EUGENE - The Oregon Ducks defense will have six new starters - seven counting somebody taking the place of suspended cornerback Cliff Harris - against the LSU Tigers in the Cowboys Classic, Saturday at Arlington, Texas.
That's a fair amount of inexperience, but defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says he likes the intelligence of his players.
"We had a walk-through (recently) and I was absolutely, very, very impressed at our knowledge of what we're doing - not only against our stuff, but LSU's stuff," Aliotti says. "We're not as deep overall, but our knowledge is really good. Now, you've got to be able to do it, too. But we're further along in our knowledge of the defense than we were last year."
With the pocket passer Jarrett Lee, a senior, taking the place of mobile Jordan Jefferson at quarterback, the Tigers may tame their offense. Aliotti was preparing for the whole gamut of LSU looks - one- and two-back sets with one- or two-tight end lineups.
"We won't do everything in our playbook; we'll do what we think we need to do in our playbook," Aliotti adds. "Doing less but over and over, you become better at your task and better at your plays."
Defensive end Terrell Turner's take on the defense: "I think we can be the greatest. Last year wasn't our best. I think we'll just get better."
"We expect to pick up where we left off last year," adds Oregon linebacker Dewitt Stuckey, meaning the 2010 season and not the BCS title game against Auburn, which had 519 yards offense. "No bumps in the road."
• Wondering what freshman running back/receiver De'Anthony Thomas has been thinking with the LSU game only days away?
You're not alone. Members of the media have been wanting to talk with Thomas, the touted spitfire from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles. But, per his rule, coach Chip Kelly has not allowed true freshmen, who are on scholarship and playing for a public university, to talk with the media.
Last year, freshmen such as Ricky Heimuli were allowed to speak to the media the week before the opening game, but this year Thomas and his fellow frosh have been muzzled - as of Monday night.
Meanwhile, Kelly doesn't plan to issue an injury report, and he announced that all practices in the Moshofsky Center and Autzen Stadium will be closed to the media. That means basically every practice during the season will likely be closed, as the Ducks rarely have trained on their grass practice field during the season. Media have not been allowed on the sideline for training camp practices on the grass field, with Kelly citing fledgling construction of the UO's new football center.
• Veteran offensive lineman Mark Asper is one player anxious for the season to start.
"I've been anxious since Jan. 15," he says, of shortly after the BCS title game. "It's a greater payoff for your workload during the season. In the offseason, it's harder to keep guys working and motivated. There isn't the media accountability."
• Thomas and fellow true freshman Tra Carson, more of a power back, give the Ducks some options for running the ball. But, clearly, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner will get the bulk of the work, maybe together.
"If anything, LaMichael is a little bit more of a power back and Kenjon is probably more of a mover and shaker," offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says, comparing the two. "But each of them does the opposite pretty darn well. Neither one of them is going to line up at fullback and start blocking anytime soon ... but I don't think it limits us."
• Helfrich says receiver Lavasier Tuinei, who's expected to be a go-to receiver in the mold of Jeff Maehl, "has really grown up."
Says Helfrich: "He was a little bit of a goofball there for a while. Never in a malicious, bad way. But, just growing up ... he's over there running the show and lining guys up. And, Josh Huff has done a great job that way, too. Josh Huff at this time last year could barely get through practice or half of practice, or part of practice. And now he's a position leader."
• Helfrich doesn't fret about LSU's defensive line being bigger, much like Auburn's from the BCS title game.
"Against everybody we're trying to get the push off the ball," he says. "We certainly didn't play great on offense our last outing. And the LSU front and the LSU defense give you a unique set of challenges just by their physical mass and their speed and their scheme. We have to play to our strengths, and we'll kind of do our deal."
• Barner says the UO offense is full of speedsters who can catch the ball: himself, James, De'Anthony Thomas, Huff, Rahsaan Vaughn, Nick Cole, Keanon Lowe, Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler, B.J. Kelley.
"Jeff Maehl was phenomenal, and Drew Davis ...," he says, of departed seniors. "But, right now we have some blazers. If you throw those little bubbles (screens) - last year, it's going for like 12 (yards). This year, it's probably going to go for like 60."
• Quarterback Darron Thomas also predicts much more firepower from the Ducks, who averaged 47 points and 530.7 yards last season.
"We've still got a long way to go, mentally-wise," he says. "We've got a lot of athletes that we know what they're doing to do.
"I think we've got a lot of firepower coming out of this offense this year, more than last year," he says. "But, like I say, we've got to go out and mentally focus up."
• The loss of Brandon Williams to injury has opened up a spot behind starting tight end David Paulson. True freshmen Colt Lyerla and Christian French were battling walk-on Brian Teague, from David Douglas High, for playing time. Another tight end, Curtis White, suffered an injury during training camp.
So, what gets Teague on the field?
"He would have to be a good blocker," Kelly says.
• Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood has worked with his unit for four weeks now, and he'll count on the likes of Darrion Weems, Carson York and Mark Asper to carry the load.
He doesn't worry about the physical part in his players, but the mental part.
"It's all the things that go in before the block is actually executed," he says. "The right calls, the right footwork. That's the challenge in coaching the O-line. You've got to have all those things in place before the actual block is executed and made.
"We left the last game of the season with a bad taste in our mouth," he adds, of Auburn holding the Ducks to 75 rushing yards on 32 carries. "It wasn't just technique where we were getting whipped, it was communication things, and things that shouldn't have occurred."
• Backup offensive lineman Everett Benyard, all 6-7 of him, has lost about 40 pounds, Greatwood says. Benyard is officially listed at 325 pounds. "He's moving better than he ever has," Greatwood says.
• Rover Eddie Pleasant likes big expectations heaped on the Ducks. "We have a target on our chest, and we love having a target on our chest," he says.
Says York: "People look at us the way we used to look at USC. The reason they had trouble going through the league was they got everybody's best shot. Whether we got that last year, we'll definitely get it this year."