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OVERVIEW: In four seasons under spread proponent Chip Kelly as coordinator and/or coach, Oregon routinely has fielded one of the highest-scoring offenses in the nation. The Ducks have averaged more than 36 points in all four of those seasons. This season, they figure to make it five in a row. The Ducks have a proven quarterback and group of running backs that would make an impressive 4x100 relay. Though there are a couple of new starters up front, the Ducks have a knack of putting together a strong line. Kelly prefers a fast pace and says he wants an even faster pace from this season's team.
BACKFIELD: Heisman finalist LaMichael James has rushed for more than 1,500 yards in consecutive seasons and had 1,731 last season. But James, a junior, is by no means the only star in the backfield. Kenjon Barner rushed for 551 yards in a backup role last season, and heralded 2010 recruit Lache Seastrunk figures to make a contribution after sitting out a redshirt season. The Ducks also have freshman De'Anthony Thomas, a five-star prospect and a high school sprint champion from Los Angeles. The Ducks are good but not as deep at quarterback. Darron Thomas surprised some by beating out Nate Costa for the starting job last season, then went on to earn second-team all-conference honors. He's a fine passer and a good runner, and should be even better with a year's experience. But no other quarterback on the roster has thrown a college pass.
RECEIVERS: Oregon doesn't emphasize receivers in its offense, but that doesn't mean the Ducks don't have guys who can make big plays. Oregon will miss reliable Jeff Maehl, last season's leading receiver, who completed his eligibility. Lavasier Tuinei is a big target who figures to add to his 36-catch total of 2010. Overall, the Ducks will be more athletic with sophomore Josh Huff getting more action. Junior college transfer Rahsaan Vaughn and Devon Blackmon could make an impact. Expect a true freshman or two to get playing time, too. TE David Paulson doesn't get much attention, but is productive.
LINE: T Mark Asper and G Carson York are experienced, full-time starters, while senior T Darrion Weems made seven starts a year ago. They form the nucleus of what should be a typically effective unit under line coach Steve Greatwood. But there are concerns. C Jordan Holmes completed his eligibility and likely will be replaced by sophomore Karrington Armstrong, who is strong and agile but has played just in one game in two years. Redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu also is in the mix at center. Redshirt freshman Hamani Stevens, who just returned from a Mormon mission, is seeking playing time at guard. Senior Ramsin Golpashin, who hasn't played much, went into fall drills atop the depth chart at the guard spot opposite York. Junior Nick Cody is another who could play guard.
OVERVIEW: Nick Aliotti fields aggressive, attacking units, but he has some work to do this season. Oregon must replace six defensive starters, including four who earned all-conference honors last season. The Ducks are counting on newcomers solidifying the line, and there have been some off-field problems with their linebackers. But the Ducks always seem to have defensive backs capable of making big plays, and this season won't be any different.
LINE: The Ducks have to replace the 10 sacks and 22.5 tackles for losses that were recorded by departed E Kenny Rowe and T Brandon Bair. E Terrell Turner is a returning starter coming off surgery. He'll be ready on one side, but the other side is more unsettled. Senior Brandon Hanna and junior Dion Jordan - who arrived on campus as a tight end - are the candidates. While both starting tackles have to be replaced, there is no shortage of candidates. Hulking sophomore T Ricky Heimuli is a solid prospect who could emerge as a force inside. Sophomore Wade Keliikipi is another possible starter, as is sophomore Taylor Hart. Former junior college transfer Isaac Remington, who sat out as a redshirt last season, will press for time. Jared Ebert, who went through spring practice, was considered one of the top JC defensive linemen in the nation last year and should be in the mix, as well.
LINEBACKERS: A position of strength last season has become one of uncertainty with the two top tacklers from 2010 departed and Josh Kaddu the lone returning starter. Junior MLB Kiko Alonso was suspended indefinitely after a second alcohol-related arrest in the spring. Senior Dewitt Stuckey could wind up the starter there, though touted true freshman Anthony Wallace will get a close look. Michael Clay is back after posting 42 tackles as a reserve last season, and sophomore Boseko Lokombo will bid for playing time as a possible starter or top backup.
SECONDARY: The defense's strength undoubtedly is the secondary, with playmakers roaming throughout the defensive backfield. All-America CB Cliff Harris can turn the defense into offense in a split second. Last season, he had six interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. But he has been suspended for at least one game because of numerous traffic citations and unpaid fines. Junior FS John Boyett earned all-conference mention in 2010 after posting 78 tackles, five interceptions and nine pass breakups. Senior SS Eddie Pleasant moved from linebacker before last season and had a solid season; he is a jarring tackler. Senior CB Anthony Gildon also has starting experience, though he was primarily a backup last season. Redshirt freshman Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis will press for time. Mitchell has excellent size (6-0/189).
Elements of Oregon's kicking game range from spectacular to steady. Harris is a nightmare for opponents on punt returns. He averaged more than 18 yards per return and had four touchdowns last season. Huff averaged more than 24 yards on kickoff returns. K Rob Beard is coming off a solid season in which he converted 10-of-13 field-goal attempts, but none were longer than 42 yards. P Jackson Rice averaged 42.3 yards and dropped almost half of his attempts (18 of 40) inside the 20. Kickoff coverage was excellent, while the punt coverage was adequate last season.
Though De'Anthony Thomas - nicknamed "The Black Mamba" - would seem a prime candidate to sit out a redshirt year, don't count on it. The speed merchant may be too good to keep on the sideline. True, the Ducks are loaded at running back, but he has been used in the slot during early practices. That could be an indication of great things to come.
Not that the middle of the schedule is a picnic, but the Ducks' greatest challenges are in the first week and in final month of the season. Oregon opens against SEC powerhouse LSU in a nationally televised clash of preseason top-five teams. November will be a grind with road games against Washington and Stanford followed by home games against USC and archrival Oregon State.
The phrase "SEC speed" is used often in college football, but the Ducks can run with anybody in the country. Indeed, they may race right back into the BCS championship game. The new starters along the offensive line and on defense raise some questions, but with James, Barner, Darron Thomas and an opportunistic secondary, Oregon has the ability to score in the blink of an eye. A season-opening showdown with LSU - definitely a team with "SEC speed" - will reveal just how strong the Ducks are or how much work they have to do. The November schedule is challenging, but if the Ducks get through it, they could make a return trip to the BCS championship game.
For more on Oregon now and throughout the season, check out DuckSportsAuthority.com
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