Receiver says he's just one of UO's weapons, but his speed has an impact

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Junior wide receiver Josh Huff has had his best games of the season in recent weeks, which he and others attributed in part to better performances in practice.EUGENE — It’s all about practice and preparation, Oregon coach Chip Kelly preaches. And receiver Josh Huff has been heeding the words of the wise one.

“He’s really starting to emerge as one of the top receivers in this league,” says Kelly, who will guide the No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Ducks into their 5 p.m. Saturday Pac-12 matchup with Stanford at Autzen Stadium. “A difficult matchup one-on-one. Good blocker. Everything you’d want in a receiver.”

Quarterback Marcus Mariota has readily delivered the ball to the athletic, 5-10, 200-pound junior in recent games. And Huff’s performance has made the Ducks even more lethal.

Huff had only six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns through seven games, with no catches in two games and no plays in two others while he had a knee injury. In the last three games, including visits to USC and Cal, he’s been outstanding (14 receptions for 283 yards and five touchdowns).

“Josh has done a good job of battling through injuries, working through stuff,” Mariota says. “He’s always getting open, and gets big yards after the catch. He’s one of a lot of guys ... who can really get open.”

D’Anthony Thomas leads Oregon in receiving with 37 receptions for 378 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie Bralon Addison has 22 receptions for 243 yards and three scores, Daryle Hawkins 20 catches for 175 yards and three scores. Kenjon Barner (18), Keanon Lowe (17), tight end Colt Lyerla (16), Will Murphy (12) and Dwayne Stanford (11) also have their share of receptions. Lyerla has six touchdowns.

But Huff provides the great speed for the deep ball, and he brought two years of experience into this season. He communicates with Mariota often on the sideline to let him know what passes might work.

“I just had to be patient,” says Huff, who had five catches for 109 yards and three TDs against California, a week after netting six receptions for 125 yards and two scores in the epic USC game. “I let everything come to me, put my trust in God, keep my faith, and continue to work hard in everything I do. Now that I’m 100 percent healthy, I’m making plays people want me to make.”

“I’m absolutely proud of him and couldn’t be happier for him,” Barner says. “He deserves it. Works hard in practice. Battled through some injuries. Josh steps up in crucial moments.”

While watching LaMichael James and Barner rise to prominence the past two years, Huff contributed a total of 50 receptions for 733 yards and five touchdowns and showed his versatility. He also rushed 12 times for 214 yards and two scores as a fill-in running back in 2010.

It makes him happy to be part of an offense that is built around the run game and often calls on its receivers to block.

“It makes the game a lot more fun when you have a balanced attack,” he says. “We have so many key players, it’s impossible for us to be stopped.”

n Different week, different Heisman Trophy candidate for the Ducks?

First, Thomas was all the rage, pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then, it was Barner, reaching an unprecedented level with 321 yards and five touchdowns against USC. Now, it’s the redshirt freshman Mariota, who was a combined 47 of 57 passing for 681 yards and 10 TDs against USC and Cal, and displayed his running ability and speed.

“You hear (Heisman) talk from family and friends, so you know it goes on,” says Mariota, who has completed 71.7 percent for 2,164 yards and 28 TDs, with five interceptions. “I just try to take it one game at a time, and not think about things like that.”

Ironically, a former Oregon commit, Texas A&M redshirt freshman QB Johnny Manziel, also has jumped into Heisman talk after leading the Aggies to victory at Alabama. Mariota met Manziel at an Oregon camp, and they played together in a high school all-star game. Oregon could have ended up with both QBs, had Manziel not de-committed.

“He’s a really good guy, an incredible athlete. You can see what he does on the field,” Mariota says. “It’s crazy, his vision and all that stuff. He’s fun to watch.”

Comparisons are aplenty, including, “maybe improvising would be one thing I see we both kind of have,” Mariota adds. “We’re both good fits for our teams.”

Mariota keeps getting better. His six TD passes against USC tied the school record.

“Yeah, the past couple weeks, the game is slowly slowing down,” he says. “It’s (me) getting used to what’s going on and playing Division I football. As I get more comfortable, I feel it’ll keep getting slower, and things will work out for me.”

n Injuries abounded on the Oregon defense last week, but defensive linemen Taylor Hart, Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli and Dion Jordan were listed on the depth chart for the Stanford game — the D-line being the most banged-up unit. It remains to be seen how well they each play.

It appears Erick Dargan, a 5-10, 210-pound sophomore from Pittsburg, Calif., will replace Avery Patterson (knee injury) at free safety. Patterson had replaced an injured John Boyett.

“He’s playing a lot of positions — corner, nickel, safety, rover,” defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says, of Dargan. “His intelligence and skill helps us tremendously.”

n Central Catholic’s Alex Balducci broke into the defensive line rotation at Cal, coming out of his redshirt season. Injuries forced coaches to call on the 6-4, 290-pound Balducci, rather than, say, junior college transfer Stetzon Bair.

One would think Balducci would stay in the rotation, especially with Wade Keliikipi expected to be out for the season.

“I think that’s probably what the deal is going to be,” Balducci says. “I feel I worked and trained for this, and all my listening to Coach Az (Jerry Azzinaro) and working hard in practice paid off.”

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