Many Duck football fans have it in their heads that 2014 is a do or die year. After all, the Ducks stand to lose possibly the best player in college football in Marcus Mariota, along with All-Americans center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. But while 2014 appears to be a high-opportunity year, the talent expected to be return for 2015 could make 2014 look like a building year.
Having to replace Mariota suggests a step back at the quarterback position, but a unit-by-unit analysis reveals that the Ducks’ offense may actually be stronger in 2015 than 2014.
Offensive Line. 2014 will be the final year for Grasu, Jake Fisher and Hamani Stevens. Prior to Tyler Johnstone’s recent re-injury, it appeared possible that he might bolt after the 2014 season. However, with the loss of the 2014 season, Johnstone’s return for 2015 is much more likely.
Except for Grasu, Fisher and Stevens, everybody in the two-deep, plus a few more vying strongly for playing time are projected to return: starters Andre Yruretagonoyena and Cameron Hunt, along with Matt Pierson, Haniteli Louisi, Doug Brenner, Jake Pisarcik, Matthew McFadden and Evan Voeller, plus a few more.
With Johnstone’s injury, expect true freshman Tyrell Crosby (6’5″, 310 lbs. and growing) to pick up some playing time. Add Johnstone back into the mix, and the cupboard is far from bare.
Running Back. Byron Marshall, the Pac-12’s leading returning rusher for 2014, may or may not be back in 2015. The good news is that it probably doesn’t matter, because the Ducks have an embarrassment of running back riches.
Even without Marshall, the Ducks will return Thomas Tyner, who broke freshman rushing records last year. Tyner (and possibly Marshall) will be joined by thunder-and-lightning freshmen in bruiser Royce Freeman and speedster Tony James, two of the top 10 running backs nationally in the 2014 recruiting class.
Also waiting in the wings is redshirt freshman Kani Benoit, who had an impressive spring game. The bottom line is that the Ducks look likely to take a step forward at running back in 2015.
Tight End. Expect junior Pharaoh Brown and sophomores Johnny Mundt and Evan Bayles, arguably the best group of tight ends in the Pac-12, to only be better by 2015.
Wide Receivers. The only member of the two-deep expected to be gone after 2014 is Keenan Lowe. In 2015, expect a healthy Bralon Addison to return and join NCAA and USA champion hurdles champ, speedster Devon Allen, Chance Allen, Dwayne Stanford, BJ Kelley, Darren Carrington, and freshman sensation Jalen Brown. What is billed as a talented but inexperienced unit in 2014 will be talented and experienced in 2015.
Quarterback. Nobody expects Mariota to return as a fourth-year starter. Barring a transfer or true freshman stepping up, that most likely leaves Jeff Lockie — who at this time appears to be a game manager – stepping into the starting role in his fourth year in the program, or being bumped by highly recruited Morgan Mahalak, who will be in his second year in the program in 2015.
Based upon the returning talent at other positions, 2015 will not be a bad year to be breaking in a new quarterback — and the Ducks have traditionally done well with first-year starters under center.
Not untypical for the Ducks, there are many more questions on the defensive side. Half of the two-deep in the backfield are seniors. Attrition in underclassmen linebackers could come back to haunt the team in 2015, and while there are no seniors on the defensive line two-deep, early defections to the NFL after the 2014 season could prove problematic.
Defensive Line. If juniors Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner return for their senior seasons, the unit will be dynamite in 2015. Redshirt sophomore T.J. Daniel, redshirt junior Sam Kamp and junior Alex Balducci, along with JC transfers Tui Talia and Stetzon Bair should see substantial playing time in 2014, and there is a small army of freshmen on the roster who could provide depth by 2015.
Talia had a great spring game, and if size matters when it comes to not getting pushed around, Balducci is up to 305 pounds, Bair is 6’9″ – 290 and freshman Austin Maloata, brutally reminiscent of former Duck and now perennial NFL All-Pro Haloti Ngata, is already the heaviest of the group at 313 pounds and has been impressive in preseason camp. Those who complain that the Ducks don’t have the beef to plug the middle should find little to complain about in 2015.
Linebackers. Stalwarts Derrick Malone and Tony Washington will use up the last of their eligibility in 2014, but everybody else on the two-deep, for what is considered one of the team’s strengths, should be back for 2015 – with the exception of senior Isaac Ava, who may or may not crack the two-deep.
Likely returning starters for 2015 will be Torrodney Prevot and Joe Walker. Tyson Coleman, Rodney Hardrick and Christian French should have substantial playing time, if not starting positions, under their belts.
Redshirt freshman Danny Mattingly is already drawing comparisons to former Duck and current NFL standout Kiko Alonso. True freshman Jimmie Swain is turning heads in fall camp. Despite a few departures, you can’t feel bad about what the Ducks look to show at linebacker in either 2014 or 2015.
Defensive Backs. 2014 will be the last year as Ducks for not only Ekpre-Olomu, but for likely starters Erik Dargan and Dior Mathis and experienced backup Troy Hill. At this point it appears that the only likely returning starter for 2015 will be either current redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson or redshirt sophomore Reggie Daniels at safety. Junior Dominique Harrison is likely to step into a starting role at one cornerback spot and redshirt freshman Jawaan Williams is vying for a starting role at safety.
Freshman Arrion Springs was ESPN’s sixth-ranked cornerback recruit nationally. Redshirt sophomore Stephen Amoako and redshirt junior Isaac Dixon will likely pick up playing time in 2014. Given the Ducks’ penchant for platooning replacements, Ekpre-Olomu aside, this unit will likely be more experienced in 2015.
The biggest challenge facing the Ducks in reloading from 2014 to 2015 obviously is replacing Mariota. Returning talent and depth on the offensive line, expected improvement through experience at the receiver and tight end positions, along with what has to be the scariest group of running backs in the country, should ease the transition for whoever wins the keys to the Lamborghini.
On defense, even with potential early departures, it appears that the front seven will probably take a step up from 2014 to 2015, or at worst break even. Outside of Ekpre-Olomu, the secondary appears to be in rebuilding mode for 2014, and depending upon how much experience players expected to return gain this year, the same may or may not be true for 2015.
Overall, while Duck fans rightfully look forward to 2014 as a promising year, it would be a little on the “drama queen-esque” side to call it a do-or-die year. The program has the depth to weather even the departure of three potential first round NFL draft picks. The coaches recruit well, finding talented players who fit the team culture. The support within the program, both from coaches and player leadership, develops the talent and has created a winning culture. 2014 may well turn out to be “The Year,” but by this time next year we can be assured that we will have a strong basis for believing the same about 2015.
Top photo by Kevin Cline