The Oregon Spring Game was ragged and inconclusive, a staple of the genre. It’s impossible to empty the bench and play five quarterbacks and expect polish and mid-season efficiency.
Still, there were enough glimpses of improvement, potential and development to suggest this edition of the Ducks can live up to the sky-high expectations, expectations that were cemented in January when Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Hroniss Grasu postponed lucrative NFL contracts to remain in college for another year.
On Wednesday in the Oregon Daily Emerald, the University’s student newspaper, reporter Hayden Kim posited that, given the talent on this year’s team and the accomplishment of his predecessor, Mark Helfrich has “little room for error” in his second season as head coach:
“Fair or not, Helfrich will be under even more pressure heading into his second season and it’s going to take a near perfect run to keep the word “hot seat” from spreading around. It may not be title or bust, but anything short of making the new four-team playoff will be considered a disappointment.”
Those are strong words from the school’s campus organ, but a fair assessment of the fan mindset in the second year of not only Helfrich, but the Hatfield-Dowlin center and Scott Frost as offensive coordinator.
Yesterday’s stumbling offense reflected little of the new-found discipline coaches and players had been talking about all spring (0-for-three in red zone chances, 6 turnovers), nor did a defense that featured blown assignments and missed tackles. There’s plenty to correct and grouse over but the positive signs are more interesting, and more characteristic of the team that will take the field against Michigan State and Stanford in the fall:
1. Marcus Mariota’s crisp efficiency
The Ducks 3rd-year starter, whom many consider the best quarterback in college football not arrested for shoplifting, was 6-7 passing in his short stint, leading two touchdown drives after Kenny Bassett’s fumble on a well-executed swing pass ended the first possession.
Mariota was mobile, elusive and poised, dissecting the defense with a pair of touchdown passes. He looked calm and resourceful. In a third quarter television interview he seemed very much at ease with his decision “to just be a college kid” for another year.
Helfrich called the foundation of leadership the junior quarterback and seniors Ekpre-Olomu and Grasu will provide “immeasurable” in value for this edition of the Ducks. Their resolve in returning will fuel the off-season workout program. There’s no doubt about the character and leadership of this team, traits that will spur them in achieving those lofty expectations that Kim outlined.
2. Promising signs by young receivers
Productivity in a spring game can be deceptive, but both Devon Allen and Darren Carrington had big days for the Ducks, Allen with a pair of long touchdown catches that showed his exciting potential as a deep threat, including a weaving 49-yarder on the last play of the game, Carrington with a twisting, diving touchdown catch tight-roping the sideline, a nifty grab with a protective cast on his wrist, a play so agile and athletic it reminded fans of Duck greats like Bralon Addison and Josh Huff, who won’t be available this year.
Dwayne Stanford, the 6-5 wideout who missed last season with a knee injury, was also steady and consistent, catching the ball in traffic as well as scampering 20-plus yards with an option pitch from Mariota. B.J. Kelley had a couple of plays, and Chance Allen was targeted on a long pass play over the middle that resulted in a pass interference penalty.
Altogether it suggests that this group has the speed and talent to compensate for the loss of Addison to an ACL tear with a summer of work with their veteran quarterback. Tight ends Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt had catches, and the Ducks five qbs also found backs Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall on pass plays, Tyner for a 25-yard touchdown from Mariota.
3. Thomas Tyner Version 2.0
He announced himself on the first run from scrimmage, accelerating hard with the handoff and blasting around the left side. Before his brief stint was done the sophomore from Aloha trucked a defensive back on one play, ran through several tackles, displaying better balance, vision and determination after a year of college football and a winter in Jim Radcliffe’s weight room.
Tyner is visibly transformed as a second-year back. His arms are powerful, his sprinter’s legs thicker and even more coiled. Listed now at 5-11, 215, the body development signals a new level of determination in him. He was already good, with 711 yards and 9 touchdowns as a true freshman, but this is a tougher, stronger, and more mature player than the 5-star wunderkind who came to campus last June.
His effort and explosiveness signals that he’s ready to take over as the lead back this season, although Byron Marshall will be very valuable also, coming off a thousand-yard year as the starter in 2013. Tyner has another gear, and a higher top end than the determined, steady junior from San Jose.
Redshirt freshman Kani Benoit looked impressive off the bench yesterday, with three leg-driving north-south runs, despite having one of Oregon’s four fumbles. Benoit put in solid work on the scout team last fall and looks to be a capable insurance policy and relief man for the Ducks’ three prize studs, Tyner, Marshall and freshman Royce Freeman, another 5-star prospect who joins the team in June.
4. Some strong play in the secondary
There were some predictable lapses and miscommunications, the kind you would see in a spring game, but Erick Dargan, Dior Mathis, Tyree Robinson and Reggie Daniels made some plays and big hits in the back four. John Neal’s unit should have the speed and aggressiveness to carry on the DBoyz tradition next fall in the Oregon defensive backfield. Robinson, who had four tackles and an interception. Daniels broke up three passes. These two are ball hawks, and the unit can only get stronger with promising newcomers Arrion Springs, Mattrell McGraw and Glen Ihenacho joining the team this summer. Those three are already working out and studying film, likely to be significantly ahead of normal freshmen and they compete for roles in the rotation and on special teams in their first year.
5. Beef and physicality
Like Tyner, significant numbers of the Ducks are visibly bigger and stronger this year. Tua Talia had a nice penetration, throwing down Johnathan Loyd on an end-around play. He’s rock-solid at 6-5 290, and up and down both the offensive and defensive lines, there is more push and power in the front. DeForest Buckner played with great resolve and effectiveness. Sam Kamp and Alex Balducci are beefed up, still athletic.
The offensive line will show much more cohesiveness when not split up into two groups, but they held their own after one short month of work.
With four more months of preparation, there’s time for even more strength games, and in their public comments there’s a strong sense that this group wants to put an end to Stanford’s recent domination, and the dismissal of Oregon as a team that’s fast and flashy but soft against physical opponents.
With veteran leadership, this team will challenge each other, and solidify that resolve. Internal leadership and character is the ultimate strength of this team, far more significant than numbers, stats or opinion polls and pundits.
Emerald reporter Kim is right that Coach Helfrich has all the raw material any coach would need to make D-1 college football’s first playoff, provided he has reasonable luck on major injuries. There didn’t appear to be any yesterday.
The play of the backup quarterbacks was the spottiest and most inconclusive of all the position groups. None of the four appears remotely close to seizing the job. Jake Rodrigues looks fully recovered from his leg injury, running with a good burst and power, but he was 6-18 passing. The entire group was plagued by fumbles and interceptions, looking harried, uncomfortable, woefully inconsistent, although Damion Hobbs has made a lot of progress in his redshirt year. The #2 position appears wide open as summer workouts begin, and the hope is that freshman Morgan Mahalak will challenge for it when he comes in another month. Right now the Ducks prospects plummet if Mariota needs relief at any point in the season.
Watching the game on tape-delayed television was torture. The announcers talked over the telecast and were poorly prepared, exchanging inane blather rather than meaningfully identifying who made the tackle or carried the ball or caught it. Graphics, interviews and inserts got in the way of the action on the field. It was a lazy effort by the broadcast team. Sideline reporter Jill Savage outshined her colleagues in the booth, showing a genuine ability to connect with players and get some fresh insights from them. The PAC-12 Network remains an amateur, cable access kind of operation. It made me miss the days ESPN and Chris Fowler did the game.