Oregon’s 4-3 start to the 2015 season is nothing to complain about. As fans, we are all lucky to have a team to root for at all, let alone a winning one. Still, it takes some getting used to watching the Ducks play without that ranking sitting next to Oregon’s logo on the broadcast scoreboard after a 98-week streak.
A dropoff in winning percentage was more or less predictable. The battle to replace Marcus Mariota was one of the biggest national storylines of college football throughout the summer.
If Oregon fans had a nickel for every time they heard this off-season that the last five programs to lose a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback went 8-5 the next season, they’d be able to pay for a lifetime supply of tickets.
It is safe to say, though, that Oregon is just a couple of plays away from being 6-1 and among the top teams in the Pac-12. Quarterback was expected to be the position at which the Ducks would experience the biggest dropoff.
However, although his unfortunate nagging injury impeded the offense’s ability to fully gel through the first half of the season, Vernon Adams has channeled Mariota quite a bit when on the field.
Let us not forget his left-handed pass against Michigan State that was eerily reminiscent of his predecessor’s shovel pass against the same opponent a year ago, and the tremendous athleticism he showed behind the line of scrimmage on numerous plays against Washington.
Between the team-first attitude demonstrated by each quarterback through this shaky start and the upside Adams has displayed, Duck fans can feel comfortable that the quarterback position is in good hands.
What received little attention this offseason is the fact that losing three all-conference defensive backs in the most prolific passing conference in college football is terrifying, no matter how good your recruiting has been.
The departures of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan left safety Reggie Daniels as the only returning starter in Oregon’s defensive backfield heading into 2015. In fact, Mark Helrich had to hand offensive star Charles Nelson over to defensive coordinator Don Pellum to help out with the secondary’s depth.
This season, Oregon has had an extremely tough early-season schedule.
They’ve already faced two top-seven opponents and a Washington State team that is fourth in the nation in passing.
It should be noted that the Cougars are also extremely hot after being stunned by Portland State in their opener, as a six-point road loss to Cal is their only other defeat.
The inexperienced secondary has become a lightning rod among armchair quarterbacks through the team’s struggles, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
The main reason involves a reexamination of the 2011 Ducks team.
Four years ago, Oregon’s top three cornerbacks were all freshmen. While Cliff Harris was expected to be one of the top players at the position heading into the season, he was unfortunately suspended and eventually removed from the team.
It was then Terrance Mitchell, Ekpre-Olumu and Hill that joined the more experienced safeties John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant in the defensive backfield, gradually beating out Anthony Gildon for playing time.
Oregon’s early strength of schedule has accentuated the youth of the secondary while simultaneously making it easy to forget just how normal these struggles are.
The 2011 team experienced some of the same growing pains that this year’s defense has on the back end. Down the stretch they were upset by USC and Matt Barkley, who had a huge day passing, and struggled against a Russell Wilson-led Wisconsin team in a shootout Rose Bowl victory.
Andrew Luck and Nick Foles also managed to throw together great performances.
Oregon’s 2011 secondary faced only one team through this point in the season that ended up winning more than seven games: LSU.
But the Tigers, with their starting quarterback suspended, threw the ball only 22 times against the Ducks.
Clearly this year’s group has faced far stronger competition early on, and these tough experiences will pay off down the road in the form of leadership and mental toughness.
The tangible things, such as tackling and finding the ball in the air, will improve with experience (as demonstrated by the 2011 group), but many other attributes that can’t be taught are already there.
Oregon has been a takeaway machine over the past decade, consistently finishing near the top of the national standings in that category. The 2015 Ducks already have 13 takeaways including seven interceptions, one more than they had in 2011 through seven games.
It is also easy to forget how misleading total statistics can be.
Oregon has already faced 308 passing plays, so it makes sense that their yardage per game allowed would be near the bottom of the national standings.
However, their yards per attempt allowed sits at 7, good enough for 63rd nationally (a far cry from their 120th ranking in yards per game allowed).
The raw talent and physical traits are also already there.
Ugo Amadi, Arrion Springs, Tyree Robinson and Daniels were all 4-star recruits coming out of high school, and Chris Seisay, who is currently injured, has the long 6-foot-1 frame that NFL scouts have come to love so much.
After a six-week roller coaster ride, the Ducks took a significant step forward against Washington. Adams looked as special as ever, receiver Darren Carrington returned from his suspension and the Huskies only managed six points through the game’s first 44 minutes against this young defense.
The talent is there across the board and the secondary will continue to improve, just as their predecessors did, in the pass-heavy Pac-12.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline