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Drive for five: Offense could lead the way

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ducks' Byron Marshall and De'Anthony Thomas will spend a lot more time together in the Oregon backfield next season after Kenjon Barner's time at the university.Both LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner have now departed the Oregon football program. It’s an end of an era, stretching to the days when LeGarrette Blount punched an opposing player, drawing a suspension and forcing the Ducks to go in a new direction quickly with then-freshmen running backs James and Barner in September 2009.

Now, it’s De’Anthony Thomas’ turn. And Byron Marshall’s. And, probably, Thomas Tyner’s.

While the Ducks return several key players from the Fiesta Bowl-winning team, including QB Marcus Mariota, the offensive MVP in the 35-17 win against Kansas State, it’s time for other players to become household names carrying the ball in one of the country’s best offenses. It’s an offense that has made its reputation with a consistent and explosive ground game under coach Chip Kelly, who has decided not to coach in the NFL.

Kelly is staying, and the Ducks will be looking to make their fifth BCS bowl appearance in as many seasons. But possible NCAA penalties loom.

Front and center will be Thomas, who will be coming off two standout seasons, with nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards, including 91 receptions for 1,050 yards and 14 TDs, 147 carries for 1,296 yards and 18 TDs and four return scores — 36 touchdowns total. Thomas appears ready to take on more duties as a junior next season.

“I’d like to see him get 12 to 15 carries a game, and play wideout and do some other things, make big plays for us,” says Gary Campbell, UO running backs coach, of Thomas. “He really wants to (run the ball). We want to get him the ball any way we can.

“The thing is, I don’t like seeing him take a lot of hits up the middle, direct hits, because he’s a slight guy (5-9, 175 pounds). But he’s a tough kid, and he will take those hits. That scares me a little bit. In his mind, he’s a really physical player, but he doesn’t have that physical body. The best way to utilize his talents is to try to get him in the open field, get him against guys one-on-one, so he can make those cuts and use that speed and quickness.”

Thomas’ load depends, too, on the development of Marshall, who gained 447 yards on 88 carries (5.2 yards per) and scored four touchdowns, and whether Aloha High’s Tyner and Texan Dontre Wilson — both verbally committed recruits — can make an impact.

The 5-10, 205-pound Marshall progressed throughout his true freshman season. Marshall might not have great speed and elusiveness, but he could be the every-down running back in 2013. Having learned much from Barner, Marshall wants the job.

“The only thing I can do is ball-out at spring ball and have a good fall camp,” he says. “Who’s going to get playing time is up to the coaches.”

Marshall wants to get leaner and make himself more durable.

“I thought he was hitting the line of scrimmage a lot quicker, more aggressively and decisively (during Fiesta Bowl practices),” Campbell says. “In this offense, he’s got to be ready to go. He’s got some strength — he’s a power-packed little guy — and he’s got some speed. He’s got all the tools he needs. He’s just got to refine them.”

Adds Steve Greatwood, offensive line coach: “We like to run between the tackles, and (Marshall’s) built for that. He’s a tackle-breaking guy. I’m excited about him. We have enough weapons on the perimeter, speed. We’ll have De’Anthony. We can dress things up to get (Marshall) the ball. We’ll be fine.”

If they sign as expected, Tyner and Wilson should add to the mix. Tyner has become one of the fastest sprinters in Oregon history, and refined his running in football pads during his stellar senior season at Aloha.

The Ducks should be exceptional again on offense in 2013. Mariota finished with 2,677 yards passing, 32 TD passes (with only six interceptions) and a 68.5 completion percentage, along with 752 yards rushing on 106 carries (7.1-yard average) and five TDs.

“Kids respect him because he’s so humble,” Greatwood says. “He goes out there and works every day. He’s a competitor and a performer.”

What remains to be seen is the status of backup QB Bryan Bennett, who may transfer. If he stays, Bennett would still be in competition with redshirt freshmen Jake Rodriguez and Jeff Lockie. The 6-3, 220-pound Rodrigues was still recovering from a broken ankle in 2012 training camp; there’s a lot of chatter about his abilities.

