone. Even without De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks should be fine. Byron Marshall -- who led Oregon with 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,038 rushing yards -- and Thomas Tyner will be able to attack defenses up front and be a very formidable matchup in the option when teams try to stop the run. They both boast good hands, so they’ll be able to help out in the pass game as well, helping Mariota put up even bigger numbers in 2014.
All of that combined will make up a high-powered offense, which is exactly what people expect out of Oregon. But the biggest question will be whether the defense can be an equal counterpart. And with an attack like Oregon’s, the defense must almost be even stronger considering it’s on the field about 10 minutes more per game than teams.
So it’s not very fair to put up their straight defensive numbers and statistics against any other team that doesn’t feature as prolific of an offense. But it is fair to say that it’s one of the bigger concerns heading into this spring and one of the facets of the game that must make the biggest strides.
Last year, Oregon was known for its deep secondary as it dared teams to throw. But in return, the Ducks struggled against the run even with an experienced group. They gave up 3.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to convert on 65.5 percent of rushing attempts on third downs (119th nationally). Oregon returns DeForest Buckner on the D-line, but overall, the group will need to improve its numbers against the run. It’s certainly a place where players could emerge through spring ball and one of the most important position groups that must build depth.
But even with the shuffling and inexperience on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum will stick with the 3-4 base defense because of the depth and experience the Ducks have in their linebacker group, which returns three starters, and their defensive backs. Even though the Ducks have just one returning starter in the secondary (cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), most of the DBs got some experience last season.
Next season could be huge for Oregon, but the foundation of what happens next December and January begins right now.