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The Gekko File: P12 North #1 - Oregon

Shocking prediction. Only from the Gekko Files.

De'Anthony Thomas is the star, and the biggest question mark, of the new look Oregon Ducks.
De'Anthony Thomas is the star, and the biggest question mark, of the new look Oregon Ducks.
Harry How

Skinner's Mudhole, a.k.a. Eugene, Oregon. Never has there been a hive comprised of such scum and villainy, at least not in this galaxy.

But things are changing in the ol' Mudhole. The legend of Mr. Skinner, which long ago had to make room for Phil Knight and his plan to create the best college team that corporate funds can buy, once again must cede a little space to another ego ... errr ... legacy. The departure of Chip Kelly, after an epic six year run in the Mudhole (four of which were as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks), has left behind a new legacy that sets a high bar for all who will follow. That legacy includes such honorable traits like deception, intransigence, largesse and contemptuousness. All the good stuff that we've come to appreciate from Man-Boobs Kelly.

Unfortunately, that legacy also includes some other things. It includes speed. Warp speed. It includes innovation on the field and in practice. It includes a philosophy of modernization and no holds barred recruiting. It includes hype and marketing. It includes something called "win the day," which, in reality, means "win lots of days".

The legacy of Chip Kelly, as brief as it was, will go down as the greatest stretch of Oregon Duck football no matter what new coach, Mark Helfrich, and his staff can do to build upon it. This is unquestionable. The question is whether or not this new regime can take advantage of the congruence of factors that are laying down in front of this football team in 2013 and make that definitive run towards a National Championship.

Time to open the Gekko File on the Oregon Ducks.

The Gekko Files Accountability: What I Said in 2012:

Like everybody else, I had high expectations for the 2012 version of the Ducks. Here is some of what I said:

Setting aside the snarkiness that often comes out when I discuss the Ducks, we have to give the coaching staff a great deal of credit...

... I know that USC is the media darling in the PAC 12 for 2012... That said, I think Oregon is the best team in the PAC 12 this year and I think there is a very good chance that they run the table in the regular season...

...Regardless of NCAA sanctions, I think Chip Kelly is going to make a break for the NFL... Mark Helfrich has said that he wants to be a Head Coach, and someone is going to make him one. Guys like OL coach Steve Greatwood and WR coach Scott Frost are going to get coordinator positions...

...So, this is the big one for the Ducks. The "perfect storm" (I hate that cliched term) for them where they have the talent, the character (mostly), the staff, the system and the schedule to make their signature run. Let's see if they can do it.

The Ducks had a tremedous season, but they couldn't quite do it in Chip's last hurrah. But for a missed FG against Stanford, the Ducks would have run the table. Alas, it was not to be.

2012 Review

2012 started out with a little drama of the coaching variety as Chip Kelly, whose team was still under the dark clouds of a multifaceted NCAA investigation into possible recruiting transgressions, had a very well documented flirtation with the NFL. The near miss with the Tampa Bay Bucs gave the fans a lot to digest and spurred a great deal of consternation. Despite the fact that, by and large, the Ducks had had as clean an offseason as any under the Kelly regime, the Ducks couldn't seem to avoid the offseason drama that seems to engulf them on an annual basis.

Of course, it is all irrelevant to what happens on the field. That is where the Ducks shine and 2012 was not expected to be different. The Ducks entered the season with much of the same roster they had rolled out in 2011, in particular on defense. The introduction of a new QB, a competition won handily by RS Fr Marcus Mariota, and the ascendance of Kenjon Barner to "feature back" were the two big changes, but few people expected the Duck offense to miss a beat. They were right.

The Ducks, who annually try to ensure that they have one of the easiest schedules in the nation without making it look obvious that they have one of the easiest schedules in the nation, kicked off their season by scoring 162 points in three games against the likes of Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Those three games raised more questions than they answered, however, because of how well these inferior teams were able to move the ball on the Oregon defense. While one always has to account for the fact that the Oregon D faces more plays against than the typical college football D (the proliferation of up tempo offenses is starting to nullify this qualifier), the Ducks surrendered nearly 25 points per game to inferior competition. Critics wondered how they would hold up against the eminently more dangerous offenses in the P12. Turns out the Ducks were toying with us.

