Position-by-Position Preview of Oregon Football's 2014 Roster
Consistent veterans and high-potential young talents combine to form the 2014 Oregon Ducks' identity.
With proven stars like Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu returning for another year, Ducks taking on new responsibilities have a rock-solid foundation on which to lean. That does not mean some of those players stepping into the spotlight for the first time are not primed for breakout seasons.
A few of these Ducks should be on the tip of every Pac-12 fan's and pundit's tongue by season's end—Ducks like wide receiver Devon Allen or safety Tyree Robinson.
Two-time first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback Marcus Mariota is back for his third season running the show, and the dynamic redshirt junior is a favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
Mariota already has the numbers to vie for college football's most coveted, individual prize. In his redshirt sophomore campaign, he threw 31 touchdown passes, was not intercepted until the penultimate week of the regular season, and was the Ducks' second-leading rusher with 715 yards.
The next step Mariota can take, head coach Mark Helfrich told CSNNW.com, is taking on more of an active leadership role.
"For him, it means having a more visible, outward sense of urgency," Helfrich said.
Indeed, leadership from the Ducks' prominent player will set the pace in a season that could culminate in championships. His injury down the stretch of 2013 proved that as Mariota goes, so go the Ducks.
But if he is forced out of the lineup, someone will have to answer the call.
Jeff Lockie appears to be de facto backup by virtue of fellow reserve Jake Rodrigues' transfer to San Diego State. Oregon also lost Damion Hobbs to transfer, leaving either walk-on Taylor Alie or incoming freshman Morgan Mahalak to be the Ducks' emergency third option.
Alie earned praise in the spring for his performance, while Mahalak comes in with 4-star pedigree and a style very much reminiscent of Mariota.
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost has an enviable dilemma. Junior Byron Marshall is the Pac-12's top returning rusher. Sophomore Thomas Tyner may be the Pac-12's highest potential back.
On a different roster, with a heavier individual workload, either could put up eye-popping numbers. But the sum of their parts makes Oregon a more dangerous all-around team.
Helfrich and Frost could opt to spread the 96 carries for which De'Anthony Thomas accounted between Marshall and Tyner or introduce a third running back option. There are no shortage of candidates to man that role.
Kani Benoit is coming off a strong spring, while incoming freshman Royce Freeman adds a new dimension to the ground attack. Freeman's 5'11.5", 215-pound frame gives Frost play-calling options on short yardage and goal-line situations.
Bralon Addison's knee injury threw a wide receiving corps already in flux into serious uncertainty. Redshirt senior Keanon Lowe is the default leader as both the group's veteran and, with Addison out, top returning receiver. Lowe hauled in 18 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.
There is uncertainty about how this group will shape up, but that uncertainty is surpassed with potential.
Redshirt freshmen Devon Allen and Darren Carrington were breakthrough stars of the spring game. Helfrich offered lofty praise of both redshirt freshmen, who figure to be favorite targets for Mariota.
"Devon Allen is a guy that has gotten a lot better," Helfrich said on the May 1 coaches teleconference call, via Pac-12.com.
Another emerging primary target is Dwayne Stanford, a 6'5" redshirt sophomore who gives the Ducks some size in the receiving corps. Stanford connected with Mariota three times. That bodes well for his presence in the passing attack come kickoff.
Austin Daich also made an impression in the spring game with a pair of catches, including a 41-yarder that went for a touchdown.
Colt Lyerla's dismissal from Oregon's roster just weeks into 2013, compounded by Pharaoh Brown's early-season injury, rendered the tight end position somewhat ineffective for the Ducks.
Look for the tight ends to bounce back as pass-catching weapons in a big way.
Brown returned late in the season to demonstrate a knack for scoring in the red zone, hauling in touchdown passes against Stanford and Arizona. At 6'6", Brown is able to go up and over.
With Brown providing length, sophomore Johnny Mundt provides power. Mundt bulked up from 232 pounds at season's end to 252 pounds by the start of spring practices according to 247Sports. The added muscles makes Mundt difficult to bring down, thus able to turn short-to-mid-range routes into substantial gains.
Evan Baylis rounds out the trio. Baylis finished 2013 strong with a 27-yard effort in the Alamo Bowl. Any of the three can and, at some point in 2014, likely will be difference-makers.
All-American center Hroniss Grasu's decision to forego the NFL draft for another season laid the foundation for what could very well be the best offensive line in the Pac-12.
Around Grasu are four fellow linemen with extensive starting experience. Seniors Jake Fisher and Hamani Stevens return to man spots at tackle and on the interior, respectively. Guard Cameron Hunt was thrown into the starting lineup late last season after Mana Greig suffered an injury.
