Recently Bob Wynn of the new Oregon versus LSU blog contacted me for an email interview on the Cowboy Classic. I thought about giving misleading answers, but with Google and Bing and the permanence of the record on the world-wide web, I figured that wouldn’t do much good. Here’s what I told him:
1. Oregon’s offense lost some excellent players from last year’s team. Which offensive positions do you see as most critical to fill and which players on the current Duck roster are most likely to step up in those positions?
This is college football. Everybody loses somebody every year. It’s the nature of the game. There’s no waiver wire and there’s no free agency. Players graduate or leave for the NFL, and young players have to step up to take their place. Alabama lost Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Greg McElroy, and some pundits pick them to be number one in the country. Les Miles is replacing a thousand-yard rusher and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, and many experts think the Tigers could challenge for the BCS championship.
It’s the same at Oregon. After the national championship game, Chip Kelly told the press, “We’re a forward-thinking operation. We’ll learn from this thing and move forward.” The Ducks lost two standout wide receivers and three veteran offensive linemen, but the emphasis over spring and summer is on young players accepting the challenge of embracing their time in the spotlight.
After Ohio State and then Auburn dominated the Oregon offensive front two seasons in a row in BCS bowl games, the ESPN roundtable and others point to the offensive line as the deepest concern at Oregon. Color analyst and former national champion coach Urban Meyer told the television audience “I’d rather replace a quarterback” than three offensive linemen, including veteran center Jordan Holmes.
The Ducks think they’re up to the challenge. Line coach Steve Greatwood does return a solid core of veterans to anchor the line in Mark Asper (6-7, 325), Carson York (6-5, 286) and Darrion Weems (6-5, 292), all three of whom started last year. Greatwood likes to rotate and mix-and-match his linemen to keep up with Oregon’s fast pace, so reserves Nick Cody, Ramsen Golphashin and Mana Greig got valuable experience last season. They’ll compete for starting jobs in August. Redshirt jc transfer Ryan Clanton (6-4, 294) and sophomore Trevor Fox (6-5, 280) provide needed depth.
The biggest question mark is at center, where three young players will vie to replace Holmes. The center is the linchpin in Oregon’s zone blocking scheme, with accurate shotgun snaps being vital to the timing in the spread formation. Greatwood relies on the center to be agile and make quick decisions, communicating blocking calls to the rest of the line.
Karrington Armstrong (6-2 260) had the lead over Hroniss Grasu (6-3 278) in spring practice, but the Ducks’ hopes got a boost in May when former four-star recruit Hamani Stevens (6-4 305) annnounced his return from his LDS mission. Stevens told the Eugene Register-Guard’s Rob Moseley “I’m ready to play some ball.” “I’m really excited.” He arrived home in early May, and immediately started working out with his older brother Tevita, who is a junior guard at Utah.
These three will push each other for the starting spot, and the winner of that competition should be fit and capable by the Cowboy Classic on September 3rd.
Oregon’s offensive line isn’t as big as most SEC lines, but they use zone blocking, the stretch play and double teams to take advantage of their intelligence, quickness and agility along the front. Greatwood demands that they be disciplined and work as a unit. Facing LSU’s big, athletic front four will be a challenge, but they’ll be ready. In addition, the Ducks’ two principle runners, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, are both quick hitters capable of setting up blocks well and taking advantage of small seams and running lanes in an offense that produced over 6,000 yards and 500 points last season. James and Barner make offensive linemen look good by hitting the hole quickly, one cut and go. They don’t dance. Inspite of their smaller size, they’re both tough runners inside.
The other big challenge on the offensive side of the ball is receiver, where Oregon must replace three-year starter and all-conference wideout Jeff Maehl (1,076 yards, 12 tds) as well as steady, dependable Drew Davis (42 receptions, 470 yards) who was a fearsome downfield blocker.
The Ducks do return slot receiver Josh Huff, an electric, big-play wonder as a true freshman last season, with 12 rushes for 214 yards, a 17.8-yard average, and 19 catches for 303 yards, a 15.9-yard average. Huff’s also an explosive kick returner who topped 1,000 all-purpose yards in his first season. He’s powerfully built at 5-11, 207, with breakaway speed. He had an 85-yard run for a touchdown in the Arizona game, a 57-yard reception against USC, and an 80-yard kick return against Washington. Duck fans are excited about his sophomore year in a bigger role.
The other returning starter at wide receiver is capable, rangy Lavasier Tuinei, 6-5, 216, who caught 36 balls last season, including a juggling, spectacular 43-yard grab against Auburn in the National Championship. Junior quarterback Darron Thomas says Tuinei will be his go-to guy in crucial situations. The former basketball player is tough over the middle and runs well after contact.
Fans have high hopes for the Fab Four, four incoming recruits with elite speed and the potential to crack the receiver rotation. Rahsaan Vaughn is a 6-0. 190-lb. junior college transfer, 4.37 in the 40, rated the number two jc receiver in the 2011 recruiting class. He was signed to play right away.
He’ll be challenged by three promising freshmen, Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley, and Florida product Tacoi Sumler, who recorded a blur-fast 4.24 40 at the Nike SPARQ camp in 2010.
All four are reporting to Eugene next week, and they’ll be working out over the summer with starting quarterback Thomas, trying to establish the timing and rapport to earn a starting job as first-year players. The most likely to break out may be Blackmon, a confident and gifted athlete who played quarterback for his high school team, 6-0, 180 lbs. He’s versatile with tremendous playmaking ability.