The opening game of the P12 schedule was of the statement variety. The Ducks went on the road to take on an Arizona team that had opened hot and was ranked #22 in the nation. The Wildcats, who had been averaging over 40 points a game up to that point, were able to move the ball, getting into the red zone six different times. But the bend-but-don't break Ducks did what they would do throughout the entirety of the season: force turnovers. The end result was a 49-0 shutout of Rich Rod's team - the first shutout by the Ducks of a P12 opponent since 2003. Everything would fall into place for the Ducks from that point forward.

Kelly's team started rolling through their early P12 schedule with basically no competition and ripped off win after win. Mariota settled in nicely as the starting QB, showing an adept ability to make good decisions and effectiveness as a runner. Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas picked up all the slack from the departed LaMichael James and provided the foundation for the high octane offense that we've all come to know and love coming out of Eugene. Not even a mid-season injury to OL Carson York could slow this train down.

The first real challenge didn't come until their November matchup with the Trojans. USC, which at this point had slid to the bottom of the top 25 rankings, hosted the Ducks in a game that will go down as one of the hottest barn burners in the history of the conference. The Trojans came out on fire, hitting on just about every play that they dialed up. All told, the Trojans would convert 31 first downs, rack up 615 yards (485 in the air), and score 51 points in a defining game for Matt Barkley, Marqise Lee and the USC offense. The problem was that Oregon was just a little better. Taking advantage of an epic day from Barner (38 carries, 321 yards, 5 TDs) and 3 USC turnovers, the Ducks racked up 730 yards and scored 62 points of their own on their way to a signature win for Kelly.

Getting the equivalent of a BYE week, the Ducks dispatched an overmatched Cal team before hosting Stanford in their second to last regular season game of the season. Sensing an opportunity to further cement their case for a trip to the National Championship, the Ducks came into the game both hopeful and determined. But it was not to be. While the Ducks were able to generate three turnovers - the secret to their defensive success all season - Mariota was flustered and confused by that Stanford defense all game. Mariota, who heretofore had not really been challenged by an effective defense, was unable to generate an effective passing attack against a Stanford D that was 100% committed to taking Barner (21 carries, 66 yards) out of the game. Still, the three turnovers generated assured the Ducks of a chance to win late in the game. Kicker Alejandro Maldanado failed to convert a 42 yard FG giving the Cardinal a chance to push the game into overtime. Maldanado would again miss in the Ducks first OT possession creating an easy opportunity for Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal to steal a win.

The season concluded with the Ducks getting an easy win over OSU in the Civil War and a BCS trip to the Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks sleepwalked through their matchup with Kansas State. Mariota again struggled against a good defense and the Ducks were only able to generate 385 total yards of offense - scant by their standards. But a De'Anthony Thomas kickoff for a TD in the first quarter and 3 more turnovers generated were all the Ducks needed to end the season with a victory. You know how the rest of the story went as the Ducks graduated some key pieces and Chip Kelly, after an odd feigned commitment to return to Oregon, decided to punch his NFL ticket and move to Philadelphia. Duck fans took it all in stride - hopeful based on the talent still present but wondering if dusk was beginning to settle on the golden age of Oregon football.

2012 Recap - UW @ Oregon

This one wasn't much of a game. The Huskies, who entered this one in the midst of a gauntlet that included LSU, USC and Stanford, were still reeling from the injuries to four of their five starting offensive linemen and a sputtering offense. They also sported a defense that, while showing definite progress, was still making tons of mistakes reflective of their overall youth. We got the wrong team at the wrong time in the wrong place in a game that was over in the first quarter.

The Ducks came into the evening with a game-plan that emphasized pressuring Keith Price and taking Austin Seferian-Jenkins out of the game. After a few early-game jitters, the Ducks got on track pretty quickly, scoring two early TDs, one of which was on an odd pass play in which Keanon Lowe was unaccounted for and completely uncovered. A Price pick six returned by Duck Safety Avery Patterson led the Ducks to a 35 point first half and an easy 52-21 victory over the Huskies, their ninth straight in the series. It was a statement game for the Huskies - but not the kind of statement that we were hoping for. Sark's crew showed that they were still completely inadequate offensively and that the improving defense still lacked the discipline and experience to hang with the better spread offenses in the Pac 12.

