Inside Oregon’s spring? Read between the lines
My old friend, I.C. Green, was staring into his beer by the time I walked into Rennie’s Landing across from campus. He had that far-off look on his face, the kind he always gets when he’s lost deep in thought about the Oregon Ducks and their football program.
“What’s up,” I said to I.C., more of a statement than a question, as I plopped down on the bar stool next to him.
He continued to look down into the amber-speckled suds below his chin. He didn’t say hello. Or turn to shake my hand. He didn’t need to. He recognized my voice, my frame. For this longtime Duck fan, one of the smartest I’ve ever met, it’s all about ritual.
“Got to watching the Marcus Mariota interview video the ol’ Register-Guard put up on the Interweb,” he began. “He’s gonna be a good quote. Well spoken. Humble. A kid you can really root for. For a couple years at least.”
“Why just a couple?” I asked.
“He’s that good,” said I.C., warming up. “You know, the Darron Thomas route.”
I considered what was transpiring elsewhere as we spoke. Oregon was in the midst of Spring Practice No. 8 — by my count at least — a mile or so in the distance at Autzen Stadium. I could feel the energy being unleashed from where I sat. From a foot away.
“I appreciate your confidence, I.C., but Mariota hasn’t played a down in a real game,” I ventured. “He’s also got some competition from a very capable Bryan Bennett. Remember what Bennett did in the Arizona State game last season after Thomas got hurt? No Bennett, no win. He can run. He’ll open the offense up even more.
“Plus, hear what Mariota said the other day? He said he’d be more than happy to share quarterback duties with Bennett. Doesn’t sound to me like he’s expecting the nod.”
I.C. finally looked up from his beer, glanced approvingly at a waitress making the rounds, and then proceeded to give me a look that was at once both serious and bemused.
I knew what was coming before I.C. ever spit it out.
“Read between the lines,” he rumbled.
Of all the people I’ve known through the years, I.C. is one of the best at discerning nuances in media reports. He can read a story or watch a clip and come away with conclusions only a few would plumb.
He also knows much when it comes to Duck football. Much as in a whole bunch. He’s been deep into the valleys with the program and high up on the mountaintops. He attended the first game ever at Autzen in 1967 and has been going back ever since.
“It’s still a battle between him and Bennett, and Bennett may be the guy against Arkansas State in the opener, but Mariota will be the one before too long; he’s oozing with talent,” he said. “Chip Kelly is saying all the right things, keeping the competition going between the two so he gets the best out of ’em. Says the battle will last until late August. Fair enough.
“But did you listen to what Devon Blackmon and B.J. Kelley said? They said Bennett throws it harder, but Mariota has the better touch. That’s football talk there. They’re telling us something. As simple as that. Think they’d be saying that if Bennett had the edge?
“And far as all that gibberish about how he’s willing to share the position with Bennett, I know where you’re going with that. You and all those beat reporters are trying to make it sound like Mariota is coming from a position of weakness. Hogwash! Watch that video, I tell you. The kid is polite, respectful. That’s the kind of thing he would say. Probably was an altar boy at some point.”
“True, you got a point,” I responded. “But how do you know Mariota is that good if you haven’t been to a practice or the media hasn’t been to a practice? I might be leaning in that direction, too, if Chip Kelly would open up the window shades and allow us to confirm that with our own eyes.”
At that, the Deschutes ale I.C. was gulping reversed course and began draining through his nose. Or so it seemed.
“So there you go again, Mr. Fancy Pants Reporter Man! Nobody needs to be there other than the players and the coaches. Chip is good at getting the boys focused. Let him be and do whatever he wants behind closed doors. We’ll see the results soon enough. The Ducks can close practices between now and the next time the Beavers beat us — which is gonna be one long while, by the way — and I’d be OK with it.”
“You and I used to go to spring practices together,” I reminded him. “Don’t you miss that?”
“Well, sure,” he said, turning toward me with a slow sweep of his head. “How could I not missing coming to Rennie’s afterwards?”
He had that twinkle in his eyes.
“Like I say, you can learn a whole bunch by just listening and reading. And taking note of what is not being said,” he continued. “Now, take the battle in the offensive line. We gotta replace Weems, Asper and maybe York if he doesn’t bounce back from that nasty Rose Bowl injury. So what names are being tossed around by Chip and others? I’ve heard vets like Clanton and Benyard come up, but also young guys like Fisher and James Euscher. I’ve heard Chip mention Euscher at least three times. When was the last time a true sophomore and a redshirt freshman were getting props among the big uglies? So you gotta be thinking those two are setting themselves up for some serious playing time.”
“Notice something else this spring?”
“There ain’t been much chirping when it comes to the wide receivers. There’s a reason Chip and Mark Helfrich aren’t saying much. We got some speed to burn from the new guys, and the less chatter, the better. Blackmon, Kelley, Tacoi Sumler. Heck don’t count out Keanon Lowe, either. He was like a bullet on special teams last year before he got hurt.
“The same with the D-line. Not much coming out, other than the proverbial nod to Dion Jordan, who’s our next All-American I bet. For a reason. Let me count why: Ricky Heimuli, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington, Taylor Hart, Jared Ebert, Tony Washington. Then toss in Arik Armstead, all 6-foot-8 of him. Did you catch the photo of Armstead after practice? Whoa, baby!
“Chip sure looks like he’s doing OK too, in those after-practice videos that Rob Moseley does. Seems pretty relaxed and happy. He knows he’s loaded on both sides of the ball. Doubt we’d see him like that if that wasn’t the case. Or if some big-time sanctions were about to come down.”
After that burst from I.C., I didn’t have much to say. He’s been right too many times when it comes to the Ducks. Plus, at some point, there is no use in arguing.
So I got down to business. I ordered a shroom burger.
Then, after a minute or so of uneasy quiet, I worked up the nerve to throw out a proposal, “Want to go the spring game? Uhm, that one is open to the public.”
I couldn’t help the dig.
“Sure, it’ll be an affirmation of sorts,” I.C. said, trailing off to a whisper and then slowly regaining volume. “You’ll see what I’m saying is the truth. Things are gonna be just dandy with the Duckies come fall. Another title march, here we come. No need for all this fretting about this position or that, or whether it’s been confirmed Josh Huff is in uniform this spring. No need for it.”
And then came the final bark.
“Read between the lines.”