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College Football Preview 2014-2015: 3. Oregon Ducks

Marcus Mariota
3. Oregon Ducks 

Coach: Mark Helfrich (2nd year)
2013-2014 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Pac-12)

August 30th vs. South Dakota
September 6th vs. Michigan State
September 13th vs. Wyoming
September 20th @ Washington State
October 2nd vs. Arizona
October 11th @ UCLA
October 18th vs. Washington
October 24th vs. California (in Santa Clara)
November 1st vs. Stanford
November 8th @ Utah
November 22nd vs. Colorado
November 29th @ Oregon State

Throughout much of 2012, Oregon appeared to be the team to beat in the nation until Stanford stunned them late in the season. In 2013, Oregon once more appeared destined for a spot in the national championship game before a loss to Stanford once more ending their national title hopes. Once more, expectations are high in Eugene, especially with the return of quarterback Marcus Mariota, who spurned the NFL. But, is this team talented enough to fight through the Pac-12 and make their way into the College Football Playoff?

Backfield: Mariota could possibly have been the No. 1 pick by the Houston Texans if he had put his name into the 2014 NFL Draft. But, instead he decided to stay for at least one more season in Oregon, to help the Ducks win a national title. Mariota has proven he can make superb plays throwing the ball and running. He has proven to have elite accuracy and he can make all the fantastic throws on the run. He was the Heisman frontrunner before the Ducks lost to Stanford, and he could begin 2014 as the favorite. Joining Mariota in the backfield will be Oregon's usual fair share of talented running backs. Junior Byron Marshall ran for 1,038 yards in 2014 along with 14 touchdowns, while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Marshall is a little bit more powerful than anyone Oregon has had at running back the past couple years but still is fantastic in the open field who has great speed and agility. Sophomore Thomas Tyner also returns, giving the Ducks a nice complement to Marshall. While Marshall is the thunder, Tyner is the lightning, making big plays with crazy athleticism and he can make defenders miss. Tyner recorded 711 yards and nine touchdowns while really being the third option in the Oregon backfield. Add to the equation four-star running back, Royce Freeman a very dangerous weapon from Imperial, California, who was stolen from a number of other Pac-12 schools. Freeman has great size for a running back, standing at 6'0" and 230 pounds but still gifted with great speed and good hands.

Receivers: This could be the big issue for the Ducks, who will lose playmaking Josh Huff and speedster Bralon Addison, who was likely lost for the season after injuring his knee this spring. That means that senior receiver Keanon Lowe, who should be Oregon's top No. 1 option in the passing game. Lowe proved to be pretty dangerous in 2013, recording 18 receptions for 233 yards and three touchdowns. Not surprising, he is gifted with electric speed but he doesn't fit the mold of a top option in the passing game. He is small and will get pushed around by bigger defensive backs and he doesn't have ideal hands. The receivers beyond Lowe are extremely unproven, with redshirt freshman Darren Carrington likely being the top option. Carrington has loads of potential but is still young and will need some time to adjust to the Oregon offense. Joining the receivers will be versatile Jalen Brown, who will make a big impact in Eugene from the get-go. Brown, a four-star talent from Phoenix, could also spend some time as a running back, in the slot or on the outside. With De'Anthony Thomas ditching to the NFL a year early, Brown could help take over Thomas' role as an offensive weapon, who will constantly be moving around. The tight end is a real strength for the Ducks as returning is sophomore Evan Baylis, sophomore Johnny Mundt and junior Pharoah Brown all return. All three of those guys saw significant time last season after athletic Colt Lyerla left the team. Mundt was probably the most dangerous receiving threat of the trio, as he recorded 16 receptions for 281 yards, while also reeling in three touchdowns. All three are very athletic but present big size to the table and should really help keep the running game strong as blockers. Portland product Henry Mondeaux is rated as the nation's No. 11 tight end by ESPN and a three-star talent. He could be heading for a redshirt year but was a nice pipeline find for coach Mark Helfrich and staff.

Offensive Line: Most people will be quick to credit Oregon's offensive success this season on their amazing speed and talent at the skill positions. But, the offensive line should be a major reason why the Ducks will put up huge numbers in 2014. All five starters return, including senior Hroniss Grasu, one of the nation's top centers. Grasu has been Oregon's top talent on the unit for the past couple years and was an All-Pac-12 player a season ago. He has quality size and moves pretty well, it is so tough to get past him. Both tackle positions are in good hands, with the return of junior Tyler Johnstone on the left side and senior Jake Fisher on the right. Both are massive, Johnstone is 6'6", weighing in at a shade over 280, while Fisher is also 6'6" and weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. If they can both stay healthy, they should give the exterior of this unit impressive size and experience. At right guard, expect quickly improving sophomore Cameron Hunt to continue his development. Hunt struggled with consistency throughout last season but there is no denying his talent and his athleticism. Junior college transfer Haniteli Lousi and Braden Eggert will find ways to add some great depth to this offensive line. Lousi is rated as the No. 4 guard in this year's JUCO recruiting class and a three-star guy. Eggert is also a three-star talent, a tackle from California, who has an awfully bright future.

