I'm very conflicted about last year's offensive line. On one hand, they helped pave the way to a 280 yards per game attack that averaged almost 6 yards per carry. By normal statistics, they improved on the 2009 season, though only marginally if you're looking only at conference numbers.
But I don't think that these numbers tell the whole story. When Oregon faced elite Front 7's, the offensive line struggled. Against Arizona State and California, two of the top defenses in the conference, the Ducks struggled. Against these defense, and also Auburn's, the Ducks were held significantly below their season rushing averages. These two defenses, and Auburn's were the only defense to hold the Ducks below 5 yards per carry, and each did so by at least a yard and a half per carry. While the 2009 offense had it's own consistency issues, once they got into conference play, they ran consistently against every foe they faced.
Unfortunately, advanced statistics back up these assertions about last year's line. Line Yards is a flawed but interesting metric to measure offensive line production. It values consistent production and penalizes lines when backs are tackled behind the line of scrimmage. When adjusted for strength of schedule, Oregon ranked in the top 15 from 2006-2009. Last year's team saw a drop to 51st in the country.
How is this possible? Last year, Oregon become the Adam Dunn of rushing offenses. They either hit the home run, or struck out. Against average or worse lines, the Ducks line was talented enough to open up holes to allow LaMichael James and the rest of the running backs to get into open space. Against elite defenses, that did not happen. jcgoducks had a great piece on how LaMichael James deserves a lot of credit for the Ducks' success last season. Similarly, Darron Thomas deserves a lot of praise for his ability to stand in the pocket and take hits all season long.
I don't want this to seem like I'm nothing but critical of last year's line. As I said in the beginning, they paved the way for 280 yards per game. They had many strengths, but they also had weaknesses, and good defensive lines were able to exploit that.
Where does this leave us for 2011? For better or worse, I think it will be more of the same. We shouhld have a very good offensive line, but we may be a couple years away from having a truly dominant line.
The Ducks return 2 1/2 starters from last years offensive line. Mark Asper, Carson York, and Darrion Weems give the Ducks enough experience so that the Ducks will not face the same type of hole they faced in 2009.
However, the Ducks must replace First Team All Pac-10 center Jordan Holmes. With fall camp underway, this has turned into a battle between Hroniss Grasu and Karrington Armstrong, though Hamani Stevens may challenge both players. While both players lack experience, either will almost definitely mean an athletic upgrade from last year. For all that Jordan Holmes did, he is not your prototypical center to lead one of the top offenses in the nation. In 2009 and 2010, the Ducks offensive attack shifted subtly from the previous years. After the departure of Max Unger, the Ducks no longer had the athleticism to run the stretch play that helped lead to the massive 2008 rushing numbers.
This year, expect the Ducks to run that play frequently. In fact, the stretch (out of an ace formation) was the only play to score a touchdown during the Spring Game. FishDuck did a great job diagramming this play (scroll down to Ace #5). In this, you can see Grasu move outside and seal the edge for LaMichael. This is simply not something that the Ducks were able to do the last two years.
The other position the Ducks must fill is the guard, and that is currently being held by Ramsen Golpashin, and I'll be honest, the thought of a former walk-on starting against LSU does not make me thrilled.
Overall, for 2011, I expect more of the same from the Oregon offensive line. With Steve Greatwood in charge, the Ducks will always be in great shape. They should be more athletic along the line, which could pay some great dividends as the year continues.
Will the Ducks be able to handle elite defensive lines? By the end of the year, that's a real possibility. They will be a more athletic line, and that should help them open even more holes for Oregon's running backs. Unfortunately, they open the game against a very talented LSU line, which will be their toughest test of the regular season. Oregon's line will not be dominant in that game, but they can give Darron Thomas and LaMichael James a chance to succeed. But there's nothing like getting thrown into the fire early. We should know fairly quickly just how good this offensive line can be.