Interview with an SEC honk

Kevin, the chief writer and editor of College Football Zealots, a southern-leaning football blog that covers the nation, sent me an email the other day with six questions on the Ducks:

1. Oregon has to replace a lot of starters on the front seven of their defense. Who are some of the new starters that will need to step up to help the Ducks this year?
Good question. The Ducks have significant losses in their front seven, especially in terms of leadership. They graduated starting DTs Brandon  Bair and Zac Clark, LB/DE hybrid Kenny Rowe, who led the team in sacks the last two years, and two three-year starters at linebacker, Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews, who are now plying their trade in the NFL, both getting close to making a lineup in their first year in the league.

The good news is, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and his position coaches played a deep rotation on the defense, regularly using 26 different players to keep pace with Oregon’s blur-fast, 47-points-per-game offense. So younger players and substitutes got significant time on a unit that held opponents to under 19 points a game, and finished second in the nation in turnovers gained with 37 for the season, even holding juggernaut Auburn to 22 points in the national championship game.

The Ducks return a lot of speed and athletic ability in the front seven, and they have a big, powerful, run-stuffing anchor in the middle in sophomore defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli, 6-4, 320 pounds. Heimuli decided to fore go a Mormon mission to return for his sophomore and his presence gives the Ducks their strongest, most gap-destroying defensive tackle prospect since Haloti Ngata left for the NFL. Line coach Jerry Azzinaro is a master at teaching d-line play, having sent Dwight Freeney to the NFL while at Syracuse, and transforming Oregon’s defensive interior into a tenacious, agile fighting unit. He’s an accomplished martial artist, and he constantly implores his troops at the top  of his lungs, “Be VIOLENT with your hands!” maximizing their advantage in the battle at the line of scrimmage.

His players seem to be getting the message. Senior defensive end Terrell Turner returns  as the strong side defensive end. At 6-3 265, he leads the Ducks’ defensive linemen with a 405-lb. bench press, and he’s the vocal leader of this group on the field. Turner has a knack for getting his hands up in the passing lanes and tipping and batting down passes.

With their weakside defensive ends Oregon likes to employ a flexible 4-3/3-4 scheme by using this position as a hybrid, standing this defender up like a linebacker or down in a three-point stance depending on the offensive alignment and the defensive play call. He can rush the quarterback or drop back into coverage. The Ducks have two players who will be very effective in that role this year, converted linebacker Brandon Hanna, 6-2 240, or freak athlete Dion Jordan #96, a converted tight end with a 6-7 240-lb. frame and an awesome wing span to go with 4.77 speed in the 40 (electronically timed, very solid for a defensive end). Jordan, a junior from Chandler, Arizona, had four solo tackles in the national championship game, and two sacks in the Spring Game. He could be one of the breakout players for the Ducks this fall.

At tackle, Heimuli is joined by in-state product Taylor Hart, 6-6, 283, Isaac Remington, a junior college transfer who redshirted last season, 6-6 286, and Jared Ebert, 6-5 285, a jc transfer from Iowa Western CC, who was named the top jc defensive tackle in 2010 by JC Gridiron magazine and website. Sophomore Wade Keliikipi, a 6-3, 300-lb strongman from Hawaii, had a great spring and seemed to be ready to nail down a starting job, but he’s been plagued by back problems in fall camp and has not suited up much.

2. Jeff Maehl and Drew Davis have moved on and with it they take almost half of Oregon’s receptions from last year, half the TD receptions and half the receiving yardage. Who do you see stepping up to take their place (and what do they bring to the table)?

Replacing Maehl and Davis and their production is one of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich’s biggest challenges, on an offense that racked up 6899 total yards and an NCAA-best 611 points last year.  One factor is, having LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner to carry the ball means defenses have to commit a lot of attention to stopping the run, which makes quarterback Darron Thomas and the Oregon passing offense more effective no matter who the receivers are. The two leading returnees are lanky 6-5, 216-lb. outside receiver Lavasier Tuinei (36 catches, 396 yards, 2 touchdowns) and 5-11, 207-lb. sophomore Josh Huff (19 catches, 303 yards, 5 total tds, who was second on the team with  1086 all-purpose yards as a receiver, kick returner, and running with the football on reverses, pitches and an occasional carry out of the backfield. Huff is a confident, dynamic talent, sturdily built and fast. He had an 85-yard run, a 57-yard reception and an 80-yard kick return last season, showing just how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands. On the ground, he had 12 carries for 214 yards a 17.8-yard average, to go along with 15.9 yards per reception. Huff has been banged-up in fall camp but it doesn’t look serious; he practiced Monday in a helmet and shoulder pads.

