Ducks' unsung unit says it's motivated to catch on quickly this season
EUGENE - In last season's national championship game, Oregon Ducks receiver Lavasier Tuinei made a fantastic, juggling, one-handed catch in traffic. Tuinei broke free of Auburn's defense and was heading into the end zone before he was caught from behind at the 3-yard-line. The inability to turn the 43-yard play into a 46-yard play would haunt Oregon, which was unable to score on that drive and eventually lost 22-19.
Though Tuinei says that he was playing with an injured shoulder and a partially torn media collateral knee ligament, the play and the loss have served as motivation for his senior season.
'That's been a lot of motivation,' Tuinei says, before pausing. 'Dang. It was rough.'
Tuinei had better be motivated this season. He will be leading an Oregon receiving core that was decimated by the graduation of starting receivers Jeff Maehl (77 catches, 1,076 yards, 12 touchdowns) and D.J. Davis (42 catches, 470 yards, three TDs).
With the help of sophomore receiver Josh Huff, junior receiver Justin Hoffman, senior tight end David Paulson and several incoming freshmen, Tuinei believes this year's pass catchers have the ability to more than make up for the loss of Maehl and Davis.
'We can be better than Drew and Jeff,' Tuinei says. 'Those are my boys, but I can't be satisfied with just being as good as them. I want to be better. Me and Huff and 'Hoff,' we all have that mentality of going in and trying to be better, and being great.'
Healthy now, the 6-5, 215-pound Tuinei doesn't have to build from scratch. In 2010, he caught 36 passes for 396 yards and two TDs. He also became known as one of the Ducks' best downfield blockers. Tuinei wants to be even better in his pass catching, and improve his leadership.
'I was known for my blocking last year, but I'm trying to be an all-around receiver this year,' he says. 'I'm the only senior receiver, so I need to step up and take on that leadership role.'
Tuinei will have leadership help from Hoffman. The 6-1, 205-pound former walk-on from Churchill High has paid his dues more than most in becoming an option for Oregon. While Hoffman is the type of player who doesn't overwhelm fans on the stat sheet (three catches for 15 yards and no TDs last season), he does everything right when he steps onto the field -and when the pads are off.
'I've been contributing, and a lot of it's been off the field,' he says. 'I try to be a good role model for kids coming in. The younger kids especially. As a leader (playing more this year), it's going to be a new challenge.'
Huff is perhaps the best athlete Oregon will have running routes this season. Playing as a true freshman in 2010, the 5-11, 205-pounder showcased his speed in picking up 1,086 all-purpose yards, as a receiver, running back and kickoff returner.
In order to make the most of his speed as a receiver, Huff will need to improve his route running.
'Speed always plays a factor in whatever you're doing,' Huff says, smiling and showing off a silver grill on his lower teeth that he has had since before coming to Eugene. 'It's just a matter of how you run your routes and whether you take speed into it. My route running, I'm getting comfortable with it, but I'm just not as comfortable with it as Jeff was and the other receivers were.'
Route running would seem to be one of Paulson's fortes. Last season, the 6-4 240-pounder seemed like an automatic first down or touchdown whenever he came up with one of his 28 catches for 418 yards.
Paulson, who had four TDs in 2010, is hoping to play an even bigger role in the passing game this season.
'I'm going to try to step up and fill some of those roles that need to be replaced by losing Jeff and D.J. Davis,' Paulson says. 'The receivers will step up, too, but I'll try to help out.'
Some incoming freshmen, including De'Anthony Thomas (also a possible running back), Devon Blackmon and Tacoi Sumler, may have the ability to make an immediate impact as pass catchers.
New Duck players are not allowed to speak with media until late in training camp. Redshirt freshman quarterback Bryan Bennett says he was impressed with what he saw from the freshmen in optional summer workouts, although he cautions that the newest receivers may need further seasoning.
'All the receivers that we've got in will be able to play,' Bennett says. 'They're fast, but they are still young. Devon, Tacoi and De'Anthony have all come out here and showed that they can play.
'It's just going to be a matter of what they can do in fall camp and how well they can adapt to what we do as an offense. They'll have the ability to contribute, but we'll see how it goes once those plays start coming in and once you put the pads on.'
Oregon's receivers may be inexperienced, but knowing that 6-3, 215-pound junior Darron Thomas will be the returning quarterback gives the Ducks' pass-catching corps an advantage over last year's group.
'This offseason, the receivers have been working (with Thomas) in 7-on-7 in the morning,' Tuinei says. 'Because he was competing for a job last season with Nate (Costa), we really couldn't work on the timing with each other. But since we know who our quarterback is, we can spend more time with him and get that down pat.'
Thomas threw for 2,881 yards and 30 TDs in 2010. This season could go a long way in showing whether the QB was made by his receivers or whether he made them.
As that question waits to be answered, Thomas remains confident in the players who will be catching his passes this fall.
'I know everybody has been talking about how we don't have any receivers,' Thomas says, 'but those guys are going to step up. They are guys that we know for sure are going to come out and do good things.'