The defending Pac-12 champion came into the spring with some noticeable faces gone from the team that beat Wisconsin 45-38. Running back LaMichael James is now the property of the San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Darron Thomas, hopes to catch on with a pro team. The 15-session spring workout gave two quarterbacks, Mariota and Bryan Bennett the opportunity to show what they have. Reporters have been barred from watching practices and Saturday’s spring game played in front of 44,129 fans was a pleasant surprise for those who had heard rumors that Mariota is something special.
Granted, there are certain things about a spring game that should be taken into consideration before someone can be anointed as the next coming. The quarterbacks wore red jerseys so that they would not be tackled and play was whistled dead when a defender touched them. The first half of the game was played with a regular game clock, but the second half had a running clock of two 10-minute quarters. Given some of those parameters, Mariota’s performance was still impressive, but Oregon’s head coach Chip Kelly was reluctant to say much more than he was pleased with the progress of both Mariota and Bennett.
“I’m pleased with our quarterbacks,” said Kelly. “(It’s) not a position I’m worried about.”
The last time anyone had seen Bennett play was against Colorado in Boulder when he led the Ducks to a 45-2 trouncing of the Buffaloes. Bennett had seen game time in eight games last year and his performance against Colorado led most observers to believe he was the heir apparent to the starting quarterback job. However, even with all the success Bennett had in 2012, rumors kept leaking out that Mariota was doing great things and the competition for the quarterback’s job was going to be hard fought and on Saturday it looked like Mariota made a strong case.
Kelly has maintained that he will not make any decision on the starter’s job until the week before the 2012 opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 1.
The Ducks must also replace James, a player who rushed for more than 1,700 yards in 2011. Some of the concern the Ducks had was relieved when Kenjon Barner announced he would stay at Oregon rather than follow James to the NFL. Not surprisingly, Barner was kept on low profile for the spring game, recording only one carry for one yard. Kelly admits that Barner will be the starting ball carrier next fall, but also says that De’Anthony Thomas will also be in tandem giving Oregon another strong one-two punch in the rushing game. Thomas had a little bit more action than Barner did on Saturday, with three carries for 23 yards.
The big question for the Ducks at running back is not about Barner or Thomas who are the only two running backs on scholarship. The 2012 recruiting class signed Byron Marshall as a running back and he along with Bralon Addison, another player that could play running back, will be on campus in June. Walk-on Ayele Forde made the most of his opportunities in the spring game carrying the ball 18 times for 74 yards rushing and a touchdown.
The most impressive pass play of the day was when Mariota hit Daryle Hawkins in stride for a 35-yard scoring strike. Hawkins had four catches for a total of 55 yards. Rahsaan Vaughn also pulled in four balls for 57 yards. Blake Stanton was the top pass catcher with six grabs for 62 yards.
Defensively, the split Duck squad held its own and the defensive linemen, the subject for criticism and concern in the past, seemed to hold up well in a scrimmage where the rules were somewhat stacked against the defense. Newcomer Arik Armstead (6-8, 295) was easy to spot as he was the biggest player on the field, but Tony Washington stole the show by putting pressure on Bennett and would have had sure sacks if he were allowed to tackle the quarterback.
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was the leading tackler for both squads with six solo tackles. Erik Dargan, Anthony Wallace both had five solos while Grant Thompson, Derrick Malone, Taylor Hart and Brian Jackson all had four solos. Tyson Coleman had a pick-six for the yellow squad.
The highlight for the special teams was a 63-yard punt by Jackson Rice.
If one were to judge the Oregon Ducks based on the 2012 spring game, it would appear that this team is right where the Rose Bowl team left off. Kelly, however, resists answering questions about comparing this squad to his teams in the past. The Oregon head man insists that he is never satisfied with a team and looks each day as a new challenge and while the Rose Bowl win was good, that was then and this is now.
Is this team good enough to win the conference championship for a fourth straight year? Kelly has maintained all spring that there are questions yet to answer and a lot of work to do to. He was obviously very happy with Mariota and the “cool breeze attitude” especially after breaking off an 82-yard run. Still though, there were some drops, miscues and growing pains for this version of the 2012 Ducks. Oregon now has all spring and summer to work on conditioning. Three members of the 2012 recruiting class, Armstead, Evan Baylis and Jake Rodrigues, are already in school and in June the rest of the class will enroll for summer session.
The first game of the 2012 season is at home against Arkansas State and the first conference game is against Arizona on Sept. 22. For most fans, the game that is circled on the calendar is against USC at the LA Coliseum on Nov. 3. That game could have national implications and if the Ducks resolve those questions about depth and maturity then quite possibly the showdown could make the Oregon-USC game the college game of the year.
Kelly has done a masterful job since taking over the head-coaching position and what the public saw for the first time today is any indication, then there are good times in store for the Oregon Ducks.