After an offseason in which they celebrated their third consecutive conference title and a Rose Bowl victory, the Oregon Ducks are getting back to work.
As spring camp gets underway there is a mix of excitement and anxiousness among Duck fans. Many believe this team could potentially be the most talented and athletic unit in Oregon history. Head coach Chip Kelly has brought in highly-rated recruiting classes littered with budding talent and the players he brings in fit his offensive system perfectly.
The belief by most people is that any Kelly offense will be able to put points on the board, but if his players reach their potential it is nearly impossible to stop them.
But replacing experienced star players like running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas leaves the Ducks with large holes to fill if they are going to have their same dominating success.
The departure by James was expected by the Ducks. After leading the nation in rushing for two consecutive seasons, winning three conference titles plus a BCS bowl, and taking firm hold of most of the school records for running backs, there was not much left to accomplish at Oregon for James.
Oregon does have experience returning at the running back position with senior Kenjon Barner and sophomore De’Anthony Thomas, both of whom have shown their electric capabilities in the past when James was not on the field.
Barner has been a star waiting in the shadow of James for three years and should shine in his opportunity to be the number-one back. Thomas was sensational last season as a true-freshman, playing Kelly’s “tazer” position as a hybrid running back/wide receiver. He ended up leading the team in receptions and touchdowns.
Both players should expect increased repetitions on the field this season, which is exciting to think about but worrisome from a durability standpoint. With the unexpected transfer of sophomore running back Tra Carson, it is vital that both Barner and Thomas stay healthy. The Ducks may also need incoming true freshman Byron Marshall to step into playing time right away if he is capable due to lack of depth.
While the answers at the running back position seem to be clearer, the quarterback position is a little more unclear.
With the shocking decision by Darron Thomas to declare for the NFL draft, there is a competition for the vacancy at quarterback between sophomore Bryan Bennett and freshman Marcus Mariota.
Bennett is considered to be the favorite heading into spring camp because of his success in his limited playing time last season as Thomas’ back-up. Though there is not a huge sample size to analyze for Bennett, he showed flashes of a very strong arm and great mobility at the quarterback position. Possibly most impressive about Bennett was his decision-making ability when making correct option reads and not throwing ill-advised passes. His experience makes him the favorite at this point.
While Bennett may have the edge because of his increased time spent in Kelly’s system, Mariota may be the best-suited quarterback to play in Kelly’s offense. Though he hasn’t been seen in game action since arriving at Oregon, Mariota has serious star potential.
In looking at Mariota’s film from high school in Hawaii it is clear that he is a perfect fit for Kelly’s “blur” offense. He stands at 6’4” and has a tremendous arm. But most impressive is that he runs the 40-yard dash somewhere in the 4.45 second range. Bennett may have the experience and past success behind him, but Mariota’s potential may just be good enough to give him the edge.
No matter who wins the QB battle between Bennett and Mariota it is clear that either will be an athletic improvement at the position over Darron Thomas. Thomas was slower, not overly accurate and didn’t have an outstanding arm. But what Thomas did have was experience in big games, was cool under pressure and most importantly he won…a lot. He went 23-3 as a starter. That’s a large void to fill no matter how athletic you are.
Kelly refuses to hint at who has the edge in position battles and will not say who the starters are until the week before the week one game against Arkansas State. Practices are closed so it is difficult to speculate at this point, but for a team that should be in the national title picture once again this season these are battles that will be followed closely.
About the Author
Written by Rob Parness
My name is Robbie Parness and I am a student at the University of Oregon. I'm a California native that loves to play, watch and talk about all kinds of sports. I would love to become a sports writer someday or work in sports in any capacity.