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Josh Huff, Everett Benyard III highlight Wednesday’s two-a-day session with lifetime achievement

The Ducks held two spirited practice sessions Wednesday with renewed physicality and intensity, but Josh Huff and Everett Benyard lll won the day.

Big man, big accomplishment: 6-7, 305-lb. offensive lineman Everett Benyard lll, shown here leaving practice this spring, has earned not only his Oregon degree but a spot in the Ducks rotation at guard in 2013 (247sports.com photo).

Yesterday it came out that the two seniors are graduating Saturday, walking in Oregon’s summer commencement ceremony with degrees in Sociology and General Social Science respectively.

New Register-Guard reporter Ryan Thorburn spoke to coaches yesterday about the two after practice. Mark Helfrich was beaming with pride, Thorburn wrote, reflecting on how far the two have some since their recruiting home visit and sending in their letter of intent.

“Josh has matured a lot. When he came here he was really talented, but I think emotionally he was a little bit up and down,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost told Thorburn. “He has grown up. He’s a leader now, and he’s one of the toughest kids on the team. If we can keep him healthy, he’s going to have a big year.”

Graduating frees both players to concentrate on having an outstanding senior year for the football team this fall. Under NCAA rules, they remain eligible all season even if all they take is one credit hour. For Dennis Dixon, the only class he took during his final season was billiards. Kenjon Barner, who also completed his graduation requirements before a senior campaign that saw him pile up 1767 yards on the ground and 23 total touchdowns, took a ballet class to improve his footwork. Maybe it was his time at the barre that made the difference, tiptoeing his way through the USC secondary for 321 yards and 5 tds.

Barner’s departure leaves a big hole on Oregon’s dance card, and throughout spring and fall camps, sophomore Byron “Smash” Marshall has made a concerted, concentrated effort to fill it.  The theme of maturity came up again yesterday afternoon when running backs coach Gary Campbell took a knee with Oregon Daily Emerald reporter Hayden Kim. The veteran position coach praised Smash for his steady progress toward taking over as the Ducks’ feature back. 

“I think he’s mentally matured a lot,” Campbell said. “He knows the offense, which makes it a lot easier for any new athlete coming into the program. Once you learn the offense, then your talents can come out. Prior to that, you’re feeling your way around, thinking so much that you don’t do things well physically.”

Campbell cited Marshall’s improved conditioning and confidence, observing that Byron seems more trusting of himself athletically as he executes a play. Already, the 5-10, 201-lb. tailback shows signs of becoming a leader. He likes too, that Byron doesn’t seem preoccupied with the depth chart or a supposed position battle with Thomas Tyner, instead he is focused instead on just getting better every day.

That’s the emphasis too, for Oregon’s backup quarterbacks. Andrew Greif of oregonlive.com posted a feature on that trio yesterday, and senior Dustin Haines told the reporter that he, Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie are looking beyond clawing over top one another in the practice order.   “We’re here to build each other up just in case the next man has to step up and we’re always good in that regard,” Haines said. “… It’s been honestly no stress, whatsoever.”

The commitment to the team and each other is crucial, because position battles, particularly at quarterback and running back, tear some teams apart before seasons begin. Guys room with each other and form social circles. When there are factions, back-biting, second-guessing and bitterness it can poison a locker room. These types of distractions can sap energy and divide attention, especially under pressure. Having all three quarterbacks compete for the 2013 backup job without acrimony, looking out for each other, making each other better, improves the atmosphere and attitude for the entire offense.

Roommate bonds can be especially constructive or destructive within a team. Last season at this time, then-redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and sophomore Bryan Bennett were competing for the starting quarterback job. Every day of camp and 11-on-11 period seemed to produce a new leader.

Starting center Hroniss Grasu was Bennett’s center in high school and his Oregon roommate, the two sharing an off-campus apartment. Grasu supported both guys, and the communication he developed with Mariota at the line of scrimmage became a key element in Oregon’s offense: both the center and the quarterback have reads at the line of scrimmage, and if there’s disharmony between the two, the split-second timing of getting the right play and the blocking assigned becomes impossible.

Grasu is now roommates with another high school teammate at Crespi High, junior wide receiver Blake Stanton, who is fighting for playing time in a crowded Oregon receiver rotation. Stanton, an All-Calhi receiver for Bennett as a prep, walked on at Oregon in 2010, in the same class as Grasu and their 4-star quarterback. Diligent work in practice won Stanton a scholarship. 

Blake, who grabbed 5 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in the Spring Game, continues to be a guy who shows up in practice reports daily for his effort. Yesterday Stanton, Josh Huff, and another walk-on who earned a scholarship, fellow receiver Chad Delaney, pushed past three defenders in a goal-line blocking drill to earn a point for the offense in Wednesday’s Competition Day.

It will be a close call whether the 5-11, 211-lb slot receiver makes the traveling squad, but he and roommate Grasu have succeeded in maintaining a healthy team-first camaraderie throughout the whole experience. Yesterday the two participated in the latest installment of “The Roommate Game” with Comcast Sports Net Reporter Jen Beyrle. The takeaway from the ping pong paddle hijinks is that this is a healthy team with great chemistry, peopled by well-rounded kids who take football seriously but can laugh about everything else.

On the practice field Wednesday the Ducks held two workouts, helmets in the morning and full pads in the afternoon. The afternoon session was a Competition Day, with the defense winning 25-24. Rob Moseley of goducks.com reported the team focused on second-and-long and goal line work. Freshman lineman Doug Brenner, the younger brother of multiple sports star Liz Brenner, scored a “fat guy touchdown” by recovering a red zone fumble and rumbling for a score. In 11-on-11 Colt Lyerla trucked Boseko Lokombo, a titanic confrontation that should remind fans how much talent there is on the Oregon roster.

And on August 31, in just 16 short days, they’ll all be wearing the same jerseys and hitting someone else.

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