NCAA Football Oregon Ducks

Oregon Football: 5 Spring Practice Positional Battles to Watch

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5 Spring Practice Positional Battles to Watch for Oregon

mark helfrich
Steve Bisig - USA TODAY Sports

The Oregon Ducks once again won 11 games in a season in 2013 but failed to meet their lofty expectations for the season. They missed out on a BCS bowl for the first time in five years in 2013 and watched the Stanford Cardinal take the Pac-12 North division and Pac-12 Championship for the second straight season. 2014 is a season with sky-high expectations and the Ducks will start the work to meet those expectations with the start of spring practice.

There is plenty of reason to expect a great year for the Ducks in 2014. They return a Heisman Trophy candidate under center in Marcus Mariota to lead the high-powered Oregon attack once again and pair him up with a 1,000-yard rusher in Byron Marshall to provide a one-two punch in the running game that will be hard to beat. Defensively, they return two of their defensive leaders in linebacker Derrick Malone and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu who finished No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on the team in tackles in 2013.

But Oregon, just like every team in college football, has some questions to answer about their lineup this spring. The team lost a number of talented playmakers on both sides of the ball that opens up spots for positional battles to take place during the spring and into next fall. The outcome of these competitions in practice will go a long way in determining how far Oregon goes in 2014 and whether or not they finally reclaim the Pac-12 title from Stanford.

With that being said, here are five spring practice positional battles that Oregon fans should keep an eye on.

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5. Offensive Line

tyler johnstone
Ron Chenoy - USA TODAY Sports

The group loses the undersized Mana Greig from one of the guard positions and will be without left tackle Tyler Johnstone for spring practice as he recovers from knee surgery. Greig struggled at times in 2013 and Oregon figures to upgrade the position in 2014 with some fresh blood in the mix. But he’s still an experienced presence on the line that will be gone, so there’s some room for concern. The rest of the line returns, however, which should help get any young players up to speed in a hurry next fall.

This spring, Cameron Hunt appears like the favorite to step into the starting lineup at guard but look for Andre Yruretagoyena to see a lot of reps during this practice period. Last season, Yruretagoyena played in three games as a backup guard and figures to see most of the reps at left tackle during the spring for the injured Johnstone. Finding the right guys to plug in and develop depth for the offensive line, particularly if Johnstone’s recovery hits a snag this summer, will be a key development to watch for this spring.

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4. Safety

erick dargan
Scott Olmos - USA TODAY Sports

One of the strength of the Oregon defense in 2013 was their experience in the secondary. This spring, however, they need to find replacements for both of their starting safeties last season, Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson, due to graduation. Patterson was the third-leading tackler on the team last season with 80 tackles to go along with three interceptions and six pass breakups. Jackson racked up 71 tackles and three pass breakups.

As spring practices open, Isaac Dixon and Erick Dargan appear to have the inside track to those open jobs for 2014. They gained some experience rotating in last season (Dixon recorded 10 tackles, Dargan 24 tackles and four passes defended), which gives them a head start on the competition this spring. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson highlights a young group of defensive backs that should push them during the spring for playing time, however, and create a competition to keep an eye on for next fall.

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3. Defensive Tackle

deforest buckner
Steven Bisig - USA TODAY Sports

This offseason, the Oregon defensive front will have to find replacements for a pair of 300-pound space-eaters in the middle with Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli moving on. Keliikipi was an underrated part of the defensive front in 2013, recording 34 tackles, including five tackles for loss and two sacks. Heimuli was a key rotational player on the line and provided key minutes as a backup, recording 25 tackles, including four tackles for loss and a sack.

The Ducks are happy to welcome back starting tackle DeForest Buckner to help lead the way next fall and nose tackle Alex Balducci has quite a bit of experience. Beyond that, however, depth is a concern for Oregon at the tackle position. Stetzon Bair and Sam Kamp will be asked to step up in the spring but don’t be surprised to see some young players given the chance to break through. Juco transfer Tui Talia should also provide a nice boost to the defensive interior in 2014.

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2. Defensive End

arik armstead
Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports

Oregon loses a major piece of their defense with the departure of Taylor Hart this offseaon. Hart finished 2013 fourth on the team with 75 tackles, including six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and five passes broken up as he was named second-team All-Pac-12. The 6-foot-6 mauler off the edge will be a difficult piece to replace in 2014 but the Ducks have to start looking this spring.

Arik Armstead figures to be the favorite to step into the starting lineup after starting five games in 2013 and recording 15 tackles, including three tackles for loss, a sack and two passes broken up. The 6-foot-8 junior left the Oregon basketball team this winter to shift his focus exclusively to football which should help him make serious strides this spring for the 2014 season. T.J. Daniel and Jason Sloan should also challenge for playing time during spring ball.

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1. Wide Receiver

bralon addison
Steven Bisig - USA TODAY Sports

Oregon loses three of their top receiving threats from 2013 with Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins, and De'Anthony Thomas moving on this offseason. Huff led the team in receiving last season, scoring a team-high 12 touchdowns, and was one of the leaders on the offensive side of the ball. Hawkins was a reliable option out of the slot who could be counted on to make a big catch when called on. While Thomas did not factor much into the stat sheet in 2013, his mere presence was enough to make defenses worry about him in the passing game.

Bralon Addison is poised to step up as the No. 1 receiver in 2014 with Keanon Lowe penciled in as the No. 2 but Oregon has to find some depth to fill out the rotation this spring. Dwayne Stanford has to have a bounce-back season after a disappointing freshman year in 2012 was followed by a lost year in 2013 when he underwent knee surgery. B.J. Kelley appeared in eight games last season but only made one catch. Both of them are expected to make strides this spring to round out the receiver rotation but don’t be surprised to see young playmakers break through in this wide open competition.