Last season a fluke? Reigning Pac-10 champs have answer
by: Jonathan Ferrey Running back LaMichael James, a 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist, returns as the featured player in an array of athletic offensive talent for the Oregon Ducks, who have some holes to fill in their quest to win the Pacific 12 Conference football title.

EUGENE -The Oregon Ducks lost 23 seniors from the school's greatest team ever, including 11 starters who embodied character and leadership and served as the foundation for a program that rose to the top echelon in college football.

Considering the offseason trials and tribulations of the Ducks the past two years, the 2010 seniors never made headlines for the wrong reasons.

It begs the question, as the Ducks embark on the 2011 season Saturday against LSU in the Cowboys Classic: Is the Oregon program at the point where it can suffer the loss of such a deep and meaningful senior class and be just as good?

'I've never looked at it that way,' says coach Chip Kelly, who has a 22-4 record, two league championships and two BCS losses since taking the reins.

But some people do.

Outside of quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James and scattered other veterans, the Ducks have lingering concerns in each unit on the field. At issue is whether they will simply reload and win, or stumble.

'That's the big question,' senior offensive lineman Mark Asper says. 'Was it a flash in the pan with a good recruiting class or two that kind of carried the load? Or, are we in the position where the system creates the type of players to produce top-10 teams?'

Consider these losses from among the departed players from the BCS title-game team: Receiver Jeff Maehl's clutch plays; center Jordan Holmes' solid leadership; defensive tackle Brandon Bair's playmaking; defensive end Kenny Rowe's pass rush; linebacker Casey Matthews' steadying influence, and cornerback Talmadge Jackson's lock-down coverage.

Oregon sports 14 seniors this season, 11 of whom played significant roles in 2010. It's a young team. Clearly, the Ducks need some players to rise up if they are to conquer the new Pac-12 Conference, which has Oregon aligned with Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Stanford and California in the North Division. The Cardinal, with QB Andrew Luck, stands as Oregon's biggest threat in the quest to reach the Pac-12 title game; UO plays at Stanford on Nov. 12.

'That's what it's all about,' says Kelly, who says he loves the challenge of losing players and retooling.

The Ducks earned their reputation under Kelly with an uptempo, diverse, run-oriented and explosive offense and a deep and fast defense featuring supremely conditioned athletes across the board.

But the Ducks have lost four games under Kelly -and in every case (against Boise State, Stanford and Ohio State in 2010, and Auburn last season) the theme was how the opponents controlled Oregon up front.

Those four teams averaged 451 yards offense (207 rushing) against the Ducks, along with 17 more minutes of possession time than Oregon had on offense.

Although the Ducks ran decently against Stanford (236 yards), UO's vaunted ground game proved ineffective against Boise State (31 yards), Ohio State (179) and Auburn (75).

The 2011 Ducks have stuck with their speed-and-athleticism philosophy. It has produced 40.8 points and 473.8 yards per game in Kelly's four years in Eugene, but the need to be more physical on the line of scrimmage hasn't been lost on the coaches.

'I always like when you have those big butts in the gap, guys with girth to them,' says defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, referring to the likes of 320-pound Ricky Heimuli and 290-pound strongman Wade Keliikipi. 'Guys who hold their point. Ask linebackers, they love them.'

No game was more telling of UO's weakness than the 2011 BCS title showdown, where Auburn rushed for 254 yards and held the Ducks to 75. The Tigers also stopped UO's run game both at the Duck goal line for a safety and at the Tigers' goal line on four downs - with much of the havoc raised by Auburn D-tackle Nick Fairley.

'We need to continue to work on getting a more physical presence inside, particularly at the guard spots,' Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood says.

Talent still there

Going into the season, the Ducks can hardly be considered a complete team, especially with all-star cornerback Cliff Harris set to miss the LSU game after his high-speed transit down Interstate 5 drew a team suspension. The Oregon teams of 2001, 2007 and 2010 were considered much more ready to win the league championship.

