It’s the best recruiting class in Oregon history, but in any given year only a handful play right away. It’s just the nature of college football. With the physical and mental demands of getting in school, getting in the weight room and learning the playbook, only an exceptional few can step on campus and step into the lineup after a month of practice. Part of it, of course, is born of necessity. Some kids play right away because there’s a hole to fill and they’re the best option. A few have talent that can’t be delayed or denied.
Oregon’s needs going into this season are like a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s: they lost two receivers, two offensive linemen, two defensive tackles and two linebackers, and they have to fill their plate. Colt Lyerla is the bacon sundae; he’ll play regardless, a physical freak with off-the-charts skills, 6-5 230 and still filling out, able to leap tall Plyo Boxes in a single bound. With a 40″ vertical leap and uncommon poise, he’ll be productive from the beginning, proving himself in the Spring Game with three catches in traffic. He’ll be a reliable possession receiver and a perfect complement to David Paulson, giving the Ducks the ability to use two tight end sets to augment the young receiver corps and get a physical advantage in run game blocking.
As a second tight end he can motion in to block like an H-back or fullback, or run routes like a slot receiver. Tom Osborne did a great job of grooming him in spring drills, and he’s learned where to line up. Lylerla has good size and decent speed, high school experience at linebacker and tailback, so he’ll also be a valuable member of multiple special teams units, a point of emphasis at Oregon. The Ducks put athletes on special teams rather than leftovers, which is one of the reasons they’re so damn good. The former Hillsboro star and 2009 Player of the Year will be in the shield on punt formation, the protective wedge on extra points and field goals, and may sell a few Polish dogs on the side. He’ll be especially tough to cover in the red zone, where he can use his size and leaping ability, guarded by a linebacker or nickle back.
Rahsaan Vaughn is another given. He dominated JC competition at San Mateo, and he’s a fast, physical receiver who runs precise routes, very dangerous after the catch. He has home run speed and good hands. They signed him to play him, and if he’s applying himself this summer and in the first two weeks of fall, he’ll earn touches. Very anxious to get a look at him live and full-go, working against John Neal’s talented secondary. If he can get open and make plays working against Anthony Gildon and Terrance Mitchell, establishing some rapport and confidence working with Darron Thomas, the Ducks’ offense has a dimension it really hasn’t had since Harrington-to-Parker in 2001, a true deep threat who keeps safeties out of the box, or abuses them if they cheat. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word cheat until the NCAA goes back to Auburn, but you get the idea.
Jared Ebert’s another keeper. He has good size and speed as a defensive tackle, at 6-5 285, very solid in spring drills, with four tackles in the Spring Game. Ebert was a playmaker and penetrator at Iowa Western CC, the only defensive tackle to make JCGridiron’s All-America team. Jerry Azzinaro likes to play a two-deep rotation on the defensive line, and the strong progress of Ebert, Taylor Hart, Brandon Hanna and Dion Jordan, as well as likely starters Wade K and Ricky Heimuli, gives him the bulk, strength and quickness to do that. This will be a very good unit in 2011. Despite losing three starters, they may be better. There’s tremendous pride, discipline and unity in this group, and Terrell Turner says he’s ready to be a vocal leader. Ebert will not only contribute snaps, he’ll make plays. Depth in the defensive line is huge for a team that plays at the pace Oregon does, especially with the stunts, twists and blitzes they use. To play a pressure game, you need linemen who go full out for four quarters, and these guys will keep pushing.
Everybody’s excited about De’Anthony Thomas. The Black Momba is one of the most electrifying open-field runners you’ll ever see, a wonder with the ball in his hands, a legend in Los Angeles since Pop Warner and junior high. The Ducks stole him from USC in the last days of recruiting, and he didn’t come to Oregon to sit on the bench. Thomas will see the field as a freshman, probably as a slot receiver, filling a role a little like Josh Huff’s last year, an explosive change-of-pace Chip Kelly gets touches when the defense least expects it. Huff averaged 17.8 yards a run and 15.9 a pass, with several long plays, and Thomas is highly likely to do the same. He has soft hands and unlimited confidence, a young man who wants to win a Heisman and an Oscar, and he just might do both before he’s 30. He’s a remarkable talent. He’ll play as a freshman, even though few do.
Devon Blackmon is an irrepressible personality, and I don’t think he sits. In addition to having 4.4 speed and athletic ability, he’s an extremely hard worker who’s already stood out in summer workouts. Of the three freshmen receivers, he’s the most likely to play immediately, partly because he’s so assertive. He’ll adapt the fastest. He’ll earn attention. Coaches gravitate toward athletes who are aggressive, and Blackmon has an incredible desire to succeed. It can’t be said too often: no one rises to low expectations. His are as high as they come, which is a good thing if you can back it up. At the Under Armour All-America Game, playing against the best defenders in the country on national TV, Blackmon broke free for a 58-yard touchdown pass. Great players love the biggest stages, and Devon wants to be a great player.
The Ducks need Anthony Wallace to acclimate, adapt and overcome in a rapid hurry. He has the size at 6-0, 225 to play right away, and he’s a prototypical middle linebacker not only in build but in attitude. With the linebacker rotation a full stack short after the graduation of Matthews, Paysinger, and Littlejohn, followed by the off-field misfortunes of Alonso and Coleman, Wallace needs to become rotationally effective as soon as possible. He wanted to play as a freshman, and the opportunity is right in front of him. Come in shape, soak up everything Don Pellum tells you, and hit people. He’s even played in Cowboy Stadium before, as a Dallas-area prep.
Nobody else thinks so, but I think at least one of the incoming top-drawer offensive linemen will earn a spot on the travel squad and the two-deep. It isn’t ideal, but three graduated and two gave up football, and Ramsen Golpashin can’t do it all by himself. Tyler Johnstone and Andre Yruretagoyena are the most ready. They’ve been pushing each other in the weight room since Signing Day, they both have great technique and nasty attitudes, and Steve Greatwood needs them. They won’t start, unless the Ducks are decimated by injuries, but to have a proper rotation to play blur-fast, Greatwood needs one or two more big athletes to have a full rotation. As much as he likes to mix and match, these two may bloom a little early.
Important point: none of this is meant to slight the rest of the incoming class. They are tremendous group who’ll have great success as Ducks, individually and collectively, but most benefit from a year to grow, learn the system, adapt to the practice pace, and adjust to college. Marcus Mariota will be a fabulous college quarterback, but not now, please. Only an act of extreme avarice and indifference by the hands of Juju would put him in the lineup before Darron Thomas becomes a first-round draft pick (in two years, not one). Tacoi Sumler and B.J. Kelley will be world-class wideouts, but let them have a year to focus on composition class and Olympic lifts. The same for Ifo, Tra, Lake K-K, Rodney Hardrick, and all these other young men who will turn Autzen Stadium into a wall of sound, just not now. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven, and at 18 their purpose is to serve their apprenticeship and meet a pretty girl.