2013 Preview

Former Duck Offensive Coordinator, Mark Helfrich, takes over a Duck team that still harbors National Championship aspirations. While nobody will argue that the loss of Chip Kelly is insignificant, the locals believe that the fundamental talent of the roster, the experience of players making up the two deeps and the continuity among the coaching staff that has transitioned with Helfrich all equate to a team that should be better in 2013 than it was a year ago.

These lofty ambitions are built upon the shoulders of Soph QB Marcus Mariota. Mariota is a true Heisman candidate and one of the most dangerous QBs in the nation. While Duck fans will brag that Mariota "can do it all", the truth is that Marcus's game is built on his good decision making and his stellar playmaking abilities. Blessed with great size and outstanding speed, Mariota is the perfect maestro for the Oregon offense. He has the ability to hit the open receiver with accuracy and he can run away from pursuing defenders as a carrier. Not blessed with the strongest of arms, Mariota is a "first-read" kind of QB who either dumps or runs if his first option isn't available. In his second year as a starter, Mariota will be looking to develop his ability to follow progressions out beyond the first option and to demonstrate that he can perform at a higher level against better competition. Given his weapons and protection, there isn't much reason to believe he won't continue to grow in these regards.

The offensive line for the Ducks is another strength. While they have always emphasized athleticism over size, the Ducks keep getting bigger and more skilled along the line. This unit is relatively well recruited and, while they are tasked with replacing both their guards, including stud Kyle Long, they do return both starting tackles and Rimington Award candidate Hroniss Grasu at C. Grasu is key as he has been a starter since his freshman year and he is the leader of the line.

The skill positions are well stocked with talent, but in a state of transition in terms of experience. The loss of Barner and his career 3700 yards / 41 TDs is more meaningful than the loss of LaMichael James before him due to the lack of a true heir apparent. The diminutive De'Anthony Thomas, the most dangerous player in all of college football, will be part of the solution in the running game, but is unlikely to carry the entire load as he is more effective in a "slash" type of role (DAT is probably Oregon's best receiver, as well). Running back depth will be shared between DAT, Byron Marshall and super recruit Thomas Tyner. While the running back depth isn't as vast as it historically has been, Duck fans are excited about the emergence of new depth among the receivers. Still a relatively small group, there is a great deal of speed and skill across the unit. The speedy Sr WR Josh Huff is their leading playmaker. Veterans Daryle Hawkins and Keanon Lowe are reliable options who block well and are holding down the fort while younger, brighter talents like Bralon Addison and B.J. Kelley figure out how to break into more prominent roles. Kelley, in particular, is a player to watch this year given his length and his elite speed. The TE position is also a strength with the versatile Colt Lyerla pushing our own ASJ as the top tight end in the conference. Pharaoh Brown as an interesting talent that Duck fans are eager to see get some time on the field.

It remains to be seen how Helfrich will change the offense. While many insiders argue that Helfrich was integral in the planning of the offense, he never called plays for Chip Kelly and, let's face it, he is his own person. His background as a passing game guru at both ASU and then Boise State hint that there could be more balance. The emergence of Mariota as a weapon and the evolution of a receiving unit that may have more talent as pass catchers than run blockers (a hallmark under Kelly) could well substantiate such a move. Regardless, this is a potent offense that is solid in every facet and should be expected to again finish among the top 5 in the nation.

The Duck defense is a different story. Always "better than their numbers," the Ducks have built a defensive philosophy that puts long, athletic players into positions to make plays and create turnovers. That philosophy stays intact under defensive coordinator Nick Alliotti, but will feature a new group of playmakers this year. Whereas last year's squad emphasized their linebacking talent, this year's team is all about their secondary. In fact, the Ducks may boast the deepest, most dangerous secondary in the nation. There was no bigger playmaker in all of college football than Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in 2012. While not really a top "cover" guy, Ifo proved to be an elite ball-hawk on his way to forcing six fumbles and intercepting four passes. His partner, Jr. CB Terrance Mitchell, is a more traditional cover corner and a great complementary piece. The safety rotation is made up of Eric Dargan, Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson. Each of them possess great speed and are aggressive risk-takers. The entire two-deep of the Ducks secondary is comprised of juniors and seniors making it, easily, the most dangerous level of its defense.

