Team countdown: No. 4 Oregon

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

As offensive-minded as any team in college football of late, Oregon seems likely to rely more on its defense this season.

Coach Chip Kelly's version of the spread offense has been extremely productive. The Ducks are 34-6 under Kelly and have won three Pac-12 titles, including last season's. They also played in the 2010 national title game. But the early departures of QB Darron Thomas and TB LaMichael James, as well as the graduation of two starting linemen, the go-to receiver and a productive tight end, mean this season's offense could struggle.

That's where the defense comes in. The unit was quite good in 2010, but took a step backward last season, allowing 390.7 yards per game. It should be closer to the 2010 version this fall, thanks to a strong front seven.

The particulars

Last season: 12-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 (1st in Pac-12 North; beat UCLA in Pac-12 championship game)
Coach: Chip Kelly (34-6, 4th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (4) – T Nick Cody, C Hroniss Grasu, WR Josh Huff, G Carson York. Defense (6) – FS John Boyett, LB Michael Clay, T Taylor Hart, E Dion Jordan, T Wade Keliipiki, CB Terrance Mitchell. Special teams (2) – K Alejandro Maldonado, P Jackson Rice.
Fast fact: Oregon has won at least 10 games seven times since the turn of the century; those are the only 10-win seasons in school history.

Offense

The Ducks look to have solid players ready to inherit starting roles, among them TB Kenjon Barner and WR/TB De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas might be the nation's most explosive player, and it will be interesting to see how Kelly and his staff employ him this fall.

Last season, Thomas scored three times on plays covering at least 90 yards and scored 18 total touchdowns. What should be frightening to opponents: Thomas did all that as a true freshman and on just 140 touches. He scored once every eight times he touched the ball and averaged 15.96 yards per touch.

The speedy Barner will be a first-time starter. He was eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing last season (939

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Kenjon Barner has been effective as a backup, but now must do the job as a starter. (AP)

yards, with 11 TDs) as a backup to James. Barner has rushed for 1,856 yards and 20 TDs in his career, and also is a capable receiver. He had four 100-yard games last season and has six in his career.

Who will be the guy getting the ball to those two? That's a question that has yet to be answered. Sophomore Bryan Bennett was seen as the heir apparent after playing well in reserve duty last season. He is a better runner than Darron Thomas, but remains raw as a passer. Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota had a surprisingly good spring and definitely is in the hunt for the starting job. He was a proficient passer in high school in Hawaii (he's better than Bennett in that facet) and also has good speed. It wouldn't be a surprise to see both get time.

[Related: Mike Huguenin: USC QB Matt Barkley is the best player in the nation]

Junior Josh Huff should be the go-to receiver. By his own account, he had a disappointing season in 2011, finishing with 31 receptions but just two touchdowns. Huff has good speed and is effective on the fly sweep. Expect to see his receptions total in the high 40s or low 50s. Senior Rahsaan Vaughn, who had 14 receptions last season after transferring from junior college, should be the other starting receiver, though that could depend on how De'Anthony Thomas is deployed. There are no other proven receivers on the roster, so some younger players need to step up.

The Ducks also will miss TE David Paulson, who had 31 catches and six TDs last season. Sophomore Colt Lyerla, a former five-star recruit who had five TD catches (on seven total receptions) last season, is a guy to watch. He is a great athlete and has an ability to get deep.

Oregon returns three starting linemen, with senior G Carson York the bell cow up front. He has started 36 games in his career. The other returning starters are sophomore C Hroniss Grasu and senior T Nick Cody. The new starters should be senior G Nick Clanton, in his second season with the program after transferring from a junior college, and sophomore Jake Fisher at tackle.

A wild card at tackle is senior Kyle Long, a younger brother of NFL DE Chris Long and the son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long. Kyle Long signed to play baseball at Florida State out of high school in 2008, but struggled on and off the diamond. After some time off, he enrolled at Saddleback College (Calif.) and played football. Long (6 feet 7/300 pounds) has impressed teammates and coaches with his athleticism and could beat out Fisher.