“I feel more confident in my game, learning the offense,” says Rodrigues, from Rocklin, Calif. “It was a lot more fun running around, compared to a year ago when I was on crutches.”

Rodrigues and Lockie are runners and throwers who fit the spread-option offense.

“Marcus and Bryan have done a really good job helping us out, teaching us, answering questions we have,” says the 6-2, 195-pound Lockie, from Danville, Calif.

Also important: Fourteen of the 16 receivers on the roster return (not including Thomas and tight end Colt Lyerla). The list includes starters Daryle Hawkins, Keanon Lowe and Josh Huff and sophomore-to-be Bralon Addison — who each had more than 20 receptions this season.

“With a quarterback like (Mariota), how could you not get better as a receiver?” Lowe says. “We’re going to work all winter and spring and next season, keep pushing, and (Mariota’s) only going to get better. It’ll be fun.”

Says Hawkins: “We try to stay away from being individuals and see ourselves as a true receiving corps.”

Addison and Dwayne Stanford saw action as true freshmen — and another talented newcomer, Chance Allen, redshirted. Addison has been compared to Thomas in his slashing ability, but he expects to stay at slot receiver.

A prime difference-maker, Lyerla made three catches for 52 yards during key drives in the Fiesta Bowl, displaying his size, strength and athleticism. He’s star material, entering his junior season with 32 receptions for 539 yards and 12 total TDs (including a rushing score).

On the offensive line, the Ducks need to find a couple of guards, likely from the foursome of Mana Greig, Hamani Stevens, Everett Benyard and Andre Yruretagoyena. Both tackles — Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone — return, as does center Hroniss Grasu, who’ll be a third-year starter. James Euscher should be a key backup tackle.

“I’m not worried about guard at all,” says Grasu, who expects to take more of a leadership role.

Says Greatwood: “We’ll get into spring, shake up the depth chart and see who’s looking good where. I’m confident we can restock the cubbard at guard.”

Fisher and Johnstone, both about 6-6 and 295, are young pillars at the tackle positions. “We have great chemistry here,” Fisher says, of the pair.

On defense, the Ducks have to move on without departing linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, their 2012 leading tacklers, as well as defensive end Dion Jordan. But depth has been built.

The defensive line will feature senior-to-be Taylor Hart, big tackles Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi and Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, who played rotation roles as true freshmen. Alex Balducci, who ended his redshirt status to play late in the year, Tony Washington and many others also will be in the mix.

The 6-8, 280-pound Armstead, one of the country’s top recruits last year, felt he improved throughout the season.

“I feel more mature, on and off the field,” he says, “knowing how I approach things, understanding the defense, learning how to be successful. I’ve grown a lot. I had to get used to (the physicality) quickly, playing right away.

“I have to take on a bigger role. I don’t feel like I’m ready (to start) or perfect at anything. I’ll work to become an overall better player and see where that lands me.”

The 6-7, 265-pound Buckner, rangy and in the mold and makeup of Jordan, says he also had to adjust to being more physical. He knows a spot could be open to start on the D-line. Best advice Jordan gave him? “Just clear your head and play,” he says.

Starter Boseko Lokombo and backup Tyson Coleman return at the “Sam,” or strong side/outside linebacker. Being a senior next season, Lokombo knows he’ll be the ringleader at linebacker.

“It’s a role that I’m looking forward to,” he says. “I’m going to take it in stride.”

It appears Rahim Cassell and Anthony Wallace will battle to replace Alonso at “Mike,” or middle linebacker, and Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick could vie to take Clay’s place at “Will,” or inside linebacker. The Ducks have also recruited a junior college linebacker, Joe Walker.

“They’re ready for that time, ready to take that role and show coaches that they can do what Kiko and Michael have been doing all year,” Lokombo says of starting linebacker candidates.

Adds Wallace: “We’re going to push each other, and the best players are going to play. We’ve got a system, and everybody will get their fair shake.”

