Through three glorious weeks of college football, teams across the country have had their depth tested. Look to the east and observe a USC defensive line run over by a mediocre Boston College team in a below-average ACC conference. Look to the south and see a backup quarterback carried off the field heroically on teammates’ shoulders after managing a shaky Bruins offense to a hobbled victory.
With 40 newcomers on the Oregon roster, several impact players on the list will determine the outcome of key moments this season — and a possible championship run. For those still questioning the Mark Helfrich hire, each of these newcomers signed LOIs under his watch, and their success or failure will certainly be tied to his ability to evaluate, recruit, and coach up talent.
Tyrell Crosby/Jake Pisarcik/Doug Brenner/Braden Eggert*
A Pac-12 Network desperate for original programming should strongly consider a pitch for a new hard-hitting show called “Protecting Marcus.” The drama unfolds as participants fight for his attention and approval, while others drop like flies as knees snap like twigs underfoot in the crisp autumn air. At the end of each week Mariota could give five roses out to his favorite uninjured linemen who allow him to stay upright in the pocket and keep him from potential Heisman-heartbreak injury (knock on wood).
The consequence for those not receiving roses? Hit the sled, cupcake. If Oregon’s depth chart gets any thinner along the line, expect an athletic department petition for a 3rd medical redshirt for Carson York.
Historically speaking, special teams has been the difference in so many of the important contests these past five years of Oregon dominance. Returns, coverage, and the kicking game contributed significant momentum swings and often late game anguish throughout Oregon’s losses over that span. Some Duck fans still reminisce over Cliff Harris’ punt return against California in 2010 or De’Anthony Thomas tone setter in the Fiesta Bowl kickoff.
‘Next man up’ to turn the tide in these critical moments is Charles Nelson. This writer has never observed a true freshman giving more effort with higher results on both returning and coverage units. His play has been nothing short of outstanding.
Through three games, true freshman “Rolls” Royce Freeman is leading a deep running back group in touchdowns (5) and rushing yards (186). For all the deserved praise for his speed and strength, his most impressive qualities have actually been his vision and remarkable start-stop ability. With Byron Marshall moving more to the slot, Royce has become essential to the one-two punch* in the Ducks’ backfield.
Although he hasn’t received as much attention as NCAA track champion Devon Allen, Carrington has collected more receptions and yards than Allen. Sticky hands, precise routes, and outstanding body control point to this prototypical wideout becoming the type of receiver pined for by Oregon fans.
Joe Walker (Honorary Newcomer, Honorable Mention)
When any individual supplants a team’s leading performer in the starting lineup such as coaches swapping 2013 team leading tackler Derrick Malone for JUCO transfer ‘Hairless’ Joe Walker, it is a significant indication of talent (See: Darren Thomas pressured out by Mariota in 2012). One could argue Walker qualifies as a newcomer for 2014 simply because this tackling missile is a completely different player than the tentative, meager coverage backer from last season. What a difference a year makes. If last year’s defensive woes in their two losses are any indication, Walker’s run stopping ability in the middle may just decide Oregon’s bowl destination. I have been efforting to get a #ghostofKiko hashtag trending on Twitter and readers, I hereby enlist your help to make it happen.
Honorable Mention: Chris Seisay, Tyree Robinson, and Allen
*[EIC note: Crosby, Pisarcik, Brenner and Eggert will be forming a retro band in the off-season.]
**[EIC note: the ‘one-two’ punch had morphed in the Oregon brand “Thunder and Lightning” — now it’s Thunder and Lightning *squared*]
Lead photograph credit: Kevin Cline