On paper, this Oregon Ducks football team looks strong. Marcus Mariota, DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff all return as starters. The offensive line looks tough, as does the defensive secondary. In fact, there isn’t a single position that looks particularly weak, yet there are some vulnerabilities that should be troublesome to Duck fans.
One of the issues Oregon fans should be worried about is the stable of running backs, yet this area gets little mention.
Thomas is a phenomenal player, explosive and fast, and Byron Marshall got some great experience last year as the third-string back. But is Thomas truly ready to be the every-down running back? Can his smaller frame handle the punishment and can he regularly run up the middle?
If the answer is no to either of these questions, then Oregon may be in some trouble. With all due respect to Marshall, he does not appear to be the kind of back that Ducks fans have been spoiled with in recent years. Certainly he has the potential, but he hasn’t shown the same dynamic spark we saw from LaMichael James and Kenyon Barner. Of course, Thomas Tyner may be the savior for the Duck running backs, but expecting too much out of a true freshman doesn’t always work out too well.
Another area of concern that may surprise some readers is quarterback.
Mariota was absolutely amazing last year and should have been a Heisman finalist, and there is little rational reason to think he won’t be as good as last year, except for this: The second year of a quarterback’s career, either in college or the pros, can often be the most difficult. Many stumble and make mistakes they didn’t make their first year, or put too much pressure on themselves and try to make too many plays on their own. Hopefully Mariota will not experience any sophomore jitters and he will be the same cool, confident quarterback Oregon fans cheered for last year, but if he does struggle a little more, then the Ducks will likely struggle as well.
Coaching is probably the biggest question mark going into the 2013-2014 season. Yes, Mark Helfrich appears to be a top-flight coach, as does Scott Frost and several other assistants. However, there is a big gap between being an elite-level head coach and being an offensive coordinator. No one really knows how a coach will do until they start playing the games. Fans have a lot to learn about this new group of coaches, and right now, all of the best information about how Helfrich will lead this team is nothing but pure speculation. Oregon fans could be in for a letdown, or they could continue the ascent put in place by Rich Brooks, Bellotti and Chip Kelly.
Defensively too, the Ducks have some vulnerable weak spots.
Barring injury, the defensive backfield could be amazing, possibly one of the best in the country. However, it is the linebacker position that poses the largest problems. Losing Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso poses some serious issues. There is talent there, no doubt, but the qualities of leadership and decision-making are not going to be easily replaced. Players like Boseko Lokombo, Tyson Coleman and Derrick Malone will need to fill that vacuum. There will be players who can make great plays and get lots of tackles and look spectacular doing so, but without that steady leadership, the Oregon defense may actually need to score all those points in order to win games.
Then, of course, there are the special teams. This hasn’t been a strength for the Ducks in many years now. Kicker is the biggest problem, and while the newcomers do offer some hope, this is an area where most Duck fans might be holding their breath. Kicking is the main area that needs drastic improvement, and without a consistent kicking game, Oregon is likely to lose at least a game or two because of that instability.
This is going to be a crucial season for the future of Oregon football. Have they reached our peak already, did the Chip Kelly era represent the high point? Or has it really just begun, did Kelly plant a seed that will take us to national championships and more years of heady success? Will Helfrich be able to step into those very big shoes Kelly left behind? These questions will not be completely answered this season, but Oregon fans will certainly gain some understanding of where the Ducks are headed.
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