College Football Preview 2015-2016: 8. Oregon Ducks
2014-2015 Record: 13-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Coach: Mark Helfrich, third year (24-4 overall)
Key Losses: QB Marcus Mariota, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
Heisman Hopeful: RB Royce Freeman
Breakout Player: WR Jalen Brown
Although Oregon has been among the elite programs of the college football world the past few years, it has yet to claim a national championship, despite multiple trips. They were agonizingly close to it last year, when Heisman winner Marcus Mariota pushed the Ducks to an appearance against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Unfortunately, injuries and suspensions contributed to a poor effort in the game, and sent Ducks' fans into another offseason coming off a good season, but one that came without the ultimate prize. In 2015, Oregon hopes that it can finally get over the hump and win that elusive national title. Even without Mariota, they should have a decent chance. They have their usual fair share of speed and explosiveness offensively, while their defense should be solid. Overall, the Ducks have a very strong chance at returning to their second straight College Football Playoff.
Backfield: Marcus Mariota should have a very good chance at going down as perhaps the greatest Oregon Duck ever. The Heisman winner fit the up-tempo Oregon offense perfectly and it translated to unparalleled success. Though, he is off to the NFL, leaving Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost with tough decisions to make. Things were supposed to be easier for the Ducks when Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams announced he was joining the Ducks for his final season of college football. The prolific quarterback constantly spurned Pac-12 defenses while at EWU, and even led the Eagles to an upset over then-No.25 Oregon State two years ago. But, eligibility questions and much more are questions for Adams. In fact, as of me writing this, his future with the Ducks is completely uncertain. If he does gain clearance to play for Oregon it will be tough for him to pick up the complicated playbook quickly. With those questions surrounding him, junior Jeff Lockie will have a decent shot to take over the job. Lockie has seen only garbage time in two years of backing up Mariota, but has a strong grasp of the playbook and has talent. He isn't the runner that Mariota or Adams is, but he possesses decent mobility and good accuracy. The good news for the Ducks is that talent at running back is no problem. Royce Freeman was terrific last year, his true freshman campaign, running for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. Blessed with power as well as electric speed, Freeman poses a considerable problem to every opposing defense he faces. With Oregon leaning even more on their ground game than last year, Freeman's numbers should only increase, and he could become a popular Heisman name. Only likely to increase Freeman's workload more is the fact that his backup, junior Thomas Tyner, is likely out for the season after needing shoulder surgery just weeks ago. That leaves Helfrich and Frost searching for some new weapons to throw up behind Freeman, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Senior Byron Marshall was a 1,000 yard rusher in 2013 before making a move to a wide receiver role last season. He should spend the majority of snaps at receiver, but Oregon will still be creative in getting him the ball, possibly on rushes. True freshman Taj Griffin arrives from all the way over in Georgia and brings a dynamic weapon. He could certainly see a large chunk of snaps this year, Oregon has never shied away from giving true freshman playing time.
Offensive Line: Injuries also crippled the Ducks' offensive line at points last year, and it wasn't truly healthy until the end of the year. The group will have to endure some growing pains this season, as three starters are gone, all leaders and superb linemen. Center Hroniss Grasu was a longtime staple at that spot who worked wonderfully with the shotgun and other formations, while tackle Jake Fisher was an All-Pac-12 caliber linemen when healthy. Plus, guard Hamani Steens was an All-Conference pick a year ago. Now, Grasu is off to Sundays along with Fisher, who was selected in the second round by Cincinnati. The good news for the Ducks is that they added Notre Dame transfer Matt Hegarty, who could certainly take over Grasu's starting slot. Hegarty was a solid contributor with the Fighting Irish, but decided to spend his final year of college football on the West Coast. Hegarty possesses experience along with versatility, as he can spend time at both center and guard. Hegarty will be expected from the beginning to be a leader to a pretty inexperienced unit, along with senior tackle Tyler Johnstone. Johnstone has all the tools to be a great tackle, towering over defenders at 6'6", and nearly 300 pounds. But, he has been inconsistent in his Ducks career and could still have some ups-and-downs in his senior campaign. Joining Johnstone on the left side of the offensive line should be senior Matt Pierson, who also has great size. Pierson is a great run blocker with solid athleticism and should be very productive this season. The right side of the unit could be a serious problem. Sophomore Tyrell Crosby saw a lot of action a season ago, but still is prone to mistakes at right tackle. The right guard spot, meanwhile, is really a toss up at this point. Junior Cameron Hunt did see some action in 2014, but he certainly could be pushed by a number of younger guards. Sophomores Jake Pisarcik and Evan Voeller are young linemen with quite a bit of upside who add depth to the interior of the line. Four-star prospect Zach Okun decided to stick on the West Coast (from California) and he could see a decent amount of playing time early in his career.
Defensive Line: Few players in the college football world were as imposing as Arik Armstead over his playing time with the Ducks (height of 6'7", moved extremely well despite size). Though, Armstead was never a sack machine with Oregon, so it is a positive for the Ducks that he was really their only loss on the defensive line. The top player on the unit should be senior DeForest Buckner, who earned All-Conference honors for his performance a year ago. Buckner showed the ability to be a great run defender (with 80 tackles) but can also use his strength and power to get to the quarterback, with four sacks last season. Sure to start at the other defensive end is going to be junior T.J. Daniel, a possible breakout candidate. Daniel hasn't seen consistent playing time yet in his career with Oregon, but he has all the tools to be very, very good. He is another linemen with good size (6'6", 275 pounds) who showed flashes in the spring. Expect true freshman Canton Kaumatule to see playing time at one of the defensive end spots as well. Kaumatule is widely viewed as a five-star prospect, hailing from Honolulu, Hawaii. Kaumatule plays with ferocity, and has an unrelenting motor. Kaumatule also possesses the versatility to play inside at defensive tackle or even play on the offensive line. Rounding out the starters on Oregon's 3-4 unit should be senior tackle Alex Balducci, a productive veteran. Balducci proved to be serviceable last year, with 18 tackles, and three of them going for a loss. He can clog up running lanes, and offers plenty of knowledge and leadership at the position. There is a solid amount of depth in the unit, as names like sophomore Henry Mondeaux and more should vie for action. Mondeaux is a physically gifted defensive end who could still put some serious pressure on quarterbacks in a reserve role. Other than Kaumatule, Gary Baker is the most likely in the Class of 2015 to see action at defensive line. The tackle still has to bulk up for Pac-12 play (sitting at around 280 pounds right now) but he offers plenty of potential, especially in a few years for Oregon and second-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum.
