DUCKS NOTES: TE Williams improved, QB Thomas bigger, WR Tuinei optimistic, LB Alonso adjusting
EUGENE - The fast and flashy Oregon Ducks are working on instituting some power blocking into their game during spring football practices, fully aware that Auburn pushed them around for most of the BCS National Championship Game - in two sequences, in particular.
Auburn notched a safety when LaMichael James was tackled in the end zone, and stopped the Ducks on downs at the goal line at a crucial time.
Quarterback Darron Thomas, reminded of the two plays and asked about the need for more power running, brought up tight end Brandon Williams.
"He's going to be a big key," says. "Brandon has been working better."
Blocking has always been Oregon's emphasis under coach Chip Kelly. Thomas also says Ryan Clanton adds some ability on the offensive line, and Hroniss Grasu, who's battling Karrington Armstrong at center, has been impressive. Justin Hoffman appears to be excelling with the departure of D.J. Davis at receiver.
The Ducks are also working on adding more speed to their offensive arsenal, with the TAZR position, which would highlight Josh Huff.
• Oregon is only running two teams of receivers in practice, waiting on the arrival of some talented and fast true freshmen to fill out the ranks.
With Davis and Jeff Maehl gone, an emphasis falls on Lavasier Tuinei and Huff to lead the group. Hoffman also got plenty of playing time last year.
"I was ready when Jeff and D.J. left, they were great mentors for me," Tuinei says. "(Coaches) got me playing slot and outside."
While the receiving corps is thin, Tuinei says current receivers are rising up, including Nick Cole, Eric Dungy, Keanon Lowe and Blake Cantu.
"We don't have anything to worry about," he says. "We're ready."
• Tuinei felt a different presence when Thomas took the field for spring ball. "Something's changed about him," he says. "More leadership has stepped out with him. He's going to have to take a role."
Indeed, with two receivers and three offensive linemen gone, Thomas will have to take on more leadership, even with James, Kenjon Barner, Tuinei, Huff and tight end David Paulson returning among skill guys.
Thomas has also gained weight, up 10 pounds to 215, and worked to incorporate the size with his speed and flexibility. He's also continued to work on footwork.
"A lot of the throws I've made is from (better) footwork," he says. "I wasn't confident in making some throws last year."
• Thomas likes what he sees from true freshman Colt Lyerla from Hillsboro High, who enrolled at Oregon early to participate in spring drills. He's settled in at tight end.
"The first day of practice, I threw the ball to him ... one hand (catch)," Thomas says. "He's got the talent right now to get on the field. Coach (Tom Osborne) has been doing good with him, helping him with routes."
• Thomas is wearing No. 5, and Huff is wearing Thomas' old number, No. 1.
You think a fair share of UO fans will be buying No. 5 jerseys now?
"That's right, helping everybody else out," says Thomas, fully aware that Oregon players don't see any revenues from such sales.
• Anthony Gildon entered last season as a starter at cornerback, opposite then-senior Talmadge Jackson, and Cliff Harris eventually took over and became a star. Gildon has another chance to start this year, opposite Harris, and he can provide some stability, a la Jackson last season, as the lone senior among corners.
"I feel like I know what I'm doing and I can help out," Gildon says. "I want to be out there and make plays. You always want to play to the best of your ability. I want to step up and take the spot, lock it down."
His competition will be from the likes of Scott Grady, Avery Patterson, Troy Hill, Terrance Mitchell and Dior Mathis. Touted transfer Marcus Davis did not enroll in school for spring term.
• Kiko Alonso and Dewitt Stuckey are waging a competition to be the starting middle linebacker, replacing departed Casey Matthews.
"Dewitt has a little bit more knowledge of what we're doing," defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says. "Kiko, without a doubt, is the more talented. But you gotta know what you're doing to let that talent come to the forefront. I like them both, and they'll both play a lot of football."
Alonso sat out last season after a driving under the influence arrest, and also underwent knee surgery. He had just started running when the Ducks played in the national championship game, and Alonso says that he should be full speed by the end of spring ball.
"The knee feels good, but I'm a little rusty," he says. "It'll take time. I got plenty of time."
Alonso has put on one memorable hit, leveling Williams, in practice. Hitting and tackling are like riding a bike, he says. Comes back fast. Playing the defense and playing well are different matters.
"I watched film last year, I didn't fall behind in the D," he says. "I still just need more reps to put it together."
The linebacking corps is also void of established leaders with Matthews and Spencer Paysinger gone.
"Linebackers are the captains of the defense, we have to be leaders," Alonso says. "We're up to the challenge. I'm more of a leader by example, but I've been working to talk more. If I want to play 'Mike' (middle linebacker), it's what I gotta do."
• Aliotti has been pleased with his unit's defensive line play, citing Dion Jordan, Taylor Hart, Brandon Hanna and Ricky Heimuli. Wade Keliikipi has been injured and not taking part in live action. Outside linebackers Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo have also looked good and safety John Boyett "has been outstanding," Aliotti adds.