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Ducks tackle year of change


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Oregon Ducks coach Mark Helfrich already is implementing changes for the 2016 football season.Times are changing with the University of Oregon football team.

Players and coaches are going: Bralon Addison to the NFL, key seniors graduating and Don Pellum moving back to linebackers coach.

Players and coaches are coming: QB Dakota Prukop, a new defensive coordinator, and Matt Lubick the new offensive coordinator.

All as coach Mark Helfrich works to keep the Ducks afloat as one of the Pac-12’s better programs and nationally relevant.

The Ducks fell out of the national picture in 2015 after starting 3-3, and then suffered some public humiliation by blowing a 31-point lead and losing a thrilling 47-41, triple-overtime Alamo Bowl game to TCU.

A year after playing for the national championship, Oregon fell from the perch of the 10-or-more-win teams, although its 9-4 record makes it nine consecutive years with nine or more wins, including seven in a row with 10 or more — not too shabby.

But what will the future bring for Oregon? More of the same, or being knocked down a notch and struggling to compete and stay near the top in the more-balanced Pac-12?

“Every single person, including me, needs to improve,” Helfrich says.

It all starts with leadership, and Helfrich, 33-8 in three seasons (2-2 postseason), clearly feels the urgency to shake things up. He promoted Lubick to offensive coordinator after Scott Frost’s departure for the head coaching job at Central Florida, and he will hire another offensive coach. He demoted Pellum to linebackers coach with the paramount idea of bringing in another coordinator and being better than the Pac-12’s worst defense.

Helfrich and his newly reconfigured staff will welcome a new starting quarterback in the wake of Vernon Adams Jr.’s one-and-done campaign and Jeff Lockie mightily struggling as his backup.

The leading contender will be Prukop, a Montana State transfer who already has moved to Eugene and begun school. Lockie and others will be back — perhaps Travis Jonsen figures into the mix — and incoming freshmen should add to QB depth.

Several offensive playmakers, led by running back Royce Freeman, will return in 2016. But the offensive line needs some restructuring, including the determination of whether Doug Brenner, who struggled with snaps in the Alamo Bowl, or somebody else should be the center.

The Ducks lose key seniors, most notably DeForest Buckner, in the front seven on defense, but the secondary returns intact and then some. On paper, UO will have tremendous depth in the secondary, which might allow Charles Nelson to play less safety and more receiver, especially with Addison going pro. We’ll see.

Here is a rundown of the 2016 Ducks on offense, defense and special teams (as of noon Tuesday, Jan. 5):


The offense cruised along (when Adams played), leading the Pac-12 in scoring (43.0 points per game) and total offense (538.2 yards) again.

From Austin, Texas, the 6-2, 200-pound Prukop is a very good dual-threat quarterback, at least potentially. But, whereas Adams led Eastern Washington to three consecutive FCS playoffs, Prukop appeared in one (2014). Prukop, though, will be able to go through spring ball and summer workouts and be at training camp from the outset, unlike Adams.

Lockie, whose lack of execution contributed to Oregon’s inept after-the-first-half offense and stunning Alamo Bowl loss, says he plans to return to the Ducks for his senior year and compete with Prukop.

“It’s just something you kind of get used to,” he says, of UO transfer QBs. “You know it’s always an option. I’ve been through it before, so nothing new.”

The talented runner Taylor Alie also got some QB playing time in 2015, but Morgan Mahalak did not and considered transferring soon after the season. Jonsen will be returning from injury, and the Ducks will welcome freshmen QBs in the summer, including touted Terry Wilson from Oklahoma City.

Running back? That’s another issue. The corps should be deep and good. Freeman has 3,201 yards rushing, 42 receptions and 38 total TDs in two seasons (not to mention a 2014 TD pass to Marcus Mariota). He’ll be backed up again by Kani Benoit, Tony Brooks-James, Taj Griffin and possibly Thomas Tyner, if the former Aloha High star returns to the team after shoulder surgery.

What can the 5-11, 230-pound Freeman improve on for his third (and likely final) collegiate season? He’s even a great blocker.

“You can’t get complacent,” he says. “(Position coach Gary Campbell) and other running backs remind me daily I’m pretty good but I can always be better, and they’re here to make me better. I’ve got to stay in the film room, study, watch other backs across the nation and things like that. Improve on the field and with work ethic.”

Of the running back depth, he adds: “We live back there, party in the backfield, we’re out here doing our thing. We’ve got total trust in each other. We know we have


Griffin has great speed and runs very hard. “(This year) is getting me ready for next year,” he says. “I’m still young, I still have time ... We’ve got numbers everywhere, and guys are going to step up. I think we’re going to do some good things next year.”

Receivers Addison and Byron Marshall have chosen to go pro, but Darren Carrington apparently will return. He had 32 receptions, 609 yards and six touchdowns in seven games after returning from NCAA suspension in 2015, solidifying himself as one of the Pac-12’s better receivers.

Dwayne Stanford also plans to return, as does Devon Allen, even should he run hurdles in the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro. Allen played in most games, despite recovering from a knee injury.

Young receivers such as Kirk Merritt, Jalen Brown and Alex Ofodile could take on bigger roles.

“We’ll be just as good next year,” Allen predicts.

And, what about Nelson, a standout special teams player and receiver in 2014 who helped by moving to starting safety while still making specials teams and offensive plays in 2015?

