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Locals add to Ducks' powerful mix

EUGENE — Oregon has enjoyed four stupendous seasons under coach Chip Kelly, and several of the state’s prep players have been part of them, including 12 from the Portland area this season.

Heading into the Civil War game: Tight end Colt Lyerla of Hillsboro High, receiver Keanon Lowe of Jesuit and defensive lineman Taylor Hart of Tualatin have been year-long starters. Lake Oswego linebacker Tyson Coleman has been a key rotation player on defense, and Central Catholic defensive lineman Alex Balducci has entered the playing picture in recent weeks.

Most of the talk about Oregon revolves around its offense, and Lyerla continues to excel as one of the Ducks’ difference-makers.

Lyerla missed some practices in training camp for personal reasons, but he returned and has been the big contributor that people have expected from the 6-5, 245-pound supreme athlete.

He had two TD catches against Cal, giving him six, to go with five TD catches last season in limited duty with David Paulson at tight end for the Ducks. He has 20 catches for 314 yards.

He also had a TD run among seven carries for 63 yards against Arizona in a breakout role toting the ball along with QB Bryan Bennett in a red-zone offense.

“I think it’s progressing just fine,” says Lyerla, of his sophomore season. “I just basically do what I’m asked to do. It depends on the game plan and defense and stuff like that. That’s what dictates whether I get the ball or not. If I’m not getting the ball, then I’m doing my part on the line and everything.”

Says Lowe: “He’s a beast, a freak of an athlete. He can go down there and push people around in the running game, and run past safeties and corners. And, he has great hands. He’s continued to develop since he got on campus.”

Indeed, Lyerla can be a heck of a difference-maker. But Kelly and his assistants want their tight ends and receivers to be proficient blockers for the run game.

Ed Dickson and Paulson — both NFL tight ends — as well as many before them had to do the same thing.

“A lot of times when you’re not getting the ball it’s because they have a key block on a run play that we really like,” Lyerla says. “We get used, it’s just different every time. It is what it is.”

Says Kelly: “It’s also that you got other guys contributing, like De’Anthony (Thomas) and Josh Huff. They garner attention, and inside guys will get one-on-one coverage and find holes. The tight end spot becomes more of an active role. They can’t take away everything.”

When the Ducks do call plays for Lyerla, he steps up, thanks to a nice chemistry with QB Marcus Mariota.

“Since Day One, Marcus has played like a veteran to me,” he says. “He’s just getting better and better each week. Keep watching that.”

The 5-9, 180-pound sophomore Lowe earned a starting receiver spot in training camp, much to the surprise of many observers. The Ducks had a bounty of receivers to evaluate, and went with Lowe because of his knowledge of the system, his blocking and playmaking ability. He and Daryle Hawkins were similar in that they beat out other contenders for starting spots along with Huff. (Thomas plays both running back and receiver).

Blocking helped get Lowe on the field.

“We work on that in practice as much as we work on route running and catching the ball,” he says. “We pride ourselves on being the best blocking receiving corps in the country. Blocking’s not easy, that’s why most receivers don’t put effort into it or don’t do it.”

He has worked on route running and getting open and receiving with the Ducks.

“It’s not like you can just come in and play at Oregon,” he says. “You have to work on things you’re not so good at.”

Lowe had TD receptions against Tennessee Tech and Washington, and then key catches against USC (that also drew an interference penalty) and Cal (that drew a targeting penalty).

The catch with the “PI” was a pretty one for 32 yards.

“I had a good release, and (Mariota) put the ball up there,” Lowe says. “The defensive back bumped me a little bit, but I was able to concentrate and catch the ball.”

He had a 28-yard TD reception against Stanford, and he has 22 catches and 254 yards receiving.

No local has stood out more than the 6-6, 295-pound Hart in Oregon’s national-championship level teams in 2010, ‘11 and ‘12. A three-year starter, the versatile junior Hart always receives praise from his coaches and teammates for his energy and proverbial “motor.”

Hart suffered a foot injury against Cal, as the Ducks dealt with a slew of injuries on the defensive line — hence, Balducci’s insertion into the rotation. Other injuries came in and around the 62-51 win at USC.

“We won that game, that’s all that matters,” says Hart, who played against Stanford.

The big man looked to improve in his junior season. He has seven sacks and eight tackles-for-loss.

“Obviously, I wanted to improve on little things, like pass rush,” he adds. “That means moves, and recognizing when it’s going to be a pass and whatnot. ... With Wade (Keliikipi) in the middle and Dion (Jordan) on the outside of you, they’ll focus more on Dion than me. It helps me out.”

Keliikipi has since purportedly been shelved for the season with an injury, making room for Balducci, the 6-4, 290-pound true freshman, the past two games.

It was an opportunity he jumped at, when coaches broached the subject of playing and not continuing to redshirt.

“They said they were going to need me,” says Balducci, who made his debut in the 59-17 win at Cal, during which “I had a little bit of jitters at first, but I relied on my training, and Coach Az (Jerry Azzinaro) is a great coach, and older guys helped me. I felt, honestly, really prepared. ... The first five minutes it was very shocking, but after that the game slowed down.”

He has faced off with some veteran offensive linemen, both in games and in practice, and felt like he held his own. And, it has helped that fellow true freshmen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner had played well on the D-line already.

The Ducks’ coaches have asked Balducci to play solidly.

“Filling gaps, letting the linebackers make plays,” he says. “As a play comes up, it’s up to us to make a play, but do our job first. If the ball comes to you, that’s when you get on it.”

Balducci, who grew up in North Portland in the Roosevelt High area, says he had gained about 20 pounds since leaving Central Catholic. He certainly passed the eye test, Hart adds, as players remarked about his size.

“They put muscle on you quick here,” Balducci says.

With Azzinaro’s mentorship, Balducci feels like he will continually improve. “He practices what he preaches: he’s going to tell you something, he’s not going to say anything or do anything differently,” he says. “If he said you work hard and do the right things, you’ll play for him. You’ve got to simply listen to him.”

The 6-1, 220-pound sophomore Coleman has received plenty of playing time as backup linebacker — Boseko Lokombo starts in front of him at the “Sam,” or strong-side, spot.

“Tyson is a tremendous athlete,” linebackers coach Don Pellum says. “When we were recruiting him, we thought with his athletic ability if he got a little bigger, he’d be a great prospect. He had a skill set we were attracted to.

“He’s played a tremendous amount in every game, and been a major contributor in the kicking game as well. He’s constantly expanding his knowledge of the game. If he continues, he’ll be really, really, really good.”

Ben Butterfield, of Sherwood, converted to safety, and the 6-0, 200-pound junior was listed as free safety backup for the Stanford game behind starter Erick Dargan after injuries to John Boyett and Avery Patterson.

Other locals on the UO team: receiver Patrick Acosta, Westview (walk-on); linebacker Brett Bafaro, Liberty High of Hillsboro (redshirting); offensive lineman James Euscher, Aloha (redshirt sophomore); defensive back Michael Manns, Molalla (walk-on); offensive lineman Matt Pierson, West Linn (walk-on); tight end Brian Teague, David Douglas (walk-on).