By Rock Mayock 11:30 p.m. | Since Mike Bellotti turned over his clip board and whistle to Chip Kelley in 2009, the Oregon Ducks have become the toast of the Pac-12. During his tenure Kelley has taken the Ducks to three straight BCS games which have included the 2010 Rose Bowl (loss to Ohio State 26-17), 2011 BSC National Championship Game (loss to Auburn 22-19) and the 2012 Rose Bowl (Win over Wisconsin 45-35). Entering 2012 the Ducks are not the presumptive Pac-12 champions for the first time in recent memory. However with a coaching staff that has not experienced any turnover in four years, the Ducks are still dangerous and poised to make a run.
OVERVIEW: For the first time in the Chip Kelly Era it’s the defense, not the offense, that is expected to carry the team. After losing their starting quarterback, tail back, tight end and primary wide receiver to the NFL the Ducks have some rebuilding to do. Kelley has always found a way to rotate in a seemingly endless crop of top tier talent however he has never been asked to replace so many pieces at the same time. Luckily for the Ducks their schedule, particularly the early season out of conference schedule, is as soft as warm butter so Kelley will have time to fine tune his offense before conference play. Let’s see how Kelley will cope.
OFFENSE: The primary issue facing the Ducks’ offense is at the quarterback position. Darron Thomas’ early entry into the NFL caught the Oregon coaching staff with their proverbial pants down because Chip Kelley’s zone read offense is heavily dependent upon a competent trigger man. The offense dictates that the QB throw the ball down field when he needs to throw, pull the ball down and run when he needs to run and make the lateral pitch when he sees the open man on the outside. Darron Thomas was a master at running this offense. Now the QB position has been relegated to an open competition between sophomore Bryan Bennett and freshman Marcus Mariota. Bennett was Thomas’ backup in 2011 but Mariota has dominated Spring Ball. As of now the QB position is still unsettled with only two weeks remaining before opening day against Arkansas State.
Another significant, but not altogether unexpected, departure from last season’s squad is Heisman Trophy runner up tailback LaMichael James. Although James led the Ducks in rushing in each of the past three seasons, two very respectable stud backs are looking to replace him. Kenjon Barner will get the nod as the starting tailback but all everything super athlete De’Anthony Thomas will see plenty of action as well. As a true freshman in 2011 Thomas racked up an impressive 2,235 all purpose yards, 18 TDs, and 46 receptions. Expect Kelley to employ numerous packages to get the ball into Thomas’ hands in unconventional ways.
The wide receiver and tight end positions are also question marks for the Ducks. Last season’s most reliable receivers, WR Lavasier Tuinei (Seahawks, undrafted free agent) and TE David Paulson (Steelers, 7th Round 240th pick) are now in the NFL. That leaves veterans TE Colt Lyera (7 receptions, 5 TDs) WR Josh Huff and WR Daryle Hawkins as the “go to” guys. Kelley also has freshman athletes Devon Blackmon, BJ Kelley and Tacoi Sumler looking for an opportunity to make an impact.
The offensive line remains relatively intact and will be good but not great. Sophomore C Hroniss Grasu will anchor the middle and Jake Fisher as well as Carson York will return as well. York may not be available until mid season due to the gruesome knee injury he incurred in the Rose Bowl.
Although the Ducks have question marks at QB, WR, and TE they have the luxury of time through the first three games of the season. The Ducks will get their first three games at Autzen Stadium against Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Not necessarily the most formidable of opponents. They will need these games to hone their offense because the next three games are at home against Arizona, at Washington State and then home against Washington. The fact is that teams are becoming hip to Kelley’s offensive scheme and he will need to work some magic before facing the teeth of the Pac-12 schedule.
DEFENSE: Here is a bit of an oxymoron, the 2012 Oregon Ducks will be defined by their defense. Ironic but true. Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti’s 3-4 defense is characterized by speed and multiple look blitz packages. This defensive scheme was good in 2011 but should be even better in 2012.
All conference hybrid DE/LB Dion Jordan will anchor a rock solid line backing corps that also features last year’s leading tackler Michael Clay (102 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, 3 sacks). Up front there is a mix of veteran and freshman D-linemen that Aliotti will use to stunt and shoot the gaps to pressure opposing QBs. Amongst the D-lineman are freshman Arik Armstead (Armond Armstead’s little brother), Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi.
The secondary will be highlighted by stud senior safety John Boyett. Boyett has a nose for the ball and is a natural playmaker. Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will be on the edge as average to above average cover corners. The lone weakness of the secondary will be across the middle. The Ducks had a penchant for giving up the big pass play over the middle last season, particularly in nickel packages.
2012 will likely be Nick Aliotti’s last season with the Ducks as he is an excellent defensive coordinator worthy of a head coaching opportunity. His defense will need to be stout, especially at the beginning of the season, because it is unknown if the offense will generate the same prolific output that it did last year.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Ducks have been seemingly unstoppable in conference play since 2009 however USC’s defeat of Oregon at Autzen Stadium in 2011 may have marked the turning of the tide. Teams are becoming more and more adept at stopping Chip Kelley’s hurry up zone read offense and it’s going to be progressively more difficult for them to keep running the table. This year’s schedule is riddled with trap games. Both the September 29 game against Washington State at CenturyLink Field and the November 10 game at Cal stand out as the biggest not so obvious pitfalls. Mike Leach loves to throw the ball all over the field and he has two very capable QBs on his roster. Furthermore it’s a little known fact that Oregon is only 1-3 in the last four trips to Berkeley and they eked out an UGLY 15-13 win during their 2010 road trip. Furthermore the Ducks have the monumental November 3 matchup against USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. All three of these games are very losable.
The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate that the window for greatness is a small one and it is often fleeting. Great coaches rarely stick around small market cities for long. Chip Kelley was aggressively pursued by a number of NFL teams during this past offseason and it is only a matter of time before somebody throws out a big enough number to convince him or a member of his staff to leave. With that said, 2012 is likely the start of the back end of success curve for the Ducks but they won’t go without a fight.
Season prediction: 9-3, 2nd in the Pac-12 North