Saturday, August 6, 2011

Debriefing: Oregon?s encore begins with the new big men on campus

The least you should know about the 2011 Ducks. Part of Pac-12 Week.

? Let's get physical. The stock image of Oregon is of a lot of small, fast guys zipping around as fast as they can in 23rd-Century threads determined to make them look even faster. But the fact is, the Ducks' run to the BCS Championship Game in 2010 started with their ownership of the line of scrimmage, and that started with a group of long-in-the-tooth seniors on both sides of the ball.

That may have been more obvious on offense, where three veteran linemen (Jordan Holmes, C.E. Kaiser and Bo Thran) are on their way out after combining for more than 100 starts over the last three years ? in each of which Oregon finished with the No. 1 total and scoring offense in the Pac-10. But the mass exodus hits just as hard on the other side, too: The defense is bidding sayonara to its leading tackler (Casey Matthews), its best pass rusher (Kenny Rowe), its best interior run-stuffer (Brandon Bair) and a three-year starter at linebacker (Spencer Paysinger) who finished as one of the team's top two or three tacklers all three years. For a group that led the conference in tackles for loss and more than held its own against the run, that's kind of a lot.

There's no threat of imminent collapse on offense with vets Mark Asper and Carson York back for their third year together as full-time starters, and the defense isn't completely starting over thanks to defensive end Terrell Turner and linebacker Josh Kaddu. Unlike the offense, though, the front seven on defense is clearly losing all of its most consistent playmakers ?�neither Turner nor Kaddu finished among the team's top ten tacklers, or among the top five in sacks or tackles for loss ?�and isn't flush with obvious candidates to pick up where they left off.

? Speed still kills. As for the fast guys on offense, well, yes, that part is still true. More than ever, actually: With second-year blazer Lache Seastrunk shedding his redshirt and true freshmen De'Anthony Thomas and Tacoi Sumler joining track teammates LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, the backfield will look even more like a day-glo electron cloud. Quarterback Darron Thomas can run a little bit, too.

Of course, there's still only one ball to go around, which means either a) Another relatively quiet year for Barner and the rest of the backfield as James hogs most of the touches, or b) A frustrated Heisman campaign for James as head coach/offensive mastermind Chip Kelly goes out of this way to spread the wealth. James had at least 25 carries in six different games last year that the Ducks wound up winning by at least 17 points, which may not be the most efficient use of a 185-pound superstar.

? New kids in the Swoosh. Without a doubt, the highlight of the most celebrated recruiting class in school history was luring De'Anthony Thomas from USC's backyard at the last second, but as crowded as the backfield is, the offense may get a lot more mileage out of two other hyped freshmen: Five-star "athlete" Colt Lyerla, who immediately established himself in the regular tight end rotation in the spring, and Devon Blackmon, another borderline five-star type who should have plenty of opportunities in one of the vacant receiver slots.

In fact, with James holding down the top tailback slot, Barner and Cliff Harris (see below) likely handling the return duties and Seastrunk ? the five-star headliner of the 2010 class ?�losing the redshirt, Thomas is going to have to earn every touch he gets, or spend his first season biding his time on the bench, too.

? Cliff barred. As of June 15, the biggest on-field question mark for the team (as opposed to the big off-the-field question mark) officially moved from the new starters on the lines to the status of All-American cornerback/kick returner Cliff Harris, who was suspended for at least one game for assorted infractions involving a speeding Altima, the source of said Altima and thousands of dollars in unpaid fines. Even if his absence is limited to the season opener, this season opener is no warmup: The Sept. 3 showdown with LSU in Dallas is the crucial litmus test for the Ducks' BCS championship campaign, and Harris is the kind of guy who can turn the pendulum in their favor in a matter of seconds.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.


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