Ducks prepare for more attention, LSU
Oregon players deflect talk of pressure; new leaders, playmakers must emerge
EUGENE - A lot of Oregon Duck football players are coached well. And, some speak their own minds. Consider:
• Opening game, ESPN, Sept. 3 versus LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas? Thinking about it?
'Not really,' tight end David Paulson says. 'In summer, we try to focus on getting better, getting stronger, getting faster, getting in better shape for the season. It's in the back of our minds because it's such a big game.'
'Oh yeah, we've already been watching LSU, since the last game of the season,' QB Darron Thomas says. 'So, we're up on them, starting to watch those guys. But, we get back together as a team in about two weeks (training camp, starting Aug. 8), so then we're going to be ready to do it.'
• Scandal with the Ducks paying scout Will Lyles $25,000 and the NCAA probing to find out whether he delivered Lache Seastrunk to Oregon. Distraction?
'What controversy?' a smiling safety John Boyett says. 'I have no idea what you're talking about. No, it hasn't been any type of distraction at all. It has nothing to do with us.'
'(Scandals are) happening all around college football. It's like normal right now,' safety Eddie Pleasant says. 'Truthfully, I haven't heard anything about it, besides watching ESPN. We all watch ESPN.'
• National championship runner-up, two-time defending league champs, picked to finish atop the Pac-12 North Division and starting the season in the top 10 of most polls? Pressure?
'It's not pressure, but we're a little anxious,' linebacker Michael Clay says. 'We're going to get everybody's best shot. We have to go into it as the underdogs (in mentality) again. They'll be gunning for us.'
'We're trying to run the table,' Thomas adds, 'but we know we've got to take it game by game. Losing the (national) championship, we want to get back there. That's our main goal, getting back to the championship and trying to get a win.'
Plenty of attention will be on the Ducks this year, from the get-go with LSU and also because of such lofty expectations for third-year coach Chip Kelly's team. Oregon is coming off 10-3 and 12-1 seasons and BCS game losses.
In training camp, however, some work needs to be done on the field.
On offense, the Ducks must rebuild their offensive line, namely at center with youngsters Karrington Armstrong, Hroniss Grasu and Hamani Stevens, who returned from his Mormon mission. Center Jordan Holmes was a big loss to graduation. Some receivers need to rise up, with only Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff - not counting Paulson - back in the fold from guys who actually touched the ball in 2010. Graduated playmaker Jeff Maehl could be sorely missed.
So, in Kelly's quest to build another fast, uptempo, diverse offense, more burden falls on the likes of the junior Thomas and fellow juniors LaMichael James, the Heisman Trophy finalist, and Kenjon Barner. Thomas threw better in spring ball, working on his footwork, and he could be more of a threat in the spread-option attack.
'I've got to grow up this year and be a leader,' he says. 'When things are going wrong, I've got to be the guy who picks up everybody and just leads. This year is going to come with adversity, but we've got to see which guys are going to step up.'
Knowing that receivers and O-linemen need to be determined, Thomas adds of the offense: 'We've got to get all 11 ready to put it all together. It's all mental, getting in that film room and making sure we're a step ahead of everybody.'
The offensive linemen don't sound too concerned. Returning starters Mark Asper (right tackle) and Carson York (right guard) probably will be joined by left tackle Darrion Weems, left guard Nick Cody and any of the three center candidates.
'These are my guys,' says York, a junior. 'I have all the faith in them. Some of our guys have to elevate their game. But (returnees) also have to step up and set a level of our own.'
Newcomers, mostly freshmen, will be evaluated to play right away at receiver. Tuinei, a senior, puts a lot on himself to be the next go-to guy.
'Lucky for me I learned from both (Maehl and D.J. Davis),' he says. 'Thank God I have Huff and we've got a few other freshmen that can step up and help me out, too.'
Adds Paulson: 'If the offense needs someone to step up, hopefully I can do it.' Backup tight end Brandon Williams had to quit football because of an injury, meaning true freshman Colt Lyerla could be a factor.
