No April Fools Joke: Ducks will be better in 2012

com_120314_miller_OUmariota_120315Every year, you kind of get reborn.

The season could go a variety of ways, because seasons can. It’s a big part of why we watch and participate, the unexpected, the unpredictable, the promise of seeing something you’ve never seen before, how things turn out, and maybe even the unfolding of a dream.

Last night I watched KU come from 13 points down just before the half in the Final Four versus Ohio State, with about six lead changes in the final four minutes, even down by five late in the game, tossing a clinching steal out of bounds, a game that had that wrung out, exhilarated feeling that a great game can give you.

photo left: Eight months of competition will produce a new quarterback for the Oregon offense, and the winner could give Duck fans another season of great games and memorable moments. It just might be Marcus Mariota (espngo.com photo).

Duck fans experienced that last fall in the USC game. The team gave everything it had, coming back from 18 down in the third quarter, getting a spark when De’Anthony Thomas rocketed 96 yards with a kickoff return, the defense forcing an interception and a fumble in the fourth quarter, coming achingly close to an historic comeback, running out of gas or correct play calls when they got down to the USC 18, first and ten with 20 seconds to play. A national championship bid went down by the angle of a toe.

This next season could be just as heartbreaking, just as close, or as jubilant as another win in the Rose Bowl. To paraphrase the immortal Joaquin Andujar, once a star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, “All of baseball [football/life] can be summed up in just one little word: youneverknow.”

Youneverknow. The Ducks start practice on Tuesday, and they’ll have 15 sessions to make a down payment on greatness. With two very focused and talented young quarterbacks, a stout defense anchored by veteran leadership, and a wealth of talented newcomers itching to make a Momba-like impact in their first season, Chip Kelly’s fourth squad is highly likely to have a memorable and amazing season, the kind that puts a spring in your step as you look forward to Game Day, a growl in your throat as you crack open the first cold beverage at the tailgate. This team can be very, very good.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be questions or challenges. Kelly and his staff will have to figure out the puzzles at quarterback, receiver, and defensive end. But they’re good at that. An injury or two at running back would present a challenge. The players have to maintain their discipline, focus and a standard of acceptable behavior between now and September. Imagine how good last year’s team might have been with an all-conference play-making veteran cornerback to cover Marqise Lee and Jared Abbrederis.

This spring and summer, Josh Huff has to get his act right. His teammates need him, and he can have a big season in this offense. Bennett and Mariota would be looking to him a lot, and Mark Helfrich might also need him to carry the ball once in a while. He’s a key on this team, a veteran now with game-breaking ability and versatility. That doesn’t mean they can’t win without him. In recent seasons they’ve won without LeGarrette Blount, Walter Thurmond, Jeremiah Masoli, and Harris. That list is a testament to just how resilient and forward-thinking this operation is.

In 2012, Bennett and Mariota will blossom and emerge. The winner of that competition is going to be a hell of a quarterback. Bennett we’ve seen, and if Mariota beats him out (which I don’t expect or predict at this point) he’s got to be everything he was whispered to be in his first year of closed practices. BB, the known quantity at this point, sparkled in limited duty last season. He’s poised and mobile. He quickens Duck fan’s collective pulse with his ability to create and ramble when the pocket collapses or a lane develops. He’s nifty in the open field, breaking loose for a 36-yard run against Arizona State, and 43 versus Colorado. Those were plays Dennis Dixon used to make. Bennett didn’t throw an interception in 46 attempts as a redshirt freshman forced to play, while tossing six touchdown passes. That’s promising. You like his makeup, the way he answers questions and the way he handles himself when he goes into the game. Like he belongs there. Like he expected to be the guy and intends to stay. His accuracy numbers will go up with recogniton (54.3%), and by everything he’s said publicly since Darron Thomas declared, he’s ready for the job, the preparation it requires, and the pressure that comes with it.

The Oregon offense will thrive with a young quarterback that has a live arm, sound mechanics, and nimble feet. One critical question: can they keep Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas healthy, splitting 30 carries a game? I liked this season better with Tra Carson as a hole card and a change of pace. Now freshman Byron Marshall has to be good as advertised, and ready. Some seasons, three running backs aren’t enough. Chip Kelly doesn’t deal in hypotheticals, but if it came to needing a fourth, you’d expect he go to Huff, or maybe freshman Bralon Addison, who’s about the right size and displays some eye-popping open-field instincts in his high school highlight video.

If Mariota beats out Bennett, he’s earned it, and Duck fans ought to pack their bottle openers for one amazing season. But youneverknow.

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