Top 10 Duck off-season story lines

Free association, anyone?

Free the ducks!

I study a news photo Friday of caged ducks being sputtered off to market in Vietnam (a sad sight if there ever was one); from there, I jump to recalling where some Duck football players ended up in past off-seasons (I know, my bad); which, in turn, has me pondering news about the team since its Jan. 2 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.

My next thought? Column material, of course!

So let’s get down to some writing. One obvious conclusion: unlike last year’s off-season and year before that — when the negative stuff won the day — these past several months have been a bit on the middling side, with more good than bad.

Still, some developments are more important than others, some not even worthy of a mention (other than on Twitter perhaps). Looking back, here are my Top-10 story lines for Oregon football this off-season:

No. 10 — Tra Carson’s departure. Carson surprised many when he decided to bolt Oregon and transfer to Texas A&M. He was slated to be either the No. 2 or No. 3 back this coming season and receive more than the 45 carries (for 254 yards) he accumulated as a true freshman. So, footnote or big deal? It all depends. If Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas stay healthy, Carson likely will be as quickly forgotten as the leaves blowing around campus. If not, and the Ducks don’t fill the holes in what appears to be a backfield with little depth, then look out.

No. 9 — Recruiting. In February, Oregon signed another strong recruiting class (ranked 15th in the nation by, led by late addition Arik Armstead, a 5-star defensive lineman from California. The 2013 class is shaping up well, too. On May 25, the Ducks received a verbal commitment from Texas prep star Dontre Wilson, giving Oregon a third highly sought-after high school junior. Wilson, a running back who many see playing a hybrid role similar to the one De’Anthony Thomas plays now, is rated the 11th-best back nationally in the 2013 recruiting class. He joins standout Aloha (Ore.) High School running back Thomas Tyner (judged the fourth-best back in the U.S.) who committed to Oregon last November, and West Linn (Ore.) OT Evan Voeller (14th best at his position in the country) as early verbals.

Josh Huff

No. 8 — Josh Huff’s arrest. Many fans had high hopes for wide receiver Josh Huff this coming season after an injury-plagued 2011-12 campaign (31 catches and just two TDs). But his arrest March 3 on suspicion of drunken driving (he pleaded not guilty March 23) has clouded his playing status. He has a trial date set for July 12 and apparently didn’t participate much, if at all, in spring practices. Head coach Chip Kelly hasn’t commented publicly about Huff’s situation. When Huff is healthy and “on” — think back to the Stanford game last fall — he is dynamite. He also is the top returning player (statistics-wise) at his position.

No. 7 — The defense serves notice. Oregon may field its best defense since the Gang Green days of the mid-1990s, and little that happened during the spring dampened that hope. The Duck defenders appear to be bigger, more athletic, and deeper than ever before. The only question mark — and it’s a minor one — is in the secondary.

Athlon magazine's pegs Oregon at No. 4 in the nation.

No. 6 — Mucho respect. In pre-season predictions, almost all the pundits have Oregon in their Top 5, reflecting the stature of the program. If those rankings are reflected in the first official polls released in August, the Ducks will have set themselves up nicely for another run at a BCS National Championship Game. Remember, they are set to be solid favorites in their first eight contests.

No. 5 — Silence from the NCAA. On Feb. 24, UO released documents showing the NCAA has concluded preliminarily that Oregon broke some rules with its recruiting practices. But other than that — and subsequent media reports that the school and the NCAA are headed for a settlement of sorts — news about the investigation has been in short supply during the off-season. Which, when you think about it, is news itself! Where this ends up, nobody knows — well, almost nobody.

No. 4 — Lack of off-field turmoil. No trips down Interstate 5 going 118 mph. No brawling on the streets of Eugene. We still have a few weeks to go in the off-season, but so far so good for the Oregon football players (other than the aforementioned Josh Huff arrest). Compare that to previous off-seasons, or to the scene in Corvallis where four players have been hauled off to jail the last few months.

Bryan Bennett, left, and Marcus Mariota.

No. 3 — Introducing Marcus Mariota. Whether he beats out Bryan Bennett or not — and there is probably even money on that — Mariota impressed in the spring game (18 of 26 passing for 202 yards and 106 yards rushing, including an 82-yard TD run), leaving fans who had never seen the freshman play before with a good feeling about Oregon’s one-two punch at the quarterback position.

No. 2 — James and Thomas pull up stakes. LaMichael James’ decision was no surprise, although it was still a sad moment for many Oregon fans when the school’s all-time rushing leader — and perhaps the best player to ever don a Duck uni — declared for the NFL Draft. But Thomas’ move left many scratching their heads — a sentiment borne out by the fact he wasn’t drafted — and stripped Oregon of a strength at the most important position on the field. Thomas was 23-3 as a starter, threw for 66 TDs in his career and ran Kelly’s offense well. He is set to be replaced by either Bennett or Mariota. The talent is there, but the game experience is not.

Oregon has posted a 34-6 record since Chip Kelly took over as head coach.

No. 1 — Chip Kelly says no to the NFL. The program would have recovered, but it would have been shaken had Kelly left in late January to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can argue about his decision to close practices to the public and his apparent distaste for the media, but the fact remains Kelly is a brilliant and innovative coach who has transformed a good program (under Mike Bellotti) into a great one.


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