Flying South?

The Ducks 4 year starter and leading tackler John Boyett will be expected to lead the Oregon defense to a Pac 12 Championship.

5. Oregon

2011 Record (PAC 12): 12-2 (8-1)
Returning Starters (Off/Def/ST): 13 (5/6/2)

Ryan Trapp | Staff Writer

We all know Chip Kelly’s teams can score. Since taking over as Oregon’s head coach in 2009, only Houston has racked up more points than the Ducks’ 1,722. However, this season he’ll have to replace some serious firepower on offense after  school rushing leader LaMichael James and two-year starting quarterback Darron Thomas both entered the 2012 NFL Draft. Kenjon Barner will assume the feature back role for Oregon and while he’s spent three years in James’ shadow, he isn’t to be overlooked in 2012. Barner’s compiled over 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns as the number two guy and it should be exciting to see what the senior could do as the top dog in Kelly’s offense-heavy system. In two starts last year Barner ran for 171 and 115 yards against Arizona State and Colorado, respectively, and found the end zone three times in that span. While Barner will be the number one guy, De’Anthony Thomas will get his fair share of touches as well. One of the most dynamic weapons in the college game, Thomas amassed 2,235 all-purpose yards (7th in FBS), 18 touchdowns last season and ran for 10.8 yards per carry on 55 attempts. He’s a threat through the air as well, and should mitigate some of the losses at receiver alongside junior Josh Huff and senior Rahsaan Vaughn. After a prolonged quarterback battle brewing between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, Kelly said Mariota will be under center week one. Bennett had an early leg up on the job, but an impressive spring performance put Mariota’s name into the discussion and he came away with the starting job. Their offensive line returns three starters from the group that allowed just 14 sacks all of last season.

Of all the characteristics used to define Oregon’s run of three straight BCS Bowls under Kelly, an elite defense isn’t usually in the mix. There’s a good chance that will change this season and it all starts up front for the Ducks. The defensive line returns three starters, including All-Pac 12 standout Dion Jordan at the defensive end. Jordan tallied eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 2012 and will be the veteran leader on a young line with tons of potential. Juniors Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli are two big run stoppers at the defensive tackle position, and they see a young Haloti Ngata-type talent in true freshman Arik Armstead. The linebacker corps has a strong leader in senior Michael Clay, who is versatile against both the pass and run (102 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions in 2011) and is one of the most consistent players in the conference. Free safety John Boyett, the team’s leading tackler last season and a four-year starter, will be on everyone’s watch list this year. Dubbed the “Cerebral assassin” by Clay, Boyett is one of the top safeties in college football and is extremely active in both the secondary and around the line of scrimmage. A trio of sophomores, Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will all compete for snaps at the corners.

This team could sprint through the first half of the season without breaking a sweat. Five of their first six games are at home, and they don’t face a true test until heading to Southern California on November 3 for a matchup with the Trojans. The Ducks play host to Stanford two weeks later, but with a fast enough start they might be able to get enough momentum going early to come through that three week period unscathed. Going undefeated will almost certainly grant the Ducks a BCS National Championship Game. They’ll have knocked off the higher ranked Trojans in the regular season, would have likely beaten them again in the Pac-12 Championship and the big three in the SEC West will all beat up on each other. The only scenario where it wouldn’t play out for Kelly and company would be an exceptional season from the Sooners (who have a much more difficult schedule) and if an undefeated team can emerge from the SEC.

BURNING QUESTION: Will lack of quarterback experience be an issue?
Darron Thomas’ early exit from Oregon was a bit unexpected, departing for pro football waters with one more season of eligibility remaining. Neither Bennett nor Mariota have started a single game in their collegiate careers. While both are considered more gifted then Thomas in and out of the pocket, taking over a top-5 team carries weighty expectations that might wear out the youngsters mentally. The tandem does have a lot working to their advantage though. They’ll have a chance to get the engine revved against a slew of easier opponents before their much-anticipated clash at USC, and Kelly has seen this show before. A fierce competition between the then-unproven Thomas and Nate Costa lasted throughout camp; Thomas got the late nod and went on to lead the Ducks to the national championship game. Kelly’s hoping Mariota can do the same.


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