The Oregon Ducks have become the kings of the Pac-12, winning three straight conference championships under head coach Chip Kelly. They’ve taken over as the team to beat from USC‘s dynastic run of the early 2000s, but the competition chasing them is getting tougher. Stanford has turned themselves into a power in Palo Alto, Washington is poised to make a return to national relevance, and the Trojans are ready to return to to top following their NCAA sanctions. Can the Ducks remain the leaders of the Pac-12 for a fourth straight year with everyone nipping on their heels?
The Ducks will learn just how strong their grip on the top of the Pac-12 is this season as they open their fall camp. What questions do the need to answer as the season draws closer?
Who is going to play quarterback?
Darron Thomas acted as the signal caller for the last two seasons in Eugene, and will be a tough act to follow. He knew the offense inside and out and had the right combination of intelligence, athleticism, and accuracy to run Kelly’s blur offense to near perfection. Now who steps up? It’s a two-man race at this point between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Each has displayed the confidence in their ability to run the offense, but neither has secured the job for themselves quite yet. Bennett has the experience, appearing in eight games last year including one start (a 45-2 win over Colorado), but Mariota was the star of the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 99 yards and two scores, including an 82-yard run for paydirt. So which will it be? Experience or excitement?
How deep will the Ducks backfield be?
The Ducks will boast one of the best 1-2 combinations of running backs in the nation with Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas toting the rock. But who will step up to be number three? Last season, Thomas emerged in that role behind Barner and LaMichael James, and was a difference maker in the Ducks’ season. This year, the Ducks have just one other scholarship player in their backfield in freshman four-star recruit Byron Marshall. He’ll compete with walk-ons Ayele Ford and Kenny Bassett who have shown considerable promise. Kelly recognizes the need for bodies in the Pac-12, as depth at running back will be one of the keys to a successful season in Eugene.
Will the defense live up to the expectations?
Last season, the Ducks ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in total defense at 390.1 yards per game. That number is much more impressive when you take into account that the defensive unit faced a conference-high 1,077 plays thanks the fast-paced Oregon offense which ranked last in the conference in time of possession, holding onto the ball for just 24 minutes and 59 seconds per game. The Ducks return a good deal of that unit and don’t seem to have any glaring weaknesses heading into the season. They’ll be led this season by a trio of impact seniors in linebacker Michael Clay, safety John Boyett, and defensive end Dion Jordan. A lot will be expected from this group and their ability to meet those expectations will be a big factor in Oregon’s title defense.
What will the receiving corps look like?
While the Oregon offense isn’t predicated on having a deep threat at the wide receiver position, it’s always nice having a playmaker that can stretch defenses vertically and keep safeties out of the box. Oregon will be searching frantically to find someone like that in a sea of candidates, but will likely settle for little more than solid contributions and competent downfield blocking. Thomas will be the leading returning receiver this season, catching 46 passes for 605 yards and scoring nine touchdowns, but the Ducks will be using him in other places (like everywhere) and need to find some wideouts to fill out the depth chart. Of the 15 wide receivers in camp for the Ducks, Josh Huff, Rashaan Vaughn, and Daryle Hawkins look like the front runners.
The Ducks have risen to the top of the Pac-12, but the Trojans are back and look ready to regain their throne. Whether or not the Ducks can rebuff their advances will hinge on how well these questions get answered over the next three weeks.
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