The fast and deep defense excelled in spring ball, especially with the development of the D-line after the departure of three seniors, including Brandon Bair. Ends Terrell Turner and Dion Jordan and tackles Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi are slated to be on the first team. Brandon Hanna, Isaac Remington, Taylor Hart and JC transfer Jared Ebert would comprise the second team. But it's a competitive and two-deep area, led by coach Jerry Azzinaro, and things could change.
'The leadership of me and Brandon Hanna is taking over right now, so it's pretty good,' Turner says. 'I don't feel there's a question mark (at D-line). We ran with the big dogs last year, so this year we're ready for whatever.'
Besides the Lyles scandal, two offseason incidents rocked the Ducks.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso was charged with breaking and entering, following his yearlong suspension for drunk driving. The in-season punishment for his latest transgression has not been determined.
And, all-conference cornerback Cliff Harris got caught going 118 mph in a car rented by UO athletic department employee, and he has been suspended for the LSU game.
Neither Alonso nor Harris has granted interview requests.
The linebackers are fully aware of Alonso's uncertainty, but a capable middle linebacker is available in senior Dewitt Stuckey. He could fill the shoes of NFL draftee Casey Matthews, and play alongside veteran Clay and returning outside backers Josh Kaddu and Boseko Lokombo.
'We'll be fine,' Clay says. 'Dewitt has seen action, been here for four years. Kiko will be just fine; he's been here all summer with us.'
The secondary has a good foundation with Boyett, a tackling machine, and Pleasant, who underachieved somewhat in his first season as rover. Harris, he of the six TDs on punt/interception returns in 2010, has been projected as a first-round 2012 NFL draft pick, and senior Anthony Gildon provides the stability to the upside of fellow corners Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill.
'I feel real confident,' Boyett says. 'Our secondary should be one of the strengths of our team. We've got a lot of guys who are hungry.'
Kicker Rob Beard and punter Jackson Rice return, and the Ducks have their share of return guys - Harris and Barner being among the country's best.
One intangible -leadership -has Kelly curious for camp. With the loss to graduation of quality leaders Holmes, Bo Thran, C.E. Kaiser, Maehl, Davis, Bair, Zac Clark, Kenny Rowe, Matthews, Spencer Paysinger and Talmadge Jackson, are the players concerned?
'I think it's overwritten,' Clay says, of the leadership angle.
'Everybody is a leader every year,' Boyett says. 'It doesn't matter if you're a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, you're a leader.'
Adds Thomas: 'Oh, yeah, I have a big-time leadership role. But not really too much.'
UO projected depth chart
WR: *Lavasier Tuinei, senior; Blake Cantu, sophomore
WR: Josh Huff, sophomore; Will Murphy, junior
LT: Darrion Weems, senior; Ryan Clanton, junior
LG: *Carson York, junior; Mana Greig, sophomore
C: Karrington Armstrong, sophomore; Hroniss Grasu, redshirt freshman
RG: Nick Cody, junior; Ramsen Golpashin, senior
RT: *Mark Asper, senior; Everett Benyard, sophomore
TE: *David Paulson, senior; Colt Lyerla, true freshman
WR: Justin Hoffman, junior; Daryle Hawkins, sophomore
QB: *Darron Thomas, junior; Bryan Bennett, redshirt freshman
RB: *LaMichael James, junior; Kenjon Barner, junior
PK: *Rob Beard, junior; Alejandro Maldonado, sophomore
DE: *Terrell Turner, senior; Isaac Remington, junior
DT: Ricky Heimuli, sophomore; Jared Ebert, junior
DT: Wade Keliikipi, sophomore; Taylor Hart, sophomore
DE: Dion Jordan, junior; Brandon Hanna, senior
LB: *Josh Kaddu, senior; Boseko Lokombo, sophomore
LB: Dewitt Stuckey, senior; Kiko Alonso, junior
LB: Michael Clay, junior; Derrick Malone, redshirt freshman
SS: *Eddie Pleasant, senior; Brian Jackson, sophomore
FS: *John Boyett, junior; Avery Patterson, sophomore
CB: *Cliff Harris, junior; Troy Hill, redshirt freshman
CB: Anthony Gildon, senior; Terrance Mitchell, redshirt freshman
P: *Jackson Rice, junior; Alejandro Maldonado, sophomore
* - returning starter