Players leaving Oregon early for the NFL is always something that triggers mixed emotions inside the fan in me. One one hand, I am absolutely thrilled for their individual success, and their ability to make a living playing the game. The more irrational fan side of me screams "How can you leave? What are we going to do at [insert position here]?
Obviously, the quarterback is the lifeblood of any football team, so the news that Marcus Mariota (along with center Hroniss Grasu) would return next season was a huge relief to Oregon fans. Mariota is a generational talent. While we don't know enough about Jeff Lockie or Jake Rodrigues to say that they won't make great starting quarterbacks here, it's a really nice thing to know that an already great one will be back.
Mariota's return swings the focus of the fanbase to other players who are thinking of leaving early. Much focus has swung to De'Anthony Thomas, being the biggest name on the team outside of Mariota. While my preference as a Duck fan would be for Thomas to stay, I don't think that's a terribly likely outcome, and I don't think that his return will singularly have a huge impact on next year's team. While losing Thomas and Josh Huff, a 1,000 yard receiver this season who will be lost to graduation, are a big deal, the Ducks are in great position to absord those losses--with Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe at WR and Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner at RB. Returning those guys along with all of the difference makers on the line and Mariota should mean an exposive offense next season.
The defense isn't as sure a thing, and that squad looks to be absolutely decimated. Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli, and Wade Keliikipi all exhaust their eligibility, sapping Oregon of the bulk of their beef up front. Boseko Lokombo graduates at linebacker. And both starting safeties--Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson--will have finished their Oregon careers at the conclusion of the Alamo Bowl.
Replacing an entire starting secondary in one year is not an enviable task, even when you have relatively experienced players waiting in the wings. So the idea that Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu could bolt the Ducks not at all comforting.
"I really just want to make sure that I'm just ready to leave," Ekpre-Olomu said after practice today, the Ducks' last before beginning serious Alamo Bowl preparations Tuesday, following a day off Monday.
"That's going to be the main thing for me. I'm still young, and it's going to be difficult, I think, for me being 20 years old, getting ready to play in the NFL."
Ekpre-Olomu cited "the college experience" as a primary reason to return for his senior season, and said he doesn't feel pressure to leave for the sake of his family's finances. He's eagerly awaiting word from the NFL's draft evaluation board on where they think he'll be selected, which should come any day now.
A very diplomatic answer.
Mitchell said Sunday that he also is contemplating an early entry into the 2014 NFL draft and will make a decision after the bowl game.
I trust Troy Hill and Dior Mathis, the presumable starters if Ifo and Mitchell leave, to be starting cornerbacks in this league--it's just that I trust Ifo and Mitchell more. But the more important factor may just be having some veteran consistency--there will be a lot of necessary changes defensively due to graduation, and having those two as rocks to anchor the defense on would be absolutely huge. So while I hope De'Anthony comes back, my focus is elsewhere.
Of course, as Hill and Mathis are also seniors next season, along with next year's presumed starter at safety in Erick Dargan, we could just find ourselves in a similar situation next season.
So tell us, Duck fans, where are these guys going next season?