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Air Oregon? Offense might throw more as receivers make an impact

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Sophomore Byron Marshall is the leading candidate to start and get the most carries at running back for the 2013 Oregon Ducks.EUGENE — A big starting position remains open for the Oregon Ducks, who have been the Pac-12's most prolific running team in recent years with Jonathan Stewart, Jeremiah Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and plenty of mobile quarterbacks.

Following James and Barner, who steps up as Oregon's primary running back in 2013?

De'Anthony Thomas returns as the hybrid running back/wide receiver, with nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards, including 91 receptions for 1,050 yards and 147 carries for 1,296 yards, and 36 total TDs in his first two seasons.

But the starting running back spot is likely to go to either sophomore Byron Marshall and incoming freshman Thomas Tyner from Aloha High.

Marshall made his play in spring ball, impressing the coaches with his conditioning and improving work ethic and intensity. The 5-11, nearly 210-pound Marshall, from San Jose, Calif., says "yes and no" to the suggestion that it's his job to lose. Coach Mark Helfrich said before spring ball that Marshall would be groomed to be the starter, needing "a million reps" to ramp up his game.

"If I keep my job, I keep my job and I'll be happy about that," says Marshall, who adds that he feels more comfortable about his ability to roll up yards. He had six carries for 60 yards in the spring game; he had 87 carries for 447 yards (5.1 per carry) and four TDs in his rookie season.

Offensive coordinator Scott Frost says the list of potential ball carriers includes Marshall, Thomas, receiver Josh Huff, tight end Colt Lyerla, Ayele Forde, Tyner and even QB Marcus Mariota.

"We might have to spread out carries a little more than in the past," Frost says. "We don't have a go-to guy coming back. Every year we've had that guy (James, Barner) to hand it to 25 times a game and feel good about that. It might have to be, at least early, more of a running back by committee."

Marshall can run between the tackles and has decent speed. He wants to be the man.

"You're going to fill big shoes," he says, of emerging from backup to potential starter. "That's why they recruited me. It's why I'm here."

As far as a competition with Tyner, Marshall adds: "I can't predict the future, what's going to happen."

• The offense starts with Mariota and includes every prominent skill player from the 2012 team outside of Barner.

Look for Bralon Addison, sophomore receiver, to be a big-time player. He had 22 receptions for 243 yards and three TDs in his freshman campaign and looked every bit the star-in-the-making in spring ball. Addison had eight catches for 136 yards in the spring game.

"Bralon had an outstanding spring," Helfrich says of the 5-10, 180-pound Addison, from Missouri City, Texas. "Last fall camp, the offense came easily to him, naturally, in terms of learning. He was a step ahead of everybody else (among newcomers). He didn't play as well as he can. We had a great talk (before spring ball), and he had an outstanding spring. This is his new standard moving forward."

"Bralon had one of the best springs of anybody on our offense," Frost says.

• Frost says the Ducks could throw the ball more next season, dictating games with Mariota & Co. through the air.

"We've got an abundance of riches," Frost says. "We need to do whatever we can do offensively to make sure (playmakers) can contribute to us winning games."

Huff, the 5-11, 205 receiver from Houston, could have an outstanding senior season. He has 82 receptions for 1,226 yards and 12 receiving TDs in three seasons, and he caught two TD passes from Mariota in the spring game.

Huff says he anticipates a big year as the Ducks' most experienced skill player, but "there's a lot of talent on that side of the ball, and I've got to insert myself any way I can. I'm not a selfish guy; anytime I get the ball, I'm going to do what I can with it. When I don't have the ball, of course I'll block downfield for other guys. I'll get (the ball) where I fit in."

Frost called offensive plays throughout spring ball, including the spring game. Helfrich says in-game playcalling — handled by his predecessor, Chip Kelly, the past four years — will be determined in training camp.

• Redshirt freshmen quarterbacks Jake Rodrigues (13 of 19, 165 yards, two TDs) and Jeff Lockie (22 of 28, 217 yards, two TDs) had their moments in the spring game. Rodrigues returned to competitive action — not counting practices/scrimmages — for the first time since breaking his leg during his prep senior season in Rocklin, Calif.

The battle to be No. 2 QB behind Mariota will continue in training camp, but Rodrigues looked the part of a solid backup.

"I had nothing to prove to myself," the 6-3, 215 Rodrigues says. "I just wanted to prove to everyone that I could run and throw and lead the team down the field.

"Commanding the offense — that was my goal coming in."

Did he establish himself as the backup to beat out?

"I don't know," he says. "We'll see come summer and fall. Right now, me and 'Lockie' are going to keep working and pushing each other."

• The Ducks are loaded on the defensive line with Tony Washington, Wade Keliikipi, Ricky Havili-Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner returning rotation players and plenty of backups.

Oregon also is set in the secondary with safeties Brian Jackson, Avery Patterson and Erick Dargan, cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill and talented young players.

At linebacker, however, two new inside starters — replacing Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso — need to be determined to play alongside outside 'backer Boseko Lokombo.

Joe Walker, a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore transfer from L.A. Harbor College (Calif.), has possibly solidified one of the spots.

"I think Joe Walker will be a big contributor to this team next year," defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says. "Big contributor. He's got the right makeup, the right stuff. He cares, works hard, runs to the ball.

"Think about it. April 1 was the first time he sat in a meeting about football, and 27 days later (playing in the spring game) ... he's done fine. I'm pleased with him."

Rahim Cassell and Tyson Coleman (injured leg, missed the spring game), as well as Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone, also factor into the linebacker scene.

"Don Pellum's a tremendous teacher and coach," Aliotti adds of the linebackers coach. "I don't want to make it sound like the sky is falling. The sky is not falling. We'll be OK there, probably better than OK there."

Washington appears to be the successor to Dion Jordan at the drop-end/outside linebacker spot.

"I thought Tony Washington had a great spring," Aliotti says. "He showed me that his knowledge of that position ... and his athleticism is better. He's slimmed down some. He's going to do very well out there. I feel great about Tony."

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