But for Oregon, the emphasis isn’t on what they lost, it’s what they have, beginning with three explosive stars in Thomas (2800 yards, 30 touchdowns passing, 486 yards rushing, 6 touchdowns) LaMichael James (the Doak Walker Award winner with 1731 yards on the ground) and Kenjon Barner (551 yards rushing, and an 80-yard punt return against Tennessee).
The Ducks are also strong at tight end, where senior David Paulson is an All-America candidate, 24 catches last year for 17.4-yard average. He’s backed up by 6-4 Brandon Williams and 5-star freshman Colt Lyerla, and the Ducks will utilize their depth at tight end to create matchup problems for the defense. Lyerla reported early, graduating from high school in time to participate in spring practice. He had three catches in the Spring Game, impressing veteran observers with his quick progress and athletic ability. 6-5, 225 lbs. with a 40-inch vertical leap, he was Oregon 6A high school Player of the Year on a state champion team as a junior, running and receiving for 40 touchdowns. Lyerla will be an impact freshman.
2. Who are the likely candidates for missing defensive players like Casey Matthews?
Oregon’s linebacking corps received a huge blow when junior Kiko Alonso, a standout in spring drills and the spring game, a likely starter at middle linebacker, suffered a second alcohol-related arrest Saturday night after the Spring Game. Alonso is suspended indefinitely and will likely be sidelined for at least five games, certainly unavailable for LSU.
To make matters worse, promising freshman Tyson Coleman was arrested two weeks ago for Minor in Possession and running from police. He also is suspended indefinitely. For position coach Don Pellum, depth at linebacker went from strength to a question mark in two acts of youthful stupidity.
The cupboard isn’t completely empty. Oregon’s three starting linebackers this season will be Michael Clay, Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo, an athletic, strong unit who will fly to the football. Dewitt Stuckey is a senior backup who’s had some experience on special teams, and redshirt freshman Derrick Malone is a good tackler with mobility. Hopes are high that five-star middle linebacker Anthony Wallace 6-2, 225, a Texas product and the son of a former NFL linebacker, will absorb things quickly and be ready to contribute early.
Depth here is critical because the Ducks like to play a deep rotation. Last year they regularly used 25-26 players in their defensive lineup, to keep pace with their blur offense, which regularly reels off 1:30, eight-play drives and 80 plays a game. Either Clay, Kaddu and Lokombo will have to be Iron Men, or the reserves will have to get up to speed in a hurry.
On the defensive line, Oregon lost three very capable seniors in defensive end/linebacker hybrid Kenny Rowe and tackles Brandon Bair and Zac Clark. Going into spring this looked like a team weakness, but the unit had a terrific month of practice, emerging as a potential upgrade this fall. Converted tight end Dion Jordan has harnessed his awesome athletic ability, and at 6-7 230, he uses his wingspan and agility extremely well on the weak side, either rushing the passer or dropping back in the coverage as Oregon’s “drop end” in their flexible 4-3/3-4 scheme. Sophomores Ricky Heimuli (6-4, 321) and Wade Keliikipi (6-2, 289) appeared almost unblockable in some of April’s drills and scrimmages. They’re strong, tough, quick and durable, and seem ready to anchor the defensive line. Terrell Turner, who sat out spring drills (6-3, 273) is the vocal leader and comic relief in the group. He had 33 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Also a leader by example in the weight room, he benches 405 lbs, over 1200 pounds in his combined clean, squat and bench press.
Taylor Hart, Jared Ebert and Brandon Hanna will all contribute in this rotation, and line coach Jerry Azzinaro is an inspiring teacher and a master of technique, best known for sending Dwight Freeney to the NFL while at Syracuse.
Oregon is loaded in the secondary. They return three starters in All-American Cliff Harris, also an explosive punt returner who had five total touchdowns last season, heady, hard-hitting safety John Boyett, who has had 90 and 78 tackles in his two seasons since breaking into the lineup as a redshirt freshman, and strong safety Eddie Pleasant, a former linebacker with electronically-timed 4.74 speed in the 40, 65 tackles last season. There are a host of candidates for the fourth spot, including senior Anthony Gildon, who boasts a 39.5-inch vertical leap, and promising redshirt freshmen Terrance Mitchell, Dior Mathis, Erick Dargan and Troy Hill. Scott Grady and Brian Jackson provide depth, both of them seasoned by roles in the rotation last season along with standout special teams play.
3. What do you see as LSU’s biggest strength?
We’ll find out September 3rd. The Tigers return a ton of athletic ability and speed from a team that went 11-2 last season and trounced Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. They’re among the favorites for the national title, with a fervent fanbase and a rich tradition. Cowboy Stadium will be a sea of purple and gold in the most-anticipated season opener in Oregon history. Les Miles and his team have Oregon’s full attention and complete respect.
4. Which position matchup do you see as the biggest opportunity for the Ducks in their opener against LSU?
Several of the matchups look challenging. This will be a tough game. But Oregon appears to have an edge at quarterback, where Thomas has proven himself to be more productive and efficient running the Duck offense than his counterpart Jordan Jefferson of LSU, who struggles with inconsistency and poor decision-making. The LSU linebackers are talented, but they’ll be tested by Oregon’s short passing game, in particular the three very capable tight ends.
If you choose to play along, I may use your answers in a post featuring your site and I may use your answers for a round table discussion. Tell me anything that you might want me to mention about you or your site(s).
Bob, thanks for letting me play along. I hope my answers were useful, and best wishes to you and the Tiger fans. We’re all looking forward to a memorable start to the 2011 season.
About my blog, The Duck Stops Here is a site for opinions, commentary and analysis on Duck football. We try to be informative and entertaining, and like to say, “Duck football is not life or death. It’s way more important than that.”