For the first time in four seasons, Oregon football will be kicking off their spring football schedule under the guidance of a new head coach and a handful of new assistants. With the onset of spring practices April 2, former Oregon offensive coordinator and first year head coach Mark Helfrich will usher in a new era of Duck football; one he and the Oregon faithful hope is a continuation of what former head coach Chip Kelly helped establish and build, rather than a reconstruction of a fledgling college football powerhouse. As only a handful of days remain until a new chapter of Oregon football is set to begin, DuckTerritory takes a close look at the top storylines and questions entering the upcoming spring.
Who provides help for Lokombo and the Ducks at linebacker in 2013?
Under Helfrich, what – if any – significant changes will there be to Oregon's practice routine and schedule?
Considering the tremendous success Oregon has enjoyed over the past several seasons under Kelly, it's fairly safe to assume that Helfrich will continue many of the practice principles which have become hallmarks of the Oregon football program. A heavy emphasis on tempo, competition, and the "Win The Day" mentality are expected to pervade spring drills this April just as they did under Kelly's watch, but is the message conveyed any differently under Helfrich compared to Kelly? Though members of the media and general public have been literally barred from Oregon practices for over a year, in years past, Kelly's physical voice and way of instructing was ever present. Under Helfrich, do practices lack a palpable sense of intensity, or does the tenor more or less remain the same? Furthermore, how do first year assistants Matt Lubick (wide receivers) and Ron Aiken (defensive line) adjust to Oregon's unique practice routine?
Who claims the backup quarterback position behind Marcus Mariota?
When it comes to starting quarterbacks, it can be argued that no team in the country is in a better position entering 2013 than the Oregon Ducks. With sophomore-to-be Marcus Mariota set to begin his second full season as the Ducks' starting quarterback following a freshman debut for the ages, the question of who emerges as Mariota's backup takes center stage. Vying for the opportunity to be Mariota's immediate replacement are redshirt freshmen Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie; two highly regarded NorCal prospects who each bring something a little different to the table. In Rodrigues, the Ducks have the kind of strong-armed, mobile passer that has flourished in Oregon's version of the spread in the past. In Lockie, Oregon sacrifices overwhelming physical gifts for a player who entered the program with a reputation for quality decision-making and an accurate arm. The early advantage may go to Rodrigues, however competition will be wide open in April as this spring will mark the first true opportunity for both quarterbacks to compete head-to-head with plenty at stake.
Are there any defections from the tight end position to the defensive side of the ball?
After a successful transition from tight end to "drop" end early in his Oregon career, Dion Jordan will fairly or unfairly be the benchmark for which all players transitioning from tight end to defense will be measured by. Depth at tight end has rarely been an issue for the Ducks, as seemingly year after year, Oregon has stockpiled some of their best overall athletes at that position. However, with junior-to-be Colt Lyerla in firm control of the starting tight end position going in to next season, there are limited opportunities for promising young players such as Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis, and T.J. Daniel to make an offensive impact. Add in the the fact the Ducks will be welcoming incoming freshman Johnny Mundt to the position in August, and it seems almost certain that at least one player at tight end will be moved to defense. Brown, Baylis, and Daniel each have impressive defensive backgrounds dating back to high school and all three would appear to be the frontrunners to make a potential switch.
How much stress will be on the offensive line this spring?
With only nine scholarship offensive linemen expected to be healthy and available on April 2 (excluding Mana Greig), the Ducks could experience some inconsistency and depth issues in the trenches throughout spring drills. Fortunately for Oregon, their numbers should improve drastically come fall camp as Greig figures to be at or near 100 percent and the Ducks receive a depth boost from incoming freshmen Cameron Hunt, Jake Pisarcik, Elijah George, Doug Brenner, and Evan Voeller. However, this spring could be trial by fire for a group that returns experience in Hroniss Grasu, Tyler Johnstone, and Jake Fisher, but loses veteran leadership in Nick Cody, Ryan Clanton, Kyle Long, and Carson York. How successful Oregon is in navigating practices this spring could foreshadow what lies ahead for this unit in the fall.
Who fills the voids at linebacker left by Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso?
Perhaps more so than any position on the Oregon roster, a significant air of uncertainty exists at linebacker where the Ducks will look to replace departed senior stalwarts Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. The Ducks are in luck as senior-to-be Bo Lokombo returns to provide this unit with unparalleled athleticism, playmaking ability, and experience, but outside of him, who can Oregon linebackers coach Don Pellum rely upon next season? Sophomore-to-be Tyson Coleman and junior-to-be Derrick Malone appear to be stars in the making, though both will be stepping in to the largest roles to this point in their football careers. Rodney Hardrick, Rahim Cassell, and Brett Bafaro are promising players who have provided depth in past seasons, yet all three possess a considerable lack of in-game experience. Additionally, the Ducks will be breaking in JUCO transfer Joe Walker; the only player from Oregon's 2013 recruiting class that will be available this spring and the one individual with any sort of extensive time playing the MIKE linebacker position last season.
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