In two weeks fans will get their first look at the 2014 Ducks, live on the PAC-12 Network as they broadcast the Spring Game, beginning at 11 on Saturday May 3rd.
It’s not a definitive measurement. That receivers can catch the football against a third team cornerback with the quarterback in a red jersey isn’t a sure indication of who will get open against Michigan State, but it’s better than any indicator fans have now.
The word from spring practice is that the Ducks are bigger, stronger and practicing with new purpose. This is the most dissatisfied 11-2 team in the country, bent on improvement, bent on being more aggressive, firing off the ball, playing more physically. Those are very good talking points, exactly what you’d want to hear from a team that stumbled late in the season last fall.
Scott Frost seems surer of himself in year two. He says the game has slowed down for him.
The defense has adopted a linebacker mentality, players say, going after it in every drill. Arik Armstead told Chantel Jennings of ESPN, “Our mentality is definitely going to change,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “Last year put kind of a bad taste in most of our mouths. We want to play with a different attitude.”
The Ducks are running on a platform of change, and so far their football electorate is giving them a 90% approval rating. Fans will want to see energy and execution, at least from the first teams, when they tee it up.
Last season the defense allowed a 65% conversion rate on third down runs. Opposing offenses ran for 3.8 yards a carry. In their two losses, they allowed 578 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns. Getting tougher and more physical means getting tougher against the run, something they will absolutely need against Michigan State, Stanford and UCLA. The offense has to get tougher on third down also.
They have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Marcus Mariota, but right now the ball is up for grabs in terms of who he can throw to with Bralon Addison reportedly out for the year with a torn ACL, and Josh Huff, Daryl Hawkins and De’Anthony Thomas all gone. Other than senior Keanon Lowe, who’s been a role player up to this point in his career, the wide receiver group is completely unproven and untested.
The group has talent and potential but that’s all, and remains an unfilled portion of the canvas in an otherwise optimistic picture. Mariota throws beautifully and choses his targets with care, but who’s ready to catch the football?
Receivers coach Matt Lubick has a big challenge, putting together a passing game with no clear options. The three young tight ends are pretty good, and both running backs have good speed and hands. That should help a little. But last year the offense got tremendous productivity from Huff and Addison. Somebody has to replace them.
By itself, the spring game won’t answer that crucial question. Recent full-squad spring scrimmages have produced big receiving days from Chance Allen, D.J. Davis and Blake Cantu, and none materialized as a principal weapon in the fall. You hope that Mariota connects with somebody and starts to develop some rhythm and confidence.
The Ducks are going to need a surprise contribution from somewhere, a breakout offensive star to replace the missing ones. At least one of the youngsters, Jalen Brown or Charles Nelson perhaps, has to find his way on to the field and produce along the lines of 30 catches, 500 yards and a half dozen tds. Fans keep waiting for B.J. Kelley, Allen or Dwayne Stanford to put it together, and maybe this is the year. Mariota has the arm and the smarts to throw for 4000 yards, but someone has to be on the other end of the throws. The Ducks are likely to have a very good running game, but the attack thrives on balance, a counterpunch, a threat to keep the defense from going eight in the box.
The main thing to look for in the scrimmage is a sense of how real the optimism is, whether the business-like, purposeful tone of the soundbites is reflected in their demeanor on the field in front of a live crowd. The Oregon spring game is generally the best show in West Coast football, and the hope is that this year they’ll salute the troops with a quality effort in all phases.