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Spring football 25: Oregon Ducks

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Dr. Saturday

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Western Kentucky.

OREGON

What happened in 2012
Oregon is another team with an offseason of what ifs.

What if Oregon had been able to get one more stop against Stanford, or Stanford tight end Zach Ertz hadn't been ruled in bounds on his game-tying touchdown, or if De'Anthony Thomas had picked up a downfield block much earlier that night? Could Oregon, with its fast-break offense, stud freshman quarterback and very underrated defense have beaten Alabama in the BCS Championship Game had it just gotten past Stanford? Nobody knows for sure, but it would have been a lot of fun to find out.

Instead, Oregon had a great season that also happened to have one loss, which meant it didn't even win the outright Pac-12 North Division title, much less a national title. After it destroyed Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, and Notre Dame got blown out by Alabama, it was clear we all missed out on what might have been an epic championship fight. And Oregon had missed out on a great chance at a historic season.

Then the offseason came, and coach Chip Kelly left for the NFL.

What makes them interesting in 2013

Nobody can say Kelly was the only reason Oregon is now one of the top programs in college football. It all worked in tandem. His offensive genius helped Oregon get solid footing, and the wins (along with great facilities and a lot of Nike influence) brought in the recruits. The Ducks have phenomenal talent on the roster. Kelly was a great college coach, but he also had a lot of great players to run his schemes.

But nobody knows yet know much Kelly's departure will mean, which is why this Ducks team will be so intriguing to follow this season. Mark Helfrich is the new coach. He had been Oregon's offensive coordinator since 2009. Instead of trying to lure a big-name outsider like Boise State's Chris Petersen, which would have been very possible given the facilities, talent on hand and the significant amount of cash available, Oregon went with continuity. It's a risk, but it makes a lot of sense.

This Ducks team, for as great as it was last year, didn't lose a crippling amount of stars. Sure, fantastic players like defensive end/outside linebacker Dion Jordan, linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso and running back Kenjon Barner are gone, but every college team loses some talent. A good part of Oregon's squad returns. Now we'll see how much the Ducks' coach meant to the success.

What needs to happen this spring
Along with Helfrich and staff implementing whatever changes they will make, and some fine-tuning of the roster that will include finding a backup quarterback, a couple of offensive guards and some linebackers that can rack up tackles, one concern might be running back.

[Also: David Shaw building Stanford into a perennial power]

Oregon's ability to find runners seems like a foregone conclusion after Barner became one of the nation's top rushers after replacing LaMichael James. And maybe Byron Marshall will be the next great Ducks back.

De'Anthony Thomas is in a different class. He's one of the most exciting players in college football. But he also is small and has just 147 carries in two years. Maybe he can be a workhorse, but that might also wear him down. And the Ducks don't want that from their world-class speedster. Marshall seems to fit the mold of a No. 1 back better, but he has just 87 carries last year as a freshman on his resume. There's not much other proven experience at tailback on the roster, although five-star recruit Thomas Tyner could immediately help in the fall. This spring, however, the Ducks need to find which tailbacks are ready to run in their vaunted system.

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Gamechangers
Many people liked to point out that Marcus Mariota's numbers last year as a freshman weren't that far off what Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel did for Texas A&M. Mariota threw for 2,677 yards, completing 68.5 percent of his passes, for 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns. That's not quite Manziel, but it's a staggering season for a freshman.

There's no reason Mariota can't replicate that success. The Ducks return almost every key receiver, and they have a ton of talent to catch the ball. The running game should be fine. Both starting tackles and the starting center return to the line. The offense will be great again. If Mariota improves as a sophomore, the Ducks might get a spot in the BCS title game this year.

Wild cards
The defense was very good for Oregon last year. While the loss to Stanford stung, remember that the Cardinal – which eventually won the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl – was stuck on seven points and had trouble consistently moving the ball before their game-tying fourth-quarter drive. Then the Ducks shut down Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. The attention for Oregon goes to the offense, but the defense is improving rapidly. This year will test if the defense can keep that momentum going.

Losing top two tacklers Clay and Alonso and play-making Jordan won't help. But a lot of freshmen played on the line last year because of injuries, and that should pay off this year. The secondary has a lot of talent coming back. If the Ducks can find some linebackers, the defense should be fine.

Key games
Sept. 14 vs. Tennessee
Oct. 26 vs. UCLA
Nov. 7 at Stanford
Nov. 23 at Arizona
Nov. 29 vs. Oregon State

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri , Tulsa, Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Louisville, Northern Illinois, USC, Florida State, Kansas State, Texas Tech.

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