Defense

Coordinator Nick Aliotti is known for his aggressive ways, and he should have fun deploying his linebackers and defensive backs in various ways this fall.

LBs Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, assuming he can stay out of the doghouse, have all-league potential. Clay had 102 tackles, two interceptions, three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. He is

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Kiko Alonso has the talent to be an all-league pick. But he must stay out of trouble. (Getty Images)

undersized (5-11/219) but is speedy and has good instincts. Alonso is a senior who has played in just 25 career games because of injuries and suspensions. He is big (6-4/246), athletic and strong, and was the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Junior Boseko Lokombo, who was born in the Congo and attended high school in Canada, should be the third starter at linebacker. He, too, is athletic and has a knack for the big play; as a reserve last season, he had 33 tackles, two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery (giving him four in his career). They have potential to easily be one of the top 10 linebacker trios in the nation. Depth looks good, too.

Up front, E Dion Jordan is coming off a 7.5-sack season and should contend for all-league honors. Ts Taylor Hart and Wade Keliipiki also are returning starters along the line; they combined for 69 stops last season. The new starter up front likely will be sophomore E Tony Washington, who played a lot as a true freshman and finished with 18 tackles. The Ducks' top recruit is E Arik Armstead, who enrolled early and went through spring ball. He will be Washington's main competition.

[Related: Mike Huguenin: For Sooners to reach goals, Landry Jones must rebound ]

Depth at tackle is excellent with senior Isaac Remington and junior Ricky Heimuli. All the talent along the line should help Oregon be tougher against the run. The Ducks surrendered 142.8 rushing yards per game last season, their worst showing against the run since 2006 and their second-worst since 1998.

While the secondary needs to replace two fulltime starters, depth was good last season and the defensive backs as a whole have a chance at being better than they were in 2011. Three freshman played ample minutes at corner last season, and should be the better for it. Senior FS John Boyett is the standout, and he will contend for all-league honors. Boyett, who will be a four-year starter, led the Ducks with 108 tackles last season, and added a pick, three pass breakups and two blocked kicks. Sophomore CB Terrance Mitchell is the other returning starter; he had 45 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups.

The new starters seem likely to be junior Brian Jackson at strong safety and sophomore Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at corner. Jackson, who played at Hoover (Ala.) High, will have to hold off junior Avery Patterson, who played extensively last season, making two starts and finishing with 55 tackles. Sophomores Troy Hill, who made six starts last season, and Dior Mathis, a sprinter on Oregon's strong track team, also should see time at corner.

Special teams

Though the Ducks didn't attempt many field goals last season and , kicker was a relative weak spot. Alejandro Maldonado was 7-of-12, with his longest conversion from 40 yards. Rob Beard, who kicked for the Ducks in 2010 but had back and quad injuries last season, seems likely to beat out Maldonado.

There are no concerns about senior P Jackson Rice, who was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award. Rice averaged 45.9 yards per attempt and was the main reason the Ducks led the nation in net punting (41.5 yards).

Thomas was an electrifying kick returner last season, averaging 27.3 yards on his 36 returns and taking two for TDs. Oregon needs a new punt returner.

The kickoff coverage was good, the punt coverage merely adequate last season.

Schedule

Unlike last season, when the Ducks opened at LSU, Oregon is easing into the schedule this fall. The first four games are at home, as are five of the first six and six of the first eight.

There is no tough non-conference game, and the Ducks should be 8-0 when they visit USC on Nov. 3. Two weeks later, they welcome Stanford to Eugene in a game that should decide the Pac-12 North title. Three of the final four games are on the road, including the regular-season finale against archrival Oregon State. The Ducks have won four in a row in the intense series.

Overview

This sets up as an interesting season for the Ducks. De'Anthony Thomas