Quarterbacks, Defense and Championship Runs
Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
If you had to pick three sore spots from 2015 Oregon football, quarterbacks, defense and the lack of a championship run would have to dominate the list. Those sore spots and what they mean moving ahead are the subjects of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. Quarterbacks. The Oregon program has been criticized for bringing Vernon Adams in from FCS Eastern Washington and now faces similar complaints for its interest in Montana State QB Dakota Prukop. Some writers and fans are going so far as to question whether the Ducks have the ability to develop quarterbacks, and that’s okay. Short-term memory loss happens, and this might happen a little more frequently in Oregon, along with Washington and Colorado.
Granted, for the second year in a row, Oregon finishes the season without a proven performer at the all-important quarterback position returning next year. While not an indictment of the coaches’ ability to develop quarterbacks, it does show that the Ducks have not recruited, trained and retained a suitable replacement for Marcus Mariota.
Having Mariota for the Ducks’ quarterback was a helluva party. For those who haven’t experienced it, here’s a fact of life. It’s not just short-term memory loss that happens. Hangovers happen, too. And once the party’s over, it can be a long hard trip down from something that made the world so rosy the night before.
With all the talented young quarterbacks either on campus or committed to become Ducks, this hangover is not going to last forever. But given that there’s not a QB on the roster who has proven himself at this level, we might need to reach for the Alka Seltzer one more season.
After that — somebody is going to come through, and it will probably be in spectacular enough form to result in some transfers out, which — at least partially owing to Mariota’s success — is one of the reasons why the Ducks are in the pickle they are.
One thing that seems to be lost in the criticism is that Adams saw Oregon as a desirable landing spot, and Prukop has similar feelings. Few programs attract that level of proven talent, so the transfer in of FBS stars is more a sign of the program’s strength than a sign of weakness.
2. Defense. To put it nicely, defense was not exactly Oregon’s forte in 2015. Still, the improvement during the year was remarkable, and a testament to the coaching. Even mid-season, nobody would have guessed that the Ducks’ defense would play well enough to beat Stanford and USC.
The improvement of the secondary was particularly striking, as it went from all-too-often not having anybody near a receiver to seemingly always being in position to make a play. By mid-season 2016, this group will be seasoned, talented veterans.
But there was a bigger improvement in the Ducks’ defense that seems to be largely overlooked. That was the development of the ability to line up, slug it out with Stanford’s jumbo package, and come out on top.
Nobody seems to be mentioning it, but the Ducks just plain intimidated Kevin Hogan into bumbling a couple of snaps – and nobody comments that the fumbles were recovered by the Ducks behind Stanford’s line. When it counted, the Ducks beat the Trees in the trenches, and that was a monumental development for the program.
The linebacker play improved immensely, but it will be surprising if any of the group ends up being an early round NFL draft choice. Things may be looking up. The Ducks have commitments from three linebackers (including JC transfer A.J. Hotchkins) in the current recruiting class and are after more.
Replacing DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci on the D-line will be a challenge, but the Ducks have a strong contingent of youth who made valuable contributions in 2015 and should be ready to step into bigger roles next year.
So – assuming anybody steps up at quarterback next year, the Ducks should be lined up to at least have a shot at making a strong run.
3. Championship Runs. So much has to fall in place for even the most talented of teams and coaches to make a successful championship run. Injuries are a part of the game, and in 2014 the Ducks made it to the championship round despite contending with some key injuries. In 2015, the injuries wasted no time in proving fatal to any championship aspirations.
Another key factor for a run is experience in the right places. As great as Mariota’s career at Oregon was, it was only in his third season that the Ducks made it to the championship game.
There’s no reason the Ducks won’t have a strong program for years to come, but it takes a bit of magic and luck for everything to fall into place. Even with all the talent and experience in the world. Doesn’t it, Urban Meyer.
In the meantime, it is a little irritating – and a testament to the power of telling lies often enough and loudly enough — to see the likes of USC, UCLA and even Arizona State getting the preseason press as the teams to beat, not to mention getting the streams of 5-star recruits that they routinely land, despite consistent under-achievement.
There are two elite programs in the Pac-12: Oregon and Stanford. Who else has won a Pac-12 championship lately? Nobody, that’s who. And there’s a reason for this. Oregon and Stanford have the best coaches. It’s that simple – and it’s amazing that anybody can even dream anything to the contrary. I mean — anybody who has been around any athletics at any level has to see that Oregon and Stanford have been consistently out-coaching these other teams for years.
The last time anybody but Oregon or Stanford won the Pac-12 (or the predecessor Pac-10) was USC in 2008. That was five coaches ago for USC. I will leave you with this thought: Five coaches ago for Oregon was Don Read in 1976. When you consider how fast Oregon runs its plays, that’s long, long ago in Duck years.
Top photo by John Sperry