What the Arkansas State game could tell us about the Ducks

imagesDon’t sleep on Arkansas State.

In fact, don’t sleep on anyone. Even Tennessee Tech is the only chance that week to see the Ducks play college football, and for the players, it’s the only chance to develop timing, rhythm, cohesion and execution. Opponents don’t matter. The process and the progress do.

But Gus Malzahn’s Red Wolves are a bigger challenge than casual fans might assume. For one, they have Malzahn, the former architect of the Auburn offense in Cam Newton’s Heisman and National Championship season. ASU has big-time aspirations and a solid resume. Last season they were 10-3 and 8-0 in the Sun Belt Conference. They played Illinois tough to begin the year before losing 33-15, and lost to #13 Virginia Tech by just 26-7. They weren’t blown out by anybody, and they return senior quarterback Ryan Aplin, who threw for 3588 yards and 19 touchdowns (plus 16 interceptions) and five of his six top receivers. Alpin’s a dual threat, also ASU’s leading rusher with 588 yards and 10 tds. This season he’ll be joined in the backfield by Tennessee transfer David Oku and sophomore Frankie Jackson, 355 yards last year, 4.0 yards a carry.

Malzahn has something to work with, and he’ll relish the chance to match wits again with Kelly as he starts his first coaching job and returns to his Arkansas roots. He’s crafty and motivated, a guy who wrote the book (or at least a book) on hurry-up offense. The Red Wolves had a porous defense last season, but their new head coach and his staff are certain to bring some SEC backbone to the unit, led by senior lineback Nathan Herrold and strong safety Don Jones.

The Sun Belt is a conference of periennial SEC victims of the week, staples at alumni feel-good home games that pad the rankings and the bowl aspirations of the vaunted ESS EEE SEE, teams like Troy, Alcorn State South Alabama, and Louisiana-Lafayette. So in one sense you could say Arkansas State plays an SEC-quality schedule.

For the Ducks, the ratings, rankings, reputation and aspirations of the Red Wolves don’t really matter. It’s a chance to set the tone for a new year. It’s a chance to go live, hit and be hit, and show you can execute. Here are the cues and clues Duck fans should be looking for in the season’s first college football:

How does Marcus Mariota look?

In the spring game he impressed with his poise and command, but this is his first college start as a redshirt freshman, the first frosh to take the reins at Oregon since Danny O’Neil in 1991. Bet ASU’s new defensive coordinator John Thompson, who has 25 years experience in college coaching and has sent 40 players to the NFL, will test Mariota with blitzes and try to mix up coverages for him. How does Mariota handle the pressure of his first start, the expectations, the noise and the responsibility? Does the offense find its rhythm and execute with efficiency?

MM’s intelligence, competitiveness and cool, laid-back demeanor will serve him well in this situation. He’s an uncommonly focused young man who takes challenges in stride. His first year starting at St. Louis High in Hawaii he passed for 32 tds with just five interceptions.  In his first game he took the second play from scrimmage, a keeper on the zone read, for a 51-yard touchdown.

It’s crucial that Mariota finds a comfort level and establishes command of the offense in his first three starts. The Ducks start conference play at the end of the month, at home versus new coach Rich Rodriguez and Arizona on September 22nd, then their first road game against Mike Leach and the new-look Washington State Cougars  at Century Link Field in Seattle a week later.

Will the new receiver group be productive and add balance to the offense?

Two years later, the Ducks still miss Jeff Maehl. Matt Daddy of Addicted to Quack had some telling stats in an article he published yesterday on the receivers:

Besides Huff, our leading returning wide receiver is Rahsaan Vaughn with 14 catches. Hawkins had 5 catches in 2011, Dungy had 2.
– In 2011 our wide receivers caught 115 passes for 1524 yards. 2010, 180 passes for 2284, in 2009 115 passes for 1341 yards

Minus the Maehl Man and Lavasier Tunei, this unit has a lot to prove in 2012, and the Ducks need them to do so. With a thin roster at running back and a new qb, balance is critical. There’s no spread in the spread offense without a viable passing threat, and last year Oregon’s passing game was De’Anthony Thomas and a cloud of covered. Tuinei had a great Rose Bowl; battling injuries, Huff had a couple of highlight film moments interspersed with a year of frustration, but at times the best the Ducks could do was put the walk ons in to block and throw to David Paulson, who is now also gone.

Fans eagerly awaited the emergence of the fabulously touted recruits Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler and B.J. Kelley, the hope that the passing game could go vertical again like it did against Michigan in The Big House in 2007. But Sumler transferred and Blackmon hasn’t yet made the depth chart. Only Kelley cracked the two-deep, and the three starters at wideout are Huff, Daryl Hawkins and Jesuit product Keanon Lowe, seemingly underwhelming choices in terms of recruiting hype and top end speed. Rahsaan Vaughn, the number one rated JC receiver when he signed on a year ago, also didn’t make the top six. Eric Dungy did, though, at 6-1 183 not an imposing physical specimen but reportedly the best hands in the group. True freshman Bralon Addison showed up in camp reports and comments almost daily, flashing elusiveness and playmaking ability, leapfrogging Vaughn and several others to land a spot in the opening game rotation. He’s an intriguing addition who could have an immediate impact in the Duck offense, a talented athlete who played quarterback and point guard in high school.

Lowe and Hawkins had the best camp and earned the nod from Scott Frost. Oregon is now blessed with a starting quarterback who can make all the throws with touch and has the arm to get the ball deep. Mariota also throws extremely well on the run and has a knack for creating outside the pocket. Will these guys get open and make plays? On paper, it’s not a group to rival the receiver talent at USC and elsewhere around the conference, but neither were Maehl or Keenan Howry before them.

Rhythm, execution and rapport in the passing will be critical to the Ducks success on offense this year. Fans don’t want Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas taking a pounding inside with eight men in the box for the defense. Against Arkansas State and the other early opponents, Mariota and his receivers have an opportunity to establish a downfield passing game that will make the offense even harder to defend. To do that, these guys have to make plays and show they can be consistent.

Have the young cornerbacks grown from year one to year two?

Malzahn likes to spread the field and use multiple formations, and he has a 3500-yard passer and five of his top receivers at his disposal. They are a step down from Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, but Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis have an opportunity on Saturday to showcase what they have learned in the last six months, and if they are ready to build upon the progress and improvement they showed through 14 games last year. It’s also a first look at Oregon’s front seven, expected to provide more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which improves any secondary.