There is plenty of excitement for Oregon's offense and defense this year and for good reason. There are playmakers and athletes on both sides of the ball, and the competition for some of the open positions like QB and CB have captivated fans and media since spring ball started. However, let's not forget about the third part of every game; the Special Teams. How many games are won or lost because of the special teams? Last minute field goals, momentum changing punt returns for touchdowns, field position advantages with long kick returns, blocked punts, blocked kicks and 2 point conversions. These things have a tremendous impact on the overall game, and just like the other two aspects of the game, defense and offense, Oregon has some returning studs, some big time questions marks and a bunch of athletes ready to make their mark this coming year.
Oregon returns a difference maker in the return game this year in Kenjon Barner. Barner had the third highest return average in the Pac 10 last year in kickoffs and was a sure handed returner in the punting game as well. One of the easiest ways for Kelly to get the ball in Barner's hands without taking carries away from James is to continue to use him in the return game.
There are definitely some other guys who may also see time back there this year. Cliff Harris was used on a misdirection reverse in the Rose Bowl, and with his speed, I'd expect to see him get a couple of chances to help the offense with field position this coming year. Josh Huff and Lache Seastrunk have the speed and ability to make huge plays, and depending on how much Barner or Harris are being utilized elsewhere, we could see a couple of freshman get their chances too.
Oregon had a pretty pedestrian kicking game last year. Jackson Rice was called upon as a true freshman to man the punting duties and while he had his moments and good games (Boise State) he also had a few games that were rather forgettable (Cal). The spring game left a lot of people questioning whether Rice has the tools to have a consistent year punting for the Ducks, but the reviews coming out of fall practices so far seem to be encouraging.
The field goal game may be a totally different story. First, there is the fact that Rob Beard is suspended for the first game, so true freshman Alejandro Maldonado will be thrust into duty right off the bat. Second, is the fact that neither Beard nor Maldonado have shown much consistency either last year (for Beard) or so far in the fall (for Maldonado). Considering how important a certain 45 yard field goal was in a very important game last year, let's hope that this area of the special teams sees some drastic improvement or we might be seeing more 4th down conversions than my blood pressure can handle.
Kick-off and Punt Coverage:
Lastly, one area I am really interested in seeing how they do this year is the kick-off and punt coverage teams. With the number of athletes that Oregon has on both sides of the ball, a way for guys to make an impact and be involved is to make plays in coverage. This is an area where you will see guys like Marvin Johnson, Chad Peppars, Bryson Littlejohn, Dewitt Stuckey, Anthony Anderson or even some of the new guys like Marcus Davis or Terrance Mitchell make plays that can really help the team. Look at Michael Clay last year. He started out being a long snapper and handling coverage duties and after he continuously made plays, coaches had more faith to get him on the field more often. The ugly, dirty return coverage is where seniors and upperclassmen who may not see a ton of playing time, or new guys trying to make their mark have a chance of standing out when it matters most, game time.