Every eligible player returns in the secondary, including safeties Brian Jackson, Erick Dargan and Avery Patterson, and cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis. The Ducks also are high on Arlington, Texas redshirt twins Eric and Stephen Amoako.

“This will only bring out the competition in everybody,” says Ekpre-Olomu, who had a fabulous sophomore season, with six forced fumbles, 15 breakups and four interceptions.

Free safety Patterson suffered a blown-out knee against USC, after excelling as John Boyett’s replacement and returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Taking over from Patterson, Dargan played admirably, registering an interception against Oregon State and two in the Fiesta Bowl. That’ll be a great competition to see who starts at free safety; Patterson helped coach Dargan during the Fiesta Bowl.


Projected 2013 UO depth chart

Summary: Oregon appears to be an early contender for the BCS national championship in 2013, with eight starters returning on offense and defense and plenty of experienced depth.

The season opens Aug. 31 at Autzen Stadium against Nicholls State, and the schedule includes a home date with Tennessee on Sept. 14, a road game at Stanford and games with UCLA and Utah.

QUARTERBACK

*Marcus Mariota, sophomore

Depth: Whether Bryan Bennett remains with Ducks or not, redshirt freshman Jake Rodrigues appears poised to challenge to be Mariota’s backup, along with Jeff Lockie.

RUNNING BACK

Byron Marshall, sophomore

Depth: Marshall should be the full-time running back, with versatile junior De’Anthony Thomas getting his share of carries. And, all eyes will be on Aloha High’s Thomas Tyner, one of the country’s top prep backs.

WIDE RECEIVER

*Josh Huff, senior

*Daryle Hawkins, senior

*Keanon Lowe, junior

Depth: Thomas stars at receiver, too, and the Ducks return nearly every wideout on the roster, with youngsters Bralon Addison, Dwayne Stanford and Chance Allen figuring prominently in plans.

TIGHT END

*Colt Lyerla, junior

Depth: Pharoah Brown played extensively as a true freshman, and prospects abound, making the Ducks well-equipped at the position.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Left tackle: *Tyler Johnstone, sophomore

Left guard: Hamani Stevens, junior

Center: *Hroniss Grasu, junior

Right guard: Everett Benyard, senior

Right tackle: *Jake Fisher, junior

Depth: Three pillars return on the O-line, and the guard positions will be hotly contested. Center Karrington Armstrong, tackle James Euscher and guards Andre Yruretagoyena, Mana Greig and Jamal Prater should compete to play.

KICKER

*Alejandro Maldonado, senior

Depth: Maldonado, who went 2 for 2 on field goals in the Fiesta Bowl but has historic misses against USC and Stanford on his record, figures to have competition from incoming recruit Matt Wogan of North Carolina.

DEFENSIVE LINE

End: *Taylor Hart, senior

Tackle: *Wade Keliikipi, senior

Tackle: *Ricky Heimuli, senior

End: DeForest Buckner, sophomore

Depth: The D-line will be loaded again, with veteran Tony Washington (rush end/linebacker) and sophomores Arik Armstead, Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp figuring to be other rotation players. Christian French, Koa Ka’ai, Jared Ebert and Stetzon Bair also could play.

LINEBACKER

Middle: Rahim Cassell, sophomore

Sam: *Boseko Lokombo, senior

Will: Derrick Malone, junior

Depth: Outside of the veteran Lokombo, competition should be fierce for starting positions, with Anthony Wallace (Middle), Rodney Hardrick (Will), Tyson Coleman (Sam) and possibly junior-college transfer Joe Walker in the mix.

SECONDARY

Rover: *Brian Jackson, senior

Free Safety: * Avery Patterson, senior

Cornerback: * Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, junior

Cornerback: * Terrance Mitchell, junior

Depth: Another loaded position, as Erick Dargan (two interceptions in Fiesta Bowl), Troy Hill and Dior Mathis, as well as James Scales and Isaac Dixon, provide experienced depth.

PUNTER

Alejandro Maldonado, senior

Depth: The position remains up in the air, with Maldonado having punted in past games, and walk-on Dylan Ausherman and recruit Matt Wogan also figuring into the mix.



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