Yesterday marked the first official practice session of the Mark Helfrich era in Eugene and with it the beginning of some key position battles that will play out between now and the season opener against Nicholls State, and beyond.
The position battles are slotted into three categories: "Imminent" (graduated starter from last season with all contenders on campus and participating in spring football), "Need-based" (I.E. wide receiver) where significant growth is needed, and "Incomplete" (not all key players on campus or participating in spring drills).
Backup Quarterback: Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie.
With the departure of Bryan Bennett to Southeastern Louisiana – a school embroiled in an athletic-misdeeds scandal of their own – the onus of backing up one of the premier quarterbacks in the country will fall on a redshirt-freshman. Question is, which one is best suited to handle the reins, should it be necessary (It's important to note that last season was the first in which the same quarterback started every game since the spread offense came to Eugene).
We don't know much about either quarterback's on-field performance, other than that Rodrigues continued to be hampered by his continued recovery from a gruesome leg fracture sustained in a 2011 state playoff game. My guess is that Rodrigues is the more versatile athlete, and therefore he wins out, but we won't know much until the spring game.
Drop end: Tony Washington Jr. and Christian French.
This is an imminent battle because while Torrodney Prevot may very well compete for playing time this season, he's not likely to beat out the two returning drop ends to fill the shoes of Dion Jordan. Washington should have a comfortable lead on French coming in to spring camp, and it's hard to see anyone else starting at drop end. French could be a factor in obvious passing situations though, and don't forget about Prevot. Needless to say, there are options here for Helfrich and Nick Allioti to test-drive throughout the next six months.
Linebacker: Rodney Hardrick, Joe Walker, Derrick Malone, Tyson Coleman.
The loss of Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso to the NFL will arguably be the most difficult hole to fill for the Ducks going into the 2013 season, as both were not only statistical leaders on the field, but emotional leaders off of it. In terms of tangible performance, redshirt-sophomore Tyson Coleman should have a leg up on the rest of the competition
The wild card here is newly-minted JUCO-signee Joe Walker. He comes in with rave reviews and the stats to back it up, and Hardrick and Malone haven't seen a ton of playing time thus far. Frankly, I'm a big fan of Malone's and think he can be a quality Pac-12 linebacker, but it's a position where one can never have too many.
Wide Receiver: Daryle Hawkins, Dwayne Stanford, Bralon Addison, Darren Carrington, etc.
Yes, the Ducks have Josh Huff back for his senior season after two semi-breakout campaigns marred by injury. One receiver does not a corps make, however, and the Ducks need someone to step up as a viable, consistent threat opposite Huff. Sure, guys have had big games from time to time, and the production from tight-end-mack-truck-internet-lighting-rod Colt Lyerla should be at its peak, but Oregon is in desperate need of a true vertical threat.
Honestly, it'd be foolish to predict which players have the inside track at stepping up or breaking out because a lot of guys have the potential and/or ability to do so. Aside from those mentioned above, B.J. Kelley could be another one who sees an increased roll as could Chance Allen, the latter having received rave reviews while on the practice squad last season. If Oregon is to sustain its recent success and possibly throw the ball more than in previous seasons, a vertical threat would go a long ways towards making that happen.
Nickel corner: Dior Mathis, Troy Hill, the Amoako brothers, Reggie Daniels
I see this as need-based for two reasons. One: With more Pac-12 teams adopting the spread offense or another offense with a significant vertical passing component, it's imperative that a defense have more than two starting-caliber defensive backs out wide. Two: Injuries happen, and while Mathis and Hill spent significant portions of last season banged up, standouts Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu stayed reasonably healthy. Not that I'm a cynic, but it's hard to stay out of a boot two years in a row while playing football.
This will be a fun portion of the depth chart to watch play out over the spring and fall practice schedule, because there are a lot of unknowns. The Amoako twins both redshirted last season along with Daniels – another scout team all-star – and while the latter projects as a safety, it's early in his career and he's someone who may force the hand of the coaching staff in terms of finding him a role on the field.
Running back: Byron Marshall, De'Anthony Thomas, Thomas Tyner, Kani Benoit, Aylele Forde, Bralon Addison (?)
While Marshall, Thomas, and Forde will be around this spring and suit up in three weeks at Auzten Stadium, the absence of Tyner makes this an incomplete battle. While Marshall is likely to be the primary "running back" when Oregon starts the season, Tyner and Thomas both figure to see significant time in the backfield, with Benoit likely to redshirt.
I included Addison on the back end of this list because I have a sneaking suspicion that because of his smaller size and quickness, there might be a package or two tucked in the playbook with him in the backfield or swinging around in motion. Call it a hunch, but there are always a couple unexpected wrinkles in the Oregon offense each season, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if this was one of them.