“I’m fine with doing the same thing, whatever helps the team in any way,” he says. “If that’s what I want, the coaches will go with it. They lean more toward what I want. Yeah, I’d like to do it all.”

Tight end Pharaoh Brown, who suffered a serious leg injury at Utah in 2014 and missed the 2015 season, has plans to try to play next season. Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt are set to return at the position.

The offensive line needs some work, what with seniors Tyler Johnstone, Matt Pierson and center Matt Hegary departing. Returning starters are Cameron Hunt at right guard and Tyrell Crosby at right tackle. Brenner has been considered the next center, although his play in the Alamo Bowl might have changed the minds of coaches; he can also play guard. Evan Voeller, Jake Pisarcik and Elijah George are considered other candidates to start. An O-linemen of the future: Jake Hanson.

It’ll be a big deal losing the seniors.

“We’re looking good,” said Brenner, before the Alamo Bowl. “There’s always a little bit of transition. We’ll take care of that in spring and fall camp.”

Says O-line coach Steve Greatwood: “I see (Hunt) as just a fourth-year senior being the cornerstone of the group next year. I’m going to put a lot on his shoulders, but I think he’s at the point in his career when he’s ready to handle it. I’m just really pleased with him.”


The defense hit rock bottom in 2015, finishing last in the Pac-12 in points allowed (37.5 per game) and total defense (485.3 yards per game). Pellum’s unit gave up 488 points, an all-time UO high.

The defensive line needs to be rebuilt.

Johnstone, a senior on the 2015 offensive line, has some thoughts about the D-line, which loses three-year starters Buckner and Alex Balducci, as well as Tui Talia. Among the returnees are starter Henry Mondeaux, Rex Manu, Austin Malaota, Jalen Jelks, senior T.J. Daniel and Canton Kaumatule, the touted player from Hawaii who barely played in his true freshman season.

Says Johnstone: “There’s Mondeaux. He’s going to be a really good player. He’s smart. Then you’ve got guys like Jelks, a crazy athlete. Get him in the weight room a little more and he’s going to be a force. Rex is a super active load in there at the nose position. Really quick with his hands. He’s only going to get better. Austin — fantastic football player. All those guys have really good work ethics and they hold each other accountable and to a high standard in the weight room and in practice and all that. They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with next year.”

We shall see, as we will shall see whether the linebackers can retool, led by Pellum, who has been reassigned to head the unit. Torrodney Prevot started late in the season, after Christian French’s injury, but the 2016 linebackers will be fairly green on regular time (but with special teams experience) — the likes of Cody Carriger, Danny Mattingly, Jimmie Swain, Johnny Ragin III and Eddie Heard.

Says Prevot: “There’s a lot of rebuilding to do as a defense and a linebacker corps. I’ll have to step up as a leader and show the way, in my senior year come out and have a totally different mindset and take control.”

The secondary, on paper, should be loaded after being one of the main reasons opponents rang up so many yards (306.5 passing yards allowed, 11th in the Pac-12) and points in 2015.

The list of players with experience is long, and it’s just a matter of who plays where and how much among Nelson, Reggie Daniels, Tyree Robinson, Arrion Springs, Juwaan Williams, Ugo Amadi, Khalil Oliver, Glen Ihenacho and Chris Seisay. And the Ducks have some talented younger players.

“We knew this year would be kind of tough,” Robinson says. “Next year, there’ll be no excuses. We have everybody who has played and you have to come in fighting for positions, because they’re up for grabs.”

It would seem to make sense to play Nelson more at receiver, although he provides needed toughness in the secondary. Nelson “brought speed, tackling ability, sense for the ball” at safety, Seisay says. “You know he’s going to do his job and make plays.”

Springs made great strides at cornerback. He just needs to be more consistent. “Strength, size, and he’s intelligent,” says John Neal, secondary coach. “And when he wants to go, he’s really good. He’s a big guy. He’s almost 210 pounds. That’s a big corner.”

Said Neal, of his unit before the Alamo Bowl: “We aren’t anywhere we need to be. The evolution is still in progress, and this game is going to be a tell-tale.”

TCU quarterback Bram Kohlhausen, a backup, helped the Horned Frogs abuse the Ducks to the tune of 545 yards, including 403 after halftime and for 351 yards and two scores through the air.

So, maybe the secondary still needs work, as does the whole defense under new leadership and coordinating.


Aidan Schneider is set to return for his third year kicking, and he’s still on NCAA-record pace for accuracy. He’s 33 of 36 in field goals (91.7 percent), having hit his two longest in the Alamo Bowl inside the San Antonio, Texas Alamodome — from 47 and 44 yards. He needs to get to 50 attempts to be considered for all-time records accuracy.

According to the NCAA records (minimum 50 attempts), Brett Baer of Louisiana-Lafayette (2009-2012) hit on 90 percent of his kicks (45 of 50), Alex Henery of Nebraska (2007-10) made 89.5 percent of his kicks (68 of 76) and Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo, currently kicking, is at 88.4 percent (69 of 78). UCLA’s Kai Forbath (2007-10) ranks as the top kicker from a Pac-10/Pac-12 team, 84.16 percent.

Blocked three times late in the season, Ian Wheeler is slated to return as punter.

The strong-legged Matt Wogan is eligible to return as backup kicker and punter and prolific touchback maker as the kickoff man.