Kelly says concern still lies with this year's offensive line, which will have three new starters alongside guard Carson York and tackle Asper.

Darrion Weems, Ramsen Golpashin and Nick Cody also played on the O-line in 2010 and are back. Ryan Clanton has impressed the coaches in camp, and redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu hopes to fill the large shoes of Holmes.

Receivers also need to step up.

Receivers Lavasier Tuinei, Josh Huff and Justin Hoffman saw extensive playing time last season. Tuinei is expected to be a go-to guy in 2011, a la Maehl last year. Tight end David Paulson also is pegged to be a key target.

Huff was bothered by an injury in training camp, and the Ducks will be counting on young players behind the receiving corps, including JC transfer Rahsaan Vaughn at receiver and Colt Lyerla at tight end.

Thomas, James and Kenjon Barner give the Ducks a lethal offensive backfield, which should be even better with the introduction of prep star De'Anthony Thomas. The 5-9, 160-pound Thomas has electrifying speed and moves, and can play either running back or slot receiver.

Six defensive linemen return with game experience, and that helps the rebuilding on a unit that lost Bair, Rowe and Zac Clark. Tackles Heimuli, Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and ends Terrell Turner, Brandon Hanna and Dion Jordan, the team's best pass rusher, figure to be the constants as the Ducks look to rotate lines.

Trying to replace Matthews at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso excelled in the spring, leading Aliotti to project the NFL in his future. But the day after the spring game, Alonso got popped for breaking and entering - after he had sat out last season following a drunk driving arrest.

Suspended again, Alonso has been practicing, and the Ducks believe they have another capable middle 'backer in Dewitt Stuckey.

Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo will again share outside 'backer duties, with Kaddu also playing some rush D-end. Michael Clay will start at inside linebacker; he gained experience as a backup the past two years. Redshirt freshman Derrick Malone also should be a factor at outside linebacker.

Without Harris against LSU, redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill will be thrown into the fray. With the ball-hawking Harris, the Ducks look solid on the back end and playing with safeties John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant and senior corner Anthony Gildon.

'It's not as deep,' Kelly says, of the opening-day defense. 'We're missing the experience factor. We have a lot of athleticism, but how do things play out?'

The kicking (Rob Beard) and punting (Jackson Rice) are in good, experienced hands, er, feet. The Ducks don't lack for return guys, with Barner and Harris among the best in college at returning punts, and Barner, Huff, De'Anthony Thomas and even James dangerous on kickoffs.

The talent appears to be there for the Ducks.

But, experience?

'It doesn't matter,' Kelly says. 'Using your age as an excuse, to say that I don't have to do things the right way, doesn't fly in this operation.'

UO locals

Taylor Hart, Tualatin High: The redshirt sophomore defensive tackle appeared in all 13 games for the Ducks in 2010. He could be a major contributor this season on the Ducks' defensive line, which rotates players in and out.

Keanon Lowe, Jesuit: After redshirting his freshman season, the receiver is likely to be used mostly on special teams this season.

Colt Lyerla, Hillsboro High: The true freshman tight end came to Oregon this spring. He is the likely backup to tight end stalwart David Paulson.

Brian Teague, David Douglas: The sophomore tight end will fight with Lyerla for playing time behind Paulson. He played in three non-conference games last season.

Ben Butterfield, Sherwood: The redshirt sophomore receiver will look to get playing time at the Ducks' thin wide receiver position.

Anthony Blake, Jesuit: The sophomore running back redshirted last season after transferring from College of the Holy Cross.

Tyson Coleman, Lake Oswego: The true freshman linebacker came to Oregon in the spring, hoping to find his way onto the depth chart.

James Euscher, Aloha: The true freshman offensive lineman arrived at Oregon in the spring. He is likely to redshirt.

Matt Pierson, Jesuit: The true freshman offensive lineman was second-team all-Metro League his senior season.

Dallen Voeller, West Linn: The redshirt freshman is low on the tight end depth chart. He is a former Three Rivers League honorable mention wide receiver.

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