Disclaimer: The Oregon Ducks played a very weak opponent on Saturday, and while the boys finally got to hit someone not wearing green and yellow, Nicholls was about as far as it gets from the caliber of opponent Oregon will face later this season. With that disclosure out of the way, Oregon did play 60 minutes of football for the stat books. And for those fans and media who have been more than happy to dissect the minutiae of an informal Spring Game, then UO vs. Nicholls State provides a plethora of fodder.
Here are five things we learned against Nicholls, and what to watch for moving forward:
Learned: De’Anthony Thomas is a running back. Yes, the uber-versatile “Black Momba” can play just about anywhere on the field. However, Mark Helfrich showed that he sees no problem with simply handing the ball to his resident lighting bolt. Thomas played only one series in the second half but still managed 18 rushes for 128 yards in the game. The most surprising part of that? His longest run was only 22 yards. In the past we’ve seen Thomas rush for well over 100 yards in multiple games, with the majority of yards coming from huge plays. Against Nicholls, Thomas darted for a 22-yard score but aside from that, his longs were 15 yards and 12 yards (both on the same drive).
Moving forward: Thomas struggled to produce long runs from scrimmage against an undersized and overmatched Nicholls team. Things will only get harder against better opponents. Expect his carries to rarely exceed 20 in a game. Watch for Marshall to take over as the inside runner, setting up those longer, outside plays Thomas thrives on. By year’s end, Thomas’ and Marshall’s carry count will be nearly identical.
Learned: Byron Marshall doesn’t just pound the ball. Most folks thought Marshall would handle a majority of the carries at tailback, freeing up Thomas for outside-focused screens, swings and angled runs. As noted above, Thomas was the feature back, and quite encouragingly for Ducks fans, Marshall flashed big play ability. Marshall had only eight carries but two went for massive gains: 49 yards for a touchdown, and 47 yards to set up another score.
Moving forward: Marshall’s carries will increase if he continues to provide big plays, meaning Thomas will line up out wide more often. Also, the possibility for Marshall and Thomas to line up in the backfield simultaneously becomes more likely. This would make for a dangerous triple threat when combined with Mariota.
Learned: Colt Lyerla carried the ball across the goal line, which is something we saw last year. What remains to be seen is if Helfrich continues to use Lyerla as a running back in the red zone. Additionally, Josh Huff took a snap while lined up in the backfield on the game’s first offensive play, a screen pass that went for nine yards. This could be just a glimpse of how multi-talented guys could be used in different slots this season.
Moving forward: We are going to see players frequently line up in non-traditional spots this season. If the Ducks need a bigger back to spell Marshall in the red zone, Lyerla could assume that role while Johnny Mundt, Pharaoh Brown and Koa Ka’ai cover the tight end duties. I also expect to see Addison in the backfield occasionally, as his skill set is similar to Thomas’.
Learned: At least two spots on the two-deep are not yet settled. Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues both played quarterback and both scored points in different ways. Alejandro Maldonado and Matt Wogan split time at kicker, with Maldonado nailing a field goal. Look for these competitions to continue during the non-conference schedule.
Moving forward: The backup quarterback situation may remain unresolved for a while as both guys figure to see time in blowouts. If they are both playing equally well, what is the sense in singling one out as Mariota’s reserve? The only time the definitive backup will come to light is if one is needed to replace an injured Mariota (knock on wood). For the kickers, expect a regular to emerge, likely the more veteran Maldonado. Regardless, if/when one misses a kick, you can bet cries for the other will erupt.
Learned: Thomas may not be used in the special teams sets. He’s an explosive return man for both punts and kicks but did not field a ball on Saturday. This could be a result of his 18 carries, meaning Helfrich may limit him to just tailback duties this season. Or, maybe Helfrich did not want to risk an injury to Thomas in sets where they often occur, especially in a game that was well in hand immediately following the coin toss.
Moving forward: In special teams, as is the case in just about every position group, the Ducks have more high-level talent than they can get on the field at one time. Thomas will likely field some kicks and punts, but a whole list of capable players like Addison, Ekpre-Olomu, Tyner, Huff and others, will get chances as well. Helfrich will continue to experiment, especially when the Ducks have a healthy lead, which may be quite often this season.
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