When tackle Tyler Johnstone returns from his own injury, only Washington will be able to boast as many returning starters on the offensive line among Pac-12 teams.
In the meantime, Andre Yruretagoyena and Matt Pierson each saw considerable reps at tackle in spring practice. Those reps will translate into more depth for the Ducks come fall.
A cornerstone of Oregon's 2014 recruiting was Haniteli Lousi, the nation's No. 1 junior college prospect at guard per 247Sports.com. He should play a vital role on the interior.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was a revelation for the Oregon defensive line in 2013. The Ducks need similar star turns from his starting counterparts, defensive end Arik Armstead and nose tackle Alex Balducci.
The development of Armstead and Balducci as primary players is not the only uncertainty along the defensive front heading into 2014. Oregon's roster is stacked with linemen high on talent but low on game experience.
Stetzon Bair and junior college transfer Tui Talia were impressive in the spring game; Bair made seven tackles, a sack and recovered a fumble, while Talia led Team Mariasu with five tackles. If the two can carry that level of production into the season, it will address a primary concern for this defense: containing the run at the point of attack.
T.J. Daniel and Sam Kamp should also see roles as reserves.
Depth and diversity of skill define the linebackers corps, Oregon's best defensive unit heading into 2014.
Last season's leaders Derrick Malone and Tony Washington return to handle their own unique responsibilities. At weak-side linebacker, Malone was the Ducks' primary run-stopper and leading overall tackler. Meanwhile, Washington brought pressure off the edge from the drop-end position to lead the Ducks both in tackles for loss and sacks.
Combined with middle linebacker Rodney Hardrick, the Ducks have a solid foundation of veteran returners at linebacker and no shortage of potential difference-makers backing them.
Reserves Rahim Cassell and Joe Walker both saw substantial playing time in 2013, registering 32 and 37 tackles respectively. Cassell also forced a fumble and had two quarterback hurries.
At the SAM position, defensive coordinator Don Pellum has options. Oshay Dunmore is likely to see action, but Tyson Coleman and Torrodney Prevot may have the inside track on the starting job. Prevot has the look of a breakout star.
Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson were integral parts of the Oregon defense. They are gone, leaving veteran reserve Erick Dargan and a group of youngsters to fill the Ducks' safety positions.
"Trying to take advantage of my opportunity to be in a starting role at this moment," Dargan said per GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley. "I’ve really got to take advantage of it and keep improving every day.”
Redshirt freshman Juwaan Williams, one of three notable young safeties vying for spots in the rotation, could back up Dargan. Williams made a team-high nine tackles for Team Twifo in the spring game.
The other two young defensive backs using impressive springs to propel into the season are Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson, both of whom are competing to start in the other safety spot.
A ballyhooed recruit in 2013, Robinson seems ready to make the transition into the starting lineup. Helfrich called Robinson one of the team's most impressive redshirt freshmen on the May 1 teleconference per Pac-12.com.
The sting of losing 2013 interceptions leader Terrance Mitchell to early entry in last month's NFL draft was lessened when All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu declared his return to Oregon for his senior season.
Ekpre-Olomu's presence evens out the learning curve that the Ducks' new starting cornerback opposite him faces.
Troy Hill and Dior Mathis both have plenty of experience, which should also ease their transition into bigger roles. Both played in reserve and multiple-defensive back formations a season ago.
Junior college transfer Dominique Harrison showed promise in his initial practices with the Ducks, including returning an interception in a scrimmage 100 yards for a touchdown per Rivals. Redshirt freshman Chris Seisay should also factor prominently into the rotation of cornerbacks.
The loss of versatile De'Anthony Thomas may be felt most severely on special teams, where the Ducks' spark plug was integral to the return game.
Cornerback Dior Mathis and wide receiver Jalen Brown handled the kick return duties in the spring game, and wideout Keanon Lowe gives special teams coach Tom Osborne options.
Safety Erick Dargan told GoDucks.com he is ready to take on punt returns, a role that dynamic wide receiver Josh Huff manned a season ago.
Matt Wogan is in line to handle the Ducks' kicking needs. The sophomore will be the primary placekicker and boot kickoffs, but could also punt. Ian Wheeler is also vying to punt after winning a spot on the roster a season ago.
Osborne offered high praise of Wheeler to Andrew Greif of The Oregonian in April:
The biggest thing with any specialist at any position—place kicker, snapper, punter, whatever -- is consistency, and that’s what he did a great job of last fall. He came in last year and beat out a guy who was on scholarship.