The University of Oregon football program, especially their offense, is facing a rather unknown opponent this season in the form harsh criticism. For the first time in recent memory, the Oregon Ducks offense is no longer the toast of the Pac-12, as they play the unfamiliar role of underdog heading into the 2016 campaign.
Where there is smoke, usually comes fire and that is no different when a perennial powerhouse in college football has a down season. For the 2016 college football season, there are a number of Pac-12 programs ready to pounce at the opportunity to knock No. 22 Oregon off their dominant pedestal.
To get past the mighty Ducks and new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick, one must first slow down their offense or you might as well just leave your helmets in the tunnel on the way out to the field. However, Oregon’s well-oiled machine is in much question entering the season following a disappointing 9-win season (for Duck standards), now two years removed from the departure of Marcus Mariota for the Tennessee Titans.
Oregon’s success will hinge on the quarterback position, as it has done in the past with the likes of the aforementioned Mariota, Dennis Dixon, Joey Harrington and a host of others all the way to former San Diego Charger Dan Fouts in the early 1970’s.
The quarterback position this year is slightly different than years previous with no clear cut choice to be the Duck signal caller. Early indications from Eugene are hinting toward Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen has an outside chance of stealing the job after turf toe derailed his freshman year.
Prukop was the real deal run/pass threat at Montana State, but that was the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision of the Big Sky Conference. That is not to take anything away from the athletic quarterback because he reminds some people of North Dakota State University superstar alum, Carson Wentz. Prukop may not end up being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 National Football League draft, but he could suffice for Oregon’s high tempo offense this season.
Running back has long been the staple of the Oregon Ducks football legacy and 2016 will be no different. The Ducks return four running backs, including All-American candidate Royce Freeman. The California native has the strength of former Oregon workhorse LeGarrette Blount, alongside the speed and elusiveness of a smaller back.
Freeman will look to build off his incredible record-breaking 2015 season that saw him rush for a school record 1,836 yards on 283 carries. The tank also recorded 383 receiving yards, placing him over 2,000 total yards for the season including 19 total touchdowns.
Amidst his impressive two-year Duck career, Freeman has already amassed 3,700 total yards with an insane 39 touchdowns. 2016 may be Freeman’s Heisman Trophy swan song before he ventures off toward his NFL career.
Oregon’s receivers have the misfortune of losing their top threat from last season in the form of Bralon Addison. Nevertheless, wide receiver strength has never been a problem for the quack attack. Head coach Mark Helfrich loves having a plethora of receivers, anywhere from six to eight, that will all see playing time. This season will see much of the same as the Ducks return Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford and Charles Nelson.
The trifecta of wide receivers will be led by Carrington who ranked second on the team in receiving yards (609) and touchdowns (6) in 2016, alongside leading the Ducks in yards per reception with an astonishing 19.0 per grab.
Oregon has long been known to have “track stars” at the receiver position, thus every defensive secondary in the Pac-12 is continually at their mercy. Yet, there is not enough credit given to these downfield blockers who justify mass amounts of long runs from Duck running backs. If this group stays healthy and evolves as the season wears on, watch out.
Returning to the fold of the receiving nightmare for opposing defense’s this season is tight end Pharaoh Brown. The 6-foot, 6-inch pass-catcher quite possibly could already be the best overall tight end in the Pac-12, but was sidelined by injury in 2015. Brown has eight career touchdowns, including six during his sophomore season that saw him catch 25 balls for 420 yards.
The skilled tight end may replace Addison as the possession receiver in the Oregon offense. Alongside his run blocking skills, Brown will be the x-factor of the 2016 Oregon Ducks offense. If he remains healthy, the Ducks could soar, literally.
And finally, we conclude our offensive preview with consistently the backbone of the Ducks’ offense, their offensive line. Over the last decade, Oregon has become a breeding ground for NFL offensive linemen. After the loss of three seniors from 2016, the Oregon line begins this year on the strength of two veterans, Cameron Hunt (senior) and Tyrell Crosby (junior). Yet, that still leaves three open spots to be filled with inexperience.
Junior Jake Hanson emerged as the starting center entering spring practices, alongside fellow classmates Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux. Helfrich will assuredly have his hands full with this new group, yet the coach and his staff believe they have the right pieces in place. The question now is how long will it take to gel? Sooner rather than later is the assumption around Autzen Stadium.
Entering the 2016 NCAA football season, the Pac-12 has six teams circling the AP Top 25 like a school of sharks. However, when the Ducks are on the pond, no team in the west is feared more.
One month from now, the entire nation will have an opportunity to see why Oregon is so optimistically hopeful about 2016. Don’t get lost in Palo Alto, California or the state of Washington on your way to the Pac-12 Championship Game in early December.