Photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: To say the last three years have been successful for the Oregon Ducks would be a major understatement. Chip Kelly's squad has been to the Rose Bowl in two of the last three seasons with the other season ending in a trip to the BCS National Title game. Still there have been some near misses that make it seem as if Oregon has just missed out on the peak of its potential.
Last season the Ducks were national title contenders until a 38-35 loss to USC in the second to last week of the regular season effectively knocked them off track. The Ducks had lost in the first week of the season to then No. 4 LSU, but ripped off nine straight wins after, rising to No.4 in the polls before the loss to the Trojans.
Oregon still managed to win the Pac-12 with a 39-31 win over UCLA in the conference championship game, sending the Ducks to the Rose Bowl where they took down Wisconsin 45-38. A 12-2 season and a Rose Bowl win sounds fantastic for a Pac-12 team, but Oregon knows it missed out on even more, something the Ducks do not want to duplicate this time around.
OFFENSE: Chip Kelly has turned Oregon into one of the most exciting offensive squads in the country in his three seasons in Eugene, including averaging 46.1 points and 522.8 yards per game last year.
Kelly's read-option attack will have a new look though in 2012 with the departures of quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James.
The battle at quarterback is a good one with sophomore Bryan Bennett and touted recruit Marcus Mariota both competing for the starting job. Mariota impressed in the spring game, completing 18-of-26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 99 yards and a pair of scores. Bennett has the edge in experience and also looked good in the spring (19-for-29, 209 yards, TD).
"I'm not going to lock myself into a box and say there's absolutely no way we're going to play two QBs," head coach Chip Kelly said. "I've got a lot of faith in both of those guys abilities."
The man with the daunting task of replacing James is senior Kenjon Barner. Even though he was not a starter last season Barner was a more than capable backup and should fill in well. During his junior campaign, Barner rushed for 939 yards and 11 TDs with an impressive 6.2 yards-per-rush average.
Josh Huff is the only returning starter at wide receiver after catching 31 balls for 430 yards and a pair of scores last year. However the player with the most potential is De'Anthony Thomas, who has blazing speed and can play just about anywhere on the field. Thomas rushed for 595 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns during a standout freshman season.
The offensive line returns starters at left guard, right tackle and center in Carson York, Nick Cody and Hroniss Grasu. Senior Ryan Clanton will be the starting right guard while sophomore Jake Fisher takes over at left tackle.
DEFENSE: Surprisingly for an Oregon team, the defense has the chance to be just as good as the offense this season.
"You don't win championships without good defense and I really think our defense has been underrated. I think our defense is finally getting the notoriety it deserves" Kelly said.
The defensive line returns three starters led by defensive end Dion Jordan, who recorded 42 total tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season. Defensive tackles Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart will also be back, while Tony Washington begins his sophomore season as the other end. Adding depth and youth to the defensive line will be recruit Arik Armstead. The 6-8, 300-pound true freshman should be an intimidating force up front.
The linebacking corps, while not filled with returning starters, does possess talent. Michael Clay is the lone returning starter and is coming off a strong 2011 campaign in which he ranked second on the team in tackles (102), while recording 8.5 tackles for loss. Boseko Lokombo and Kiko Alonso will be the other starters. The pair combined for 79 total tackles last season.
In the secondary the Ducks return arguably their best defensive player in safety John Boyett. The senior led the team with 108 tackles last season, while also adding to his career total in interceptions which stands at nine. Last year's starters at cornerback Terrance Mitchell (45 tackles, two INTs) and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (34 tackles) are also returning.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Thomas is also a threat in the return game. Last season he returned 36 kickoffs for 983 yards (27.3 YPR) and brought two back for scores. He was not utilized as much in the punting game but will most likely take over those duties with James gone.
Punter Jackson Rice is one of the best punters in the nation. He averaged 45.9 yards-per-punt last season. Alejandro Maldonado was 7-for-12 on field goals as the primary place-kicker, but Rob Beard (2-for-2 on FGs) can also fill in.
OUTLOOK: Although it has lost some key contributors from a season ago, Oregon is still very much a contender for not only a BCS bowl berth but a national title run. Under Chip Kelly, the Ducks have been perennial powers and that won't change this season.
"We're a young team but the guys that have been here the last three years understand that our success is because of our preparation and that doesn't change," Kelly said.
The 2012 season begins on a much lighter note than last season with four straight home games, with only a matchup against Arizona involving another opponent of a BCS conference. Oregon then plays Washington State in Seattle before returning home to face Washington. From there four of the Ducks' final six games are on the road, including a possible Pac-12 championship game preview on Nov. 3 against USC.
The ease of the early schedule will allow Kelly to evaluate and settle on a quarterback as well as see how well replacements at the other skill positions fare. If those players live up to the hype, the Ducks could be seeing Roses again come January.