As the news trickles in from Oregon practice, it could always be worse. At Missouri star receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is indefinitely suspended after an arrest for first-degree burglary and assault. In Seattle Husky starting quarterback Cyler Miles can’t attend spring practice after an altercation following the Super Bowl, and down in Arizona, Sun Devil coach Todd Graham says his offensive line is slow and out of shape.
Meanwhile the Ducks keep grinding. Young Ducks send dispatches on Twitter. Anxious to compete for playing time and succeed in the adjustment to the next level, uncommonly mature young athletes like Jimmie Swain, Justin Hollins, Mattrell McGraw, Morgan Mahalak and Terrell Crosby are working out, running track, getting sore, mirroring their big brothers going through spring practice in Eugene. Position coaches send them a workout book and HUDL film study materials to their phone. This is the most serious, career-driven group the Ducks have ever had. They were hand-picked, not only for talent but for attitude. They’ll come to the UO practice fields in eight short weeks, with a work ethic that will fit in immediately with veterans like Tony Washington, Mariota, Grasu, Addison and Ekpre-Olomu.
The melding of old and new is going to be fun to watch. Chip Kelly used to say, “every year, you kind of get reborn.” There’s a rebirth of energy among the Ducks this spring, way more powerful than the standard April optimism.
Both Andrew Greif of the Oregonian and Aaron Fentress of Comcast Sports Northwest wrote today about the position battle at running back, and Fentress noted that Thomas Tyner is taking his preparation much more seriously this year. He quotes Scott Frost, who said of his 5-star sophomore running back, “If he keeps practicing like he is right now we’re going to have a really good player on our hands,” Frost said. “I think he’s kind of decided to take it to the next level and it’s really showing up.”
These two competing hard helps the whole offense. Depth will keep both of them fresher, and their styles are different enough that each is a unique challenge to the defense. The Ducks have the added challenge of replacing De’Anthony Thomas’s explosiveness and productivity out of the backfield. Running backs Campbell cited Tony James as the player Oregon earmarked to replace Thomas in terms of skill set, but it’s far from clear how much James can play as a true freshman, particularly as he rehabs a leg injury suffered in the Semper Fi All-American Game. A lineman fell on him after an incomplete swing pass, and James had to be helped off the field with a cracked femur and a broken ankle. He’s rehabbing this spring, following doctor’s orders, a tough task for a sprinter with 10.52 speed in the 100 meters.
Regardless of James’s timetable the Ducks have a lot of options out of the backfield in the receiving game. Both Tyner and Marshall showed good hands last year, dangerous after the catch, and each is athletic enough to run a wheel route or take a swing pass up the sideline for a big play. Mariota uses them well, and he’s smart enough to take something off the ball on certain throws. The Ducks are also blessed with some versatile athletes at receiver. Keanon Lowe, Bralon Addison, Darren Carrington and Devon Allen are all fast and shifty enough to reproduce some of the plays Oregon used to run for Thomas, pitches, fly-sweeps, crossing routes. DAT was a dynamic weapon, but there’s no shortage of playmakers in the Oregon huddle. Scott Reed of Duck Sports Authority names speedy Charles Nelson as another player who could surprise as a true freshman, another 10.52 guy, with good hands and a nifty stop/start move.
They’re loaded in the return game as well. Addison returned two punts for touchdowns last year, sure-handed and dangerous. Lowe is a very capable kick returner, adept at getting upfield and getting the most out of a return, smart about moving up to get under a short kick and gaining field position. There are a half-dozen guys who could return kicks and break one, including as-yet underused speedsters like B.J. Kelley and Dior Mathis, both part-time track sprinters with elite speed.
Fans are very interested to see the outcome of the battle at wide receiver, where Dwayne Stanford, Kelley, Chance Allen and Carrington seemed poised to take that next step and become a reliable part of the offense. Freshman Jalen Brown enrolled early and is attending spring camp, as smooth and talented a receiver as the Ducks have ever recruited, twice a 1,000-yard receiver at Mountain Pointe High School, last year’s Arizona state champions.
It would be hard for a freshman to vault over all those veterans, but Brown is a gifted playmaker with great leaping ability. Getting an early start helps.
Coming off knee surgery and a redshirt year, the 6-5 Stanford is another intriguing option. He caught 11 passes as a true freshman in 2012. Chance Allen has always been productive in limited touches.
The Ducks are solid at tight end with Evan Baylis, Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown, although Brown is currently watching practice on crutches. The three combined last year for 30 receptions, 475 yards and five touchdowns, and all of them have gotten bigger and stronger over the winter.
Bigger and stronger, practicing hard seems to be the theme for the 2014 spring roster. After last Friday’s first workout in full pads Rodney Hardrick told goducks.com, “That’s just our new standard. We’ve taken a different attitude, a different approach to this. We’re going to be more physical this year, and it’s showing already.”
Couple the new standard to a fast, athletic roster with a history of success and a great scheme, and pretty soon you’re talking about a very good football team.