The front seven also boasts a ton of talent, but has to replace key playmakers in Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. It isn't exactly clear who will step up in this regard, but there are tons of players to choose from. The line boasts NFL talent in guys like Arik Armstead, Ricky Heimuli, DeForest Buckner and Christian French. The problem is that all of this talent is still in the "potential" phase. While each of these players have seen field time, none have flourished. Heimuli, in particular, has been somewhat underwhelming relative to his hype and needs to take that next step as he goes into his senior season. Still, with Armstead just now blossoming and young players coming in, the line is a big strength. This is important because the linebacking unit is a significant question mark. The only returning starter there is the athletic but somewhat one-dimensinonal Boseko Lokombo. Soph Tyson Coleman, a smallish middle linebacker, Derrick Malone, Rahim Cassell and RS freshman Brett Bafaro will all get chances to contribute in 2013. The bottom line here is that the Oregon defense will be as it has been - a unit that will give up yardage but will also create pressure and turnovers. While not as robust as last year, I wouldn't bet against Oregon establishing a top of the conference type of defense in the season ahead.

I don't usually comment much on special teams, but I can't help but to note that Alejandro Maldonado is back as Oregon's placekicker this year. Maldonado only attempted six FGs a year ago, hitting just three. Of course, Chip Kelly rarely eschewed opportunities to convert fourth downs, so there isn't much opportunity for Oregon kickers. Still, Maldonado has not developed into a good kicker - a factor that may still decide a game or two for the Ducks in the year ahead.

2013 Forecast

Oregon is a clear contender for the National Championship. Their team is deep, talented, experienced and healthy. The system is well-established and the coaching staff is experienced in executing it. While there is some transition occurring at running back and linebacker, not to mention some questions as to when the defensive line will eventually come completely together, there are no clear "red flags" with this team ... except for ... one ... small ... thing.

That thing? Chip Kelly.

The resignation of Chip Kelly and the installment of Mark Helfrich creates a ripple affect at the top of the Oregon org chart at the exact same time so many other Pac 12 teams are beginning to show signs of taking the proverbial next step. Nobody knows exactly how that will all play out, but something has to change. No matter what you thought of Chip Kelly, you can't deny his brilliance as a coach or as a playcaller. Is it really possible that his absence will not result in some kind of deterioration in the foundation of his team? Not likely. His role was so big, that it had to be split in two with Helfrich providing the general management and Scott Frost providing the playcalling. What other ripple effects come from that? Mariota loses his QB coach - is that a challenge? We all saw what happened to Keith Price in just such a situation. What about the wide receivers who were coached by Frost and taught to block so tenaciously. Any impact there? All of this is to hard to forecast, but it isn't hard to estimate that Chip, by himself, was worth one or two wins per year through the combination of his presence, his preparation and his playcalling. The question is whether or not the Ducks' underlying talent can compensate to cover the gap he leaves behind.

The good news, beyond the presence of that talent, is that Oregon's schedule couldn't be more perfectly laid out for a championship run in a transition year. A warm-up against Nicholls State and road/home games against ACC and SEC doormats, Virginia and Tennessee, assure that Oregon will open the season 3-0 while providing excellent developmental opportunities for their new running back and linebacking units. Their P12 schedule features five home games and misses against USC (who I forecasted as the top team in the South) and Arizona State (who I forecasted as the #2 team in the South). The Stanford game will be a pick 'em kind of affair in Palo Alto while the trip to the new Husky stadium presents itself as the only "upset alert" type of game anywhere on Oregon's schedule.

While I don't see Oregon running the table, there is little doubt that this is another BCS type of season for the Ducks. They have the talent and the schedule to make a serious run at the championship and they should handily win the Pac 12 North in what amounts to an 11-win type of regular season.