Oregon lost its second national championship game in five years last season, and a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback as soon as the season ended. Now, the Ducks seem as vulnerable as ever, and while several prognosticators have confidence that Oregon is still a playoff-caliber team, many feel a step back is inevitable. However, no matter what happens with the Ducks on the field this season, their relationship with Phil Knight and Nike ensures that they will never go out of style.
Thomas Tyner is a big loss for this Oregon team, but the return of Royce Freeman should help buffer that blow some. Freeman led the team in rushing as a true freshman last season with 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, behind Freeman the running back depth chart gets pretty thin, unless Byron Marshall plays more running back this season. Marshall started his career as a back and was even a 1,000-yard rusher, but moved to predominantly receiver last season and led the team in receiving with 1,011 yards. There is also a freshman back who, if recent Ducks history with backs is any indication, should be able to contribute immediately in Tony James-Brooks.
Marshall may be best suited to play some running back again in 2015 too, because the Ducks have plenty of depth at receiver. He will still have an impact in the passing game though, but with the return of Bralon Addison from an ACL injury. Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington (the three D’s anyone?) are also a formidable trio of receivers. Allen and Carrington are only sophomores too, and both of them topped 700 receiving yards last season. Stanford wasn’t far behind with 639.
We’ve already established that whoever replaces Mariota at quarterback will have no shortage of weapons, but that doesn’t mean his job will be easy. Jeff Lockie or Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams will end up being the guy. Adams was a stud at the FCS level, passing for almost 3,500 yards, 35 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 66.1% completion percentage. However, his late arrival to camp may mean that he is not ready to run this offense come September 3rd. If so, Mariota’s former backup Jeff Lockie will be taking the opening day snaps. Lockie completed three-fourths of his passes for 207 yards and a touchdown.
Oregon has the rare ability to boast that they lost three offensive linemen with 28+ career starts, but still return three linemen with double-digit starts. Notre Dame transfer Matt Hegarty is part of the reason for that. Hegarty started all 13 games at Notre Dame last season. Tyler Johnstone and Cameron Hunt both have 20+ starts, but Johnstone did miss all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Other anticipated line starters Tyrell Crosby and Matt Pierson have 16 combined starts.
DeForest Buckner is the only returning starter on the defensive line, but he’s a pretty good one to get back. He led the team with 13 tackles for loss and pitched in four sacks. Tui Talia and Alex Balducci were the top two backups last season, and will step into starting roles in 2015. Both of whom were highly recruited high school players who have played sparingly in their time at Oregon.
The defensive backfield also returns only one starter in “rover” Reggie Daniels. Once again though, that’s not a bad one to bring back. Daniels intercepted a pass and broke up nine more last season. He also finished second on the team in tackles with 72.5. The remainder of the secondary is expected to be filled out by a trio of sophomores: FS Tyree Robinson, CB Arrion Springs, and CB Chris Seisay.
Five linebackers who had five or more tackles for loss last season return, making this group the deepest in terms of returning production on the defense. Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick ought to start at the inside linebacker positions, while Tyson Coleman and Christian French man the outside. Torrodney Prevot is another potential rotation piece at outside linebacker.
Prediction: 13-0 Playoff Bid
Admittedly, this might be a bit of a stretch, but there is not a team on Oregon’s schedule that I think is flat-out better or more talented than the Ducks either. Oregon has plenty of landmines though with trips to Michigan State, Arizona State and Stanford on the docket, plus a late November home game against USC. The Ducks can run the table, at least in the regular season, but it will require both better luck than they have had in the offseason and someone to step up at quarterback. If both of those things happen, then this team will end up in either the Orange or Cotton Bowl come December, but if not then a disappointing season may be in store for the Oregon faithful.