Linebackers: The Ducks' linebacker corps is not devoid of losses either as longtime contributors Tony Washington and Derrick Malone both departed this offseason. Washington made a living rushing the passer off the edge for the Ducks, while Malone's 85 tackles will not be easily replaced. Though, there is still a lot of talent in this unit, and it drips with athleticism. Maybe the most recognizable weapon in the unit is versatile senior Joe Walker. Walker has the size and strength to be a great pass rusher off the edge but he may see more action at inside 'backer this season, due to need. Walker proved to be a very valuable asset for the Ducks last season, with 81 tackles and eight tackles for loss. The outside linebacker positions are in very good shape, with two seniors slated to start at them. Senior Christian French is primed for a big year, and returns as the Ducks' leader in sacks, after picking up 6.5 last year. French has an explosive first step that is full of power and unless you chip him with a tight end or running back he is going to hit the quarterback. He is rather one-dimensional at the moment but there is reason for optimism that he could grow into a complete and well-rounded linebacker. The other outside linebacker spot is sure to be manned by fellow senior Tyson Coleman. A solid, productive veteran, Coleman proved to be a playmaker in 2014. He had 44 tackles, three sacks and recorded an interception. He isn't a wonderful run stopper but he makes up for it with speed and instincts. He offers a lot as a pass rusher and both him and French should constantly be wrecking havoc off the edge. Joining Walker in the middle is going to be senior Rodney Hardrick, who moves to an increased role. Hardrick did see a good dose of action last season, and did well, with 75 tackles and six tackles for loss to show for it. He is a little bit undersized, but Hardrick is a gritty and determined player and he should put together a strong campaign. Sophomore Justin Hollins is one of a number of backups who is sure to see some action. Hollins offers considerable upside as a backup at one of the outside 'backer positions. Expect JUCO transfer Paris Bostick to see a lot of action in his first year with the Ducks. Despite not an overwhelming highly rated recruit, Bostick is a decent, three-star prospect out of Santa Monica College who will work hard.
Secondary: A late season knee injury put a short and unexciting end to the illustrious career of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, perhaps the greatest defender Oregon football has ever seen. The former All-American wasn't 100 percent for much of last season but still managed 63 tackles, two picks and nine pass deflections. As much as that solid production hurts, even more worrying is the sudden departure of leadership and experience. Joining Ekpre-Olomu in graduating was Troy Hill, meaning Oregon will throw in two relatively untested cornerbacks, not exactly a good thing in the pass-happy Pac-12. Sophomore Charles Nelson is a fun player to watch. The tiny, 5'8" cornerback is lightning bug quick but isn't a great tackler. He still has a lot of room to grow as a defender, but is already established on special teams and could even see action offensively. Joining Nelson should be fellow sophomore Chris Seisay, a solid, if rather underwhelming corner. Seisay isn't the fastest or biggest guy on the field but he is a well-rounded defensive back who Pellum and the Ducks will lean on heavily in 2015. Yet another sophomore, Arrion Springs arrived on campus last season with a lot of fanfare and could certainly see his fair share of snaps in his second year with Oregon. While the cornerback situation is shaky, the safety spots are in pretty good hands. Sophomore Tyree Robinson is a special player. Gifted with NFL size, at 6'4", 205 pounds, Robinson also has incredible range and quickness. His 36 tackles last season were good, but expect even more from Robinson, with another year under his belt. Junior Reggie Daniels is the expected starter at free safety after a very good sophomore season. He put together a year of 83 tackles, one interception and nine pass deflections, making plays sideline to sideline. Daniels doesn't quite have the size of Robinson but he can still lay down huge hits and play with aggressiveness. Recruiting wise, the Ducks added a couple defensive backs who could contribute. Chief among them has to be four-star Ugo Amadi, who comes all the way from Nashville, Tennessee. Amadi may actually have a chance at a starting gig if Seisay or Nelson don't perform.
Special Teams: Charles Nelson earned All-Pac-12 honors for his return skills last year, returning two punts for scores. Nelson will be helped in the return game by Bralon Addison, who was always a threat to take one back when healthy. Oregon doesn't kick or punt very much, but at least there is some experience there with junior Matt Wogan and Aidan Schneider both back at kicker.
It's the same common theme in Eugene. There is speed and crazy talent offensively, as well as in some areas defensively. Plus, the Ducks have down a wonderful job bulking up in their front seven, as they have been oft-criticized for being too soft defensively. Though, the quarterback situation is worrying. Adams is a great talent, but can he learn the playbook? Lockie didn't do much in garbage time and things won't have a lot of time to sort themselves out, with a September 12th trip to East Lansing to play Michigan State on the schedule. If Oregon can solve their quarterback quandary this team has enough pieces to win the Pac-12 and make a trip to the Playoff. Though, if it doesn't, with a tough schedule, the Ducks could be looking at an uphill climb to double-digit victories.