Quarterback Daryle Hawkins is poised for a breakout year in 2011...at wide receiver.
For me, the heartbreak and disappointment following last Monday's game was relatively short-lived and has been swiftly replaced by optimism for the 2011 season. The Ducks are poised to start the year ranked in the top 5 (for the first time ever, by the way) and return a core nucleus of playmakers on both sides of the ball. Questions still surround the departing offensive linemen and arguably the best linebacking core in school history, but there's a lot to be optimistic about, particularly with the intangibles (special teams, quarterback, coaching staff, etc.). And because it's never too early to make outlandish and bold predictions, here are 5 for the 2011 season:
1. Oregon will beat LSU in Dallas to start the season.
Right now, it seems like this game is more or less a toss-up. But after closer examination, it's looking like Oregon's to lose. To start with, in addition to the departure of several senior defensive standouts (Lazarius Levingston, Drake Nevis, and Kelvin Sheppard), the Bayou Bengals lose All-American cornerback Patrick Peterson and leading rusher Stevan Ridley to the NFL Draft, as well as their offensive coordinator to Maryland (whom we're all familiar with...and no, Crowton haters, getting rid of your coordinator, no matter who he is, isn't an advantage in the season's first game). Oh, and they didn't lose certifiably insane head coach Les Miles to Michigan. Just ask yourself this question: Who wins the coaching duel between Chip Kelly and the Mad Hatter? That's like asking who's smarter: Stephen Hawking or Paris Hilton? Advantage: Oregon.
2.will emerge as an elite weapon...but not at quarterback.
It seems like every year since Kelly arrived in Eugene, a new pass-catcher has emerged as a surprisingly elite producer for the Ducks. In 2007, it was Ed Dickson. In 2008, it was Terence Scott. In 2009, it was Jeff Maehl. This year, it was Josh Huff. So, assuming the trend continues, who will be the perennial "pleasant surprise" for Oregon's high-octane offense in 2011? Allow me to introduce third-string quarterback Daryle Hawkins. The Omaha native, who currently sits behind Darron Thomas and Bryan Bennett on the depth chart, is an extremely gifted athlete (think Chris Harper) who appeared at QB, running back and wide receiver this past season. He even rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries against New Mexico in September. Nevertheless, to the naked eye, Hawkins looks every bit the part of a difference-maker at receiver: He's tall (6'4") and wiry (192 lbs), and very athletic. With the departure of Maehl and D.J. Davis, and with opposing defenses likely to focus their attention on Lavasier Tuinei, you can count on Hawkins to get significantly more reps, and expect those reps to translate into a lot of offensive production.
3. The Pac-12 Championship will be played in Eugene.
Fans of the other Pac-12 teams are going to say this is hardly a lock. But after looking at next year's conference schedule and the new divisional alignment, it's hard to imagine a team with better odds. In the North, Oregon's toughest game will likely be a trip to Stanford. But even if (and I do mean if) we drop this game, Stanford still has to travel to USC and Oregon State. We say every year that Cal will be much improved, and once again I believe it, but we've still got the Bears at home. Same with the Civil War. Likely our toughest South-division games (USC and Arizona State) are also in Eugene. Simply put, we absolutely should host the conference's inaugural championship game...and I believe we will.
4. The Ducks will rush for more than 4,000 yards.
Only three schools (Navy, Nevada, Georgia Tech, twice each) have accomplished the feat since 2005, but with the return of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, another year of Thomas running the zone read, and new options with redshirt freshmen running backs Lache Seastrunk and Dontae Williams, expect it to finally happen. The Ducks came less than 300 yards short this year (3,721), and that was without LaMike for one game. Of course, they won't be able to do it without a strong offensive line, which leads me to the boldest of the bold...
5. Oregon's offensive line will be bigger and better.
The Ducks lose three key starters (center Jordan Holmes, tackle Bo Thran and guard C.E. Kaiser) from a unit that was arguably the most efficient in the country, finishing fourth in the country in rushing yards per game while giving up only 10 sacks all season. But after getting absolutely dominated by a bigger, faster and more athletic Auburn front seven in the BCS National Championship Game, much has been made of their size (or lack thereof). The three needing to be replaced weigh an average of 290 pounds. Replace those three with Darrion Weems, Nick Cody and Ryan Clanton (a combined 293) and add a few pounds to Carson York, and the Ducks have a chance to be bigger...and potentially better. In fact, of the 4 senior offensive linemen graduating, only one (Holmes) is 300 or more pounds, and two of the other three weigh less than 285. This unit also has arguably the best offensive line coach in the conference, which makes for vast and fast game-to-game improvements.
Got a few bold predictions of your own? Think I'm losing my mind and want to tell me about it? Let's hear your takes in the comments.