Defensive Line: The last two years, Oregon's weakness up front and lack of size has really hurt them against Stanford and some of the other large teams they've played. A lot does return in the front seven and on the defensive line though, including defensive end Tony Washington. Washington has spent his career in Oregon as a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, but should spend his time this season as an end. The senior had 60 tackles and 7.5 sacks last season and should take over as Oregon's top pass rusher this year. He is quick and strong whether it be as an end or as a linebacker. On the other side, expect junior DeForest Buckner to put up very impressive numbers this season after a solid 2013. Buckner is huge and took some big steps a season ago, recording 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He has to increase his stamina to allow him to be an every-down defensive linemen, something he wasn't last season. Up the middle, Oregon will definitely miss experienced tackle Taylor Hart, a long-time contributor in Eugene. There are players ready to step up, like junior Arik Armstead, who will find ways to make an impact. He was a pretty productive player the past few seasons despite not starting, but could have a huge season in his first year as a starter. Armstead is 6'8" and 300 pounds and should bat down a number of balls because he is just so big. The other defensive tackle spot is likely to be manned by another junior, Alex Balducci. Balducci had 18 tackles last year and he has the psychical tools to put together a very strong 2014. Joining the defensive line will be sophomore T.J. Daniel, who is moving from tight end to defensive tackle and looked ready to make an impact this spring and in fall camp. He has the size to make a smooth transition, standing at 6'6", 275 pounds and the motor to really have an impact. The Ducks managed to land the top defensive end coming out of the JUCO ranks in Tui Talia, who comes over from Diablo Valley College from California.

Linebackers: The Ducks' rush defense was really just pedestrian throughout 2013, meaning these linebackers will have to step up to improve the unit. It has a real chance to be a lot better as they only lose one big name, Boseko Lokombo. Lokombo recorded 63 tackles and 7 tackles for loss and was a very productive outside linebacker. The two returners in the linebackers corps is senior Derrick Malone and junior Rodney Hardrick. Malone is fantastic, leading the team in tackles last season, after notching 105 tackles. Malone moves extremely well and is very quick to the ball, he can also hit very hard. Hardrick racked up 64 tackles in 2013 and has the chance to see significant improvement. He is a solid coverage linebacker who brings great versatility to the table. The outside linebacker spot once manned by Lokombo should be handled by junior Tyson Coleman. Coleman was pretty strong as a reserve a year ago and he has loads of potential as well. Coleman is very quick to the ball and fantastic at recognizing plays. He could really grow into a formidable pass rusher this season if he can get a little bit stronger. There is some nice depth in the unit, with the return of sophomore Tyrell Robinson, who will get plenty of opportunities at outside linebacker and also the addition of four-star outside 'backer, Jimmie Swain IV. Swain IV was a steal from down south, as Oregon was able to pick him up from Kansas, spurning a number of Big Ten and Big 12 schools.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Secondary: New defensive coordinator Don Pellum got a pleasant surprise where cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, an All-American in 2013, turned down the NFL and opted to return to Eugene for one more year. Ekpre-Olomu is a great talent who does it all; he is gifted with tremendous athleticism, good hands and polished coverage skills. He would likely have been a first or second round selection but he joined Mariota in coming back, with championship dreams rolling in his mind. While Oregon will obviously rely heavily on Ekpre-Olomu he isn't their lone talent in the defensive backfield. Also back is senior Dior Mathis, who should start at the other corner position. Mathis will replace Terrance Mitchell, who picked off five passes and was a fantastic complement to Ekpre-Olomu. Mathis has a chance to be very productive in his place though, he isn't big but quick and could pick off a number of passes as well. At safety, the Ducks will miss talented Avery Patterson and efficient Brian Jackson, but there is talent there. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson (brother of linebacker Tyrell) is the favorite to take over at strong safety, though a number of others are fighting for the job. At free safety, senior Erick Dargan is the likely starter. Dargan was an All-American on special teams a season ago but hasn't proven much as a defensive back. He is a good tackler, especially in open space and could be very productive. Four-star cornerback Arrion Springs is the future for Oregon at cornerback, he has elite athleticism, while safety Mattrell McGraw was a huge pickup from SEC country in Louisiana. They should both compete for snaps, as depth could be a serious concern for the unit.

Special Teams: The Ducks will rarely punt or kick, especially considering their woes at the positions in the past few years. Expect sophomore Matt Wogan to possibly handle both kicking and punting duties. Wogan has a huge leg and proved to be pretty reliable down the stretch last season. The loss of Addison really hurts in the return, and De'Anthony Thomas' departure also raises concerns.

Oregon has had two great teams under Mariota but they have been unable to take the next step. This might well be the most talented team Oregon has ever seen, if Mariota can stay healthy and play well in big games. The depth on this roster is extremely impressive and the Ducks are once more loaded at the offensive skill positions, meaning a lot of points is the expectation. The schedule is not easy, with meetings against Michigan State, rival Stanford and a trip to Los Angeles to meet with UCLA. Mariota and Helfrich must prove they can win the big games and if they do, a Pac-12 title and berth in the College Football Playoff is a reality.

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