- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Oregon spring game is this Saturday and it’s going to be the best thing to do this weekend (that is, unless you have something better to do). If you’re in Eugene, stop by Autzen Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff. If you’re not, it’ll be televised on the Pac-12 Network and live audio can be found on goducks.com.
Coach Mark Helfrich has promised that this game will be a recognizable football game, unlike some of the other spring game experiences across the country. Typically, the starters don’t get a ton of reps and that might still be the case this Saturday, but, it’ll be the first and only chance to see the Ducks live until they kick off the 2014 season.
It’s important to remember that this is just one of the Ducks’ 15 practices this spring. Because something is true (or not true) on Saturday, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the same during the other 14 practices this spring. When the coaches are making decisions and drawing conclusions about a player or position group, they’re going to look at the body of work as a whole, not just what happens on Saturday.
That being said, here are five storylines to keep track of:
1. Pass distribution. Last season, 68 percent of the passes were thrown to receivers. In 2012, 61 percent of the passes were thrown to receivers. But now, with Bralon Addison down and the majority of the pass-catching experience coming from the running backs and the tight ends, how much will Marcus Mariota (or whichever quarterback is in) look to distribute the ball? This Saturday might not be the best indicator of what will happen next fall, but keep track of how many of the early reads feature tight ends and running backs.
2. Cornerback race. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has one cornerback spot on lock. But the other spot is still a competition and likely will be until next fall. But, it’ll be interesting to see how Dior Mathis and Troy Hill play. They’re on separate teams so at least they won’t be battling for first reps against each other. And, again, they might be covering a younger receiver or get a pick on a less experienced QB, so take everything with a grain of salt. But, watch their cuts, speed, footwork, how their heads swivel -- the kinds of things that will give any kind of indication on how much they’ve progressed.
3. No-name explosion. Since there will be a lot of third- and fourth-string guys coming in to the game, this is always a fun day to see who might be a name to know two or three years down the road. Danny Mattingly could suddenly become everyone’s favorite middle linebacker, and Kani Benoit could be the MVP at running back. Who knows? There’s no telling who will step up, but there’s a good chance that you’ll hear quite a few names that you haven’t heard much of this spring.
4. Weight gains -- visible? This will be the first time the public gets to see how the weight gains affect the players. Presumably, the offensive line will be more physical, but with another 100 pounds on that group, will they still be as agile as they’ve been in the past? What about Johnny Mundt -- he put on major weight, will he be able to cut as well? Thomas Tyner put on 14 pounds while Byron Marshall dropped six. How does that affect the run game? Which player’s body will be better fit for the position now?
5. Defense moving faster. Several players said this spring that they feel the defense moving faster, and defensive coordinator Don Pellum said he wants this group running like maniacs. Typically, that’s a very good sign. However, if they’re running like maniacs and they have no idea what they’re doing, that’s a very bad thing. Last week Helfrich said that “even if everyone is on the same wrong page, you can survive, but we want to be in thrive mode.” The problem is that those communication errors that get guys on different pages generally happen when younger, less-experienced players are on the field. Hello, Saturday. With the groups jumbled a bit and some first-teamers running with third-teamers and some second-stringers running with fourth-stringers, it’ll be a better representation of how good the depth is on defense than necessarily how great the communication is between the players who’ll actually see the field next fall.