It’s probably fair to say that Jeff Maehl isn’t flying under the radar any more. While Oregon’s top pass catcher from 2009’s championship season isn’t listed among anyone’s Heisman dark horses or on Mel Kiper’s big board, both regional and national writers seem to get it. The secret is out. Jeff Maehl is good and he can hurt you in several ways.
Maehl leads a group of quality returning receivers. There are few questions about who starts, but plenty of questions regarding depth. Let’s get past the sour stuff. Four guys expected to possibly contribute in 2010 aren’t around. Jamere Holland is gone. Garrett Embry, also gone. Tyrece Gaines, academically ineligible, as is a guy we hope we’ll see back in a Duck uniform, Diante Jackson.
Sure, those circumstances left the cupboards a little bare. However, one man’s misfortune - or poor decisions - can be another man’s opportunity. Let’s take a look at the guys most like to catch passes for the Ducks this season.
Maehl is the man again this year. The 6-1 senior comes off a 2009 season where he caught 53 passes for 696 yards and six touchdowns. He seems to have a flare for the dramatic, often turned to for a long third down conversion. He scored five of his TDs late in the season when a lot was on the line. Davis and Tuinei also are returning starters from 2009. Davis returned from a 2008 knee injury to catch 23 passes for 233 and two TDs in 2009. Tuinei saw his first action after transferring to Oregon and added 24 catches for 217 yards.
Of course, there’s more to the Maehl-Davis-Tuinei story. All three have proven themselves as solid, sometimes punishing, down-field blockers, a skill that is critical to Oregon’s offensive success. Have we really ever given these guys enough credit for doing their part to spring so many big plays in the running game and short passing attack?
Here’s where the depth issue presents itself. Oregon receivers are expected to do some physical dirty work. There are going to be bumps and bruises. That, and the offense plays at an extreme pace. Sometimes a guy’s gotta get a blow (check your homoerotic meme at the door). The race is on to see who among maybe a half-dozen underclassmen will represent the second team at wideout and slot positions.
Will Murphy has shown a knack for getting behind the defense. Josh Huff is the highly touted freshman from Texas. He’s shown nice hands, and he has the build to succeed at that critical run blocking element. Justin Hoffman has opened a few eyes this fall, and was recently awarded a scholarship. Blake Cantu put on a nice show in the 2009 spring game (111 yards receiving that day). He redshirted last season and was banged up this spring. Cantu has great hands and, on the field, has the look of a heady, reliable possession receiver.
There is depth at the wide receiver position, but many of those guys are untested. The same can be said at the tight end position.
David Paulson may not be Ed Dickson, but he’s going to make his mark in the Pac-10 the next two season. Some believe Paulson has the best hands on the team. He hauled in 12 passes for 185 yards in 2009, leading the Ducks with a 15.4 yards per catch average. Malachi Lewis is the lone senior in contention for playing time as a tight end. You want to root for a guy like Lewis. He’s never seen a lot of playing time during his Oregon career, but you see his effort during practices and it’s clear he can contribute at game time.
The guy probably standing in the way of more playing time for Lewis is JC transfer Brandon Williams. You’ve probably heard it from the local writers: this guy is an NFL prospect waiting to happen. Williams runs a sub-5 40-yards and is Oregon’s strongest tight end. Last year at Joliet JC, he caught 56 passes for 908 yards and seven TDs. The other new guy who might see the field is local 5-star freshman Curtis White. I don’t think there’s any question about White’s ability or readiness to play at the D-1 level. He has, however, been limited following off-season shoulder surgery, and it seems plausible the coaching staff might keep him on redshirt status unless injuries become a problem. Time will tell. If White is destined to redshirt this season, we might see Brian Teague – last year’s scout team offensive player of the year.
Let the naysayers worry about depth at the receiver position. Daily practice reports are brimming with praise for the young guns. They’re making plays with regularity against a solid defense. I’m convinced the Ducks are fine at receiver this year. Replacing Ed Dickson at tight end is tough. David Paulson is going to sneak up on some folks. And if you haven’t seen Brandon Williams in action yet, I’m pretty sure you’ll like what you see.
How about some predictions for 2010…
Brandon Williams could be a household name – at least up and down the Willamette Valley – before midseason.
Maehl should have another solid season receiving and paving the way for the running backs. Drew Davis is the guy who might see a real increase in productivity versus last season. He’s almost two years removed from that untimely knee injury and his physical nature could breed a lot of red zone success.
Will we see a 1000-yard receiver in Chip Kelly’s spread offense? Not this year. Maybe not for a couple years. But let’s keep a close eye on the maturation of Josh Huff. I’m dreaming of Huff catching passes from Bryan Bennett as opposing defenses have to focus on not getting gashed by the thunder and lightning combo of Dontae Williams and Lache Seastrunk. Somebody pinch me!