2014 Record: 13-1 (8-1 Pac-12 North)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: quarterback Vernon Adams, wide receiver Bralon Addison, defensive tackle Alex Balducci, tight end Pharoah Brown, defensive end Deforest Buckner, offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone
It’s been nearly three years since Oregon came to Tempe for a Thursday night game back on October 19, 2012. Head coach Todd Graham entered the contest having won five of its first six games in his first season with the Devils. Ducks head coach Chip Kelly, in his fourth and final season with the school had his Ducks undefeated, having recently throttled the likes of ranked conferences opponents Arizona and Washington by a combined score of 101-21.
After getting off to an early lead at home, Graham would watch his Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton go down to injury after just two plays while the Ducks ripped apart his then top ranked defense in the conference for over 400 yards on the ground, including a run of 43 straight points. The 454 rushing yards allowed were nearly 50 more than the Devils defense had yielded over its previous four games combined.
A redshirt freshman quarterback would start the game for the Ducks, only the seventh in a career in which he’d finish as the Pac-12 career leader in total touchdowns (135) and consecutive passes without an interception (353). Not to mention a 2014 Heisman Trophy. Marcus Mariota would only attempt 12 passes in the blowout, but go on to make much larger of an impact throughout the remainder of his two and a half seasons with the Ducks.
Fast forward to the upcoming season where both teams will meet in late October at Sun Devil Stadium once again in a match-up of teams that look to be among the best in-conference. This time the Ducks will be lead by Mark Helfrich, who after two seasons has quieted the critics after getting his team to the National Championship game last January. Success that landed him a 5 year contract extension worth $17.5 million this past off-season.
Not only has Helfrich continued to bring in talent on par with the Kelly years, he has helped transition his players to the next level, 9 selections total, over the past two NFL Drafts in which he has resided as head coach. He has certainly kept the organizational cupboards full as the roster is as rich in terms of top-end athletes and depth throughout the two-deep at nearly every position.
That depth will be tested in the case of Mariota as we learn whether or not Helfrich can continue to win at his present pace, without one of the best college football players in the country over the past two seasons. The schedule will sort this all out for both the team, its fans, and the media when the Ducks play ASU, Cal, USC, and Stanford and USC down the straight before finishing with the Civil War against the lowly Oregon State Beavers.
What to look for from the Ducks on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 131.8 (3rd in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 7
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 54% (88th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 79 (35th in FBS)
New year, same stand-out offense powered by nuclear fusion it seems. While their depth at running back took a hit when former five-star junior running back Thomas Tyner was ruled out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier this summer, they still possess one of the best and brightest young offensive stars in the country at running back in sophomore Royce Freeman.
As a true freshman, Freeman totaled nearly 1,400 yards despite not being the full-time starter until mid-way through the season. The 19-year-old is big and physical, and has the football IQ to match his immense skill set. For much of the year he was the best running back in the conference, and became the first freshman in the school’s history to rush for 1,000 yards. Experience that will come in hand with the backfield being forced to adapt to not having Tyner or Mariota in 2015.
Which quarterback handing Freeman the ball has yet to be determined going into the final week of the summer. Former Ducks coach Mike Bellotti stated on ESPN that he feels Oregon will play both Jeff Lockie and the transfer Vernon Adams in each of the first two games of the season against Eastern Washington and on the road at Michigan State before deciding who the starter is the rest of the way. That being said, his bet was on Adams being the one.
Lockie enters 2015 with three years under his belt in the system and a better command of the offense especially after receiving the starters’ reps in the spring with Mariota gone to the NFL (including a sparkling spring game where he completed all nine of his passes for three touchdowns and nearly 250 yards). Adams is the unknown even though this is his fifth season in college football after transferring from Eastern Washington. He has the physical skills to play on Sundays and has been compared to the Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson.
It has been well documented that Adams arm opens up a different part of the playbook to the downfield fade routes and more importantly in the red zone. Something not utilized over the last three years by Mariota, according to Charles Fisher of FishDuck.com.
Whomever is the Ducks quarterback heading into the Devils eighth game of the 2015 season, they’ll be throwing to what has been touted as the best group of wide receivers to ever set foot in Eugene. Be it small, fast, big, or strong; the Ducks run six players deep that could start on nearly any team in the Pac-12 this season.
