EUGENE OR - SEPTEMBER 04: Running back Kenjon Barner #24 of the Oregon Ducks relaxes on the sidelines in the third quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on September 4 2010 in Eugene Oregon. Barner had 225 total yards and 5 touchdowns as Oregon won the game 72-0. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
I tend to think to think about the debut of the Oregon offense to the release of a new Apple product. Both come with a considerable amount of hype, both tend to have some glitches shortly after release, and both prove to ultimately be sleeker and more efficient than the version that preceded it. The 2011 version was the best offense of the Chip Kelly era, even better than the 2010 team that made the NC game; they scored more points, averaged more yards per play, and scored more consistently in the red zone. But those two offenses revolved around LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, who are both gone to pursue pro careers. So 2012 figures to be a whole new frontier for the Ducks.
Marcus Mariota may be taking the snaps, but this offense starts with Kenjon Barner. LMJ's second-in-command in 2010 and 2011, Barner gets the opportunity to be the feature back in this offense. Duck fans got a glimpse into the future last season when Barner filled in for an injured LaMichael James. Against Arizona State, Barner put the team on his back in the second half, after Darron Thomas left with a knee injury, and gutted out a comeback win with twenty second half carries, twelve in the fourth quarter alone. He finished the game with 31 carries for 171 yards. The next week against Colorado, Barner ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, on only nine carries. I don't have any doubt that he can carry a workload similar to LaMichael's 2009 or 2011 campaigns, around 20 carries per game, plus a catch or two. The only worry is that Barner has a concussion history; it's only a single incident, occurring against WSU in 2010, but brain injury is something that is a constant issue for athletes, and the fact that he's had one makes him susceptible to another. That being said, KJB has All-American caliber tools, and Duck fans shouldn't expect run production to drop off post-LaMike.
Barner, Mariota, and a bevy of wide receivers and tight ends will take the field Saturday and face an Arkansas St. defense that returns only four of eleven starters from the 2011 group that ranked in the top 25 in the country by many defensive metrics. Their strength lies up the middle; defensive tackles Ryan Carrethers and Amos Draper combined for 39 tackles, 6.5 for loss in 2011, and Mike linebacker Nathan Herrold was third on the team with 66 tackles. Nine starters, including every member of the front seven, is an upperclassman, and the group looks to build off a 2011 rush defense that allowed only 3 yards per carry. But old does not necessarily mean experienced. This defense returns only 7.5 of the 35 sacks the Red Wolves caused, and only three of 19 interceptions. For a group with such little game experience, facing the Oregon offense in their house is a tall order.
How does Oregon attack the Wolves? With its usual business. I don't expect to see a specifically tailored gameplan for any of the three non-conference games. This non-con slate is about one thing: discovering those glitches, and fixing them. Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins, and Keanon Lowe enter the opening game as the starting wide receivers, but their jobs are by no means safe: the play in these first three games will determine who starts the Pac-12 schedule in the starting lineup, and a number of receivers will get significant time. So Duck fans can expect to see the usual bag of tricks on Saturday: lots and lots of zone reads to both the inside and outside, a mix of short passes and occasional shots deep, and a wide range of tempi, from breakneck to slowdown. These first few games are about growth, and smoothing out the kinks before conference play begins. Consider this game Oregon's beta testing; it won't be perfect, but it'll be an exciting preview of things to come.