Darron Thomas passed for 2881 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, and his most capable targets this year may be an athletic pair of tight ends,  David Paulson, a 6-4, 241 senior from Auburn, Washington, who caught 24 passes for 418 yards, a team-leading 17.4 yards per catch, and true freshman Colt Lyerla, a 6-5, 238-lb. athlete, a 5-star recruit from Hillsboro, Oregon who has a vertical leap of 40 inches. Lylerla was the Oregon state high school player of the year as a junior, recording 40 touchdowns in leading his team to a state championship. He was an Army All-American, and enrolled early at Oregon to participate in spring drills, catching three balls in traffic during the nationally-televised Spring Game. Lyerla followed up his strong spring with an impressive fall, and looks to make an immediate impact in two tight end sets and goal line situations, a dramatic match-up problem for linebackers and 5th defensive backs.

Justin Hoffman, a junior walk-on from Churchill High School in Eugene, a fierce down-field blocker  is likely to start in three-receiver sets. One of the hardest workers on the team, he runs disciplined routes and has good hands. One intriguing newcomer is jc transfer Rahsaan Vaughn 6-1, 195, fast, fluid and physical, a 1,000-yard receiver at San Mateo Junior College last season. He’s shined in the first two weeks of camp, getting separation with his 4.4 speed, dangerous after the catch. De’Anthony Thomas, “The Black Momba” a five-star runnng back from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, is the wild card, a true freshman who’s been compared to Percy Harvin and Reggie Bush for his dazzling open-field running ability. Thomas, or DAT as some fans call him, has soft hands out of the backfield and is fast and elusive, so the Ducks may use him in a variety of roles his first year, out wide, in the slot, or spelling Barner and James at tailback. He’ll make an impact as a true freshman.

No doubt, replacing Maehl is a particular challenge. He was the Ducks’ clutch, go-to receiver last season snaring 77 passes for 1076 yards and 12 touchdowns. They won’t try to replace him with one guy. Darron Thomas, who excels in the multiple options of the Oregon attack, will spread the ball around. Tuinei and Huff will get more touches. Paulson will be the reliable receiver over the middle and in key situations like third and five or second and eight. And Vaughn, Lyerla and De’Anthony Thomas will have an immediate impact. Three other fast, talented freshmen wideouts Tacoi Sumler, Devon Blackmon and B.J. Kelley, are likely to redshirt unless the unit gets hit by injuries, a disappointment for some fans.

3. Oregon starts off the season in Arlington against the LSU Tigers in a match-up of Top 5 teams. How do you think Oregon matches up with LSU (where do you think they have the advantage and where does LSU have the advantage)?

It’s a classic and much-anticipated match-up, featuring Oregon’s dynamic offense against a very fast, strong and physical LSU defense. If it’s a shootout, Oregon wins easily, because the Tiger offense isn’t equipped to keep pace. If LSU controls the ball on the ground on offense with Spencer Ware running behind four big returning linemen, and John Chavis’ defense disrupts and frustrates the Ducks’ offensive tempo, they’ll win a lower-scoring game.

4. Oregon came really close to winning a National Championship last year. What do you think are the primary areas in which they need to improve if they want to make another run this year?

Oregon lost last year’s National Championship at the line of scrimmage. But SEC fans would be deeply mistaken to presume The Cowboy Classic would be a predictable repeat of January’s game in Glendale. These Ducks are faster, bigger, deeper and stronger, and they’re determined to play a better game.

5. Outside of LSU and Stanford, which games do you see as being the most important for Oregon this year (and why)?

They’re all equally tough and important. Coming off a number two finish in the country last year, two-time defending conference champions, ranked #3 or #4 in most preseason polls, everybody wants to go Duck hunting. The first conference game, on the road in the extreme heat of a night game in the Arizona desert against Nick Foles and Juron Criner and the Wildcats’ potent passing attack, will be a challenge. A November 5th date in Seattle against rival Washington, just a week before the showdown with Stanford in Palo Alto, looms as a potential trap. USC has lost to the Ducks two seasons in a row and three of the last four and wants revenge. In-state rival Oregon State has been denied two trips to the Rose Bowl and lost three seasons in a row to Oregon, and would like nothing more than to spoil a dream season when they meet in Autzen Stadium on November 26th. It goes on like that.

6. What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?

Everything hinges on the LSU game. Win that one, and the Ducks have a legitimate window for returning to the National Championship Game. Slip up or get embarrassed in Dallas, and the challenge is to regroup in time to defend the PAC-12 title.  But with an impressive variety of weapons, a deep stable of athletic and hard-hitting defensive players, and an innovative and intact coaching staff , the Ducks begin the season as one of the favorites to win it all.  At Oregon Media Day, Doak Walker Award winner and 1731-yard rusher LaMichael James, who is just 20 yards from becoming the Ducks all-time leading rusher at the start of his junior year, said, “There is no such thing as too high of expectations.” Oregon won’t lose in 2011-12. They’ll be 14-0, and finish what they’ll fell painfully short of in Glendale.

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