Senior Sun Devils wide receive D.J. Foster can only hope to follow a similar path blazed by the Ducks Byron Marshall, once himself a 1,000 yard rusher back in 2013. Forced to play receiver in 2014 in an effort patch holes at a position decimated by injuries in 2014. He would go on to lead the team in targets (106), receptions (75), and receiving yards (1011), with the second best catch rate among those in the two deep.
He’ll play alongside junior Braylon Addison who returns to the lineup after missing all of 2014 due to a knee injury. He fits the Oregon-speed model, and his ability to get off the line and accelerate to full speed is matched by few in the conference. With Marshall being the reliable pass catcher in the slot, Addison provides the home run threat.
Then there is freshman Kirk Merritt and another Phoenix high school standout, sophomore Devon Allen. All Merritt did was record a 43-inch vertical jump in the SPARQ National Championship, hence Oregon potentially adding the fade back into their offense. Rounding out the group is the long speed element of Allen, the track star. He caught three passes from Mariota against the Spartans as a freshman for two touchdowns and 110 receiving yards. Be it speed, hands, jumping ability; there’s a lot of skill to look at among this position group that is also complemented by tight end Pharaoh Brown. With the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder being the best short yardage and red zone passing threat on the team.
The offensive line was hit hard by the injury bug last season, which in turn helped young players gain valuable experience. Replacing Hroniss Grasu, a four-year starter at center, looks to be the second biggest question mark on this offense after quarterback. In fact, Oregon will be replacing its left tackle, left guard, and its center this year.
Prior to injuring his ACL and missing all of 2014, senior left tackle Tyler Johnstone had started 26 games at the position previously in his Ducks career. Many scouts felt he was of higher quality than Jake Fisher (second round pick in 2014 who moved from right tackle to left tackle to fill the hole) or current Bears guard Kyle Long. But all of this was before surgery. While all reports this summer have been positive, it remains to be seen if the huge tackle regains his rare quickness of the line for someone 6-foot-6, 295 pounds. He possesses the willingness to get involved physically in the running game and has the long arms you look for in a zone blocker.
What to look for from the Ducks on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 125.8 (8th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.171 (40th in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 57% (86th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 5
Don Pellum’s first season running the Ducks defense after replacing Nick Allioti, a Pac-12 coaching icon, saw the defense getting back to doing what it had done for much of the Kelly era. By playing hyper aggressive with the super sized front seven and athletic secondary that forced turnovers galore, leading the Pac-12 in turnovers forced.
But they were more opportunistic than good. Allioti’s final Ducks defense in 2013 lead the conference in yards allowed per play. Pellum’s unit finished sixth in 2013 allowing almost one yard more per play, and dead last in third down conversions allowed.
Senior defensive end DeForest Buckner is the heart of a front seven returning a slew of players with starting experience. Losing Arik Armstead to the NFL prematurely does hurt, but not when you consider there are plenty more 6-foot-5 plus sized defensive linemen filling the ranks. Not to mention 310-pound nose tackle Alex Balducci, who is still developing pass rush skills as a stout two-gap run defender.
Senior run stuffing linebackers Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick provide Pellum with the good foundation of a team along with ready capable of defending the run. But the question will be in how they rush the passer and cover receivers after the loss of both corners to the NFL.
The one thing the young secondary has going for them, is going up against that talented group of wideouts every day in practice over the last month. Outside of impact junior rover, Reggie Daniels, Tyree Robinson, Juwaan Williams, and Chris Seisay are all sophomores. And while they gained valuable experience filling in for injured upperclassmen during last season’s playoff run, the truth is still out on fielding a group of sophomores in the pass-happy Pac-12.
Golden Nugget Casino early line: Oregon -5
It was lights out quickly for Todd Graham after scoring the first touchdown the last time these two teams played, so you can assume he’ll be preaching to his team how important it is to maintain composure early on and weather the storm.
Oregon can hit you from so many angles offensively, be it through a slow and steady power running game with Freeman, or when it goes to hyper-speed no-huddle catching the defense off guard with just a small variance of plays called. Having an experienced veteran defense to lean on will mean everything to Graham.
If ASU can score early and prevent Oregon from getting into a rhythm offensively, it could be able to frustrate the Ducks young defensive secondary. While it remains to be seen how Graham will have adapted his defense used to match-up against the Ducks offense from 2012.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”
**Graphs provided by Gary Doran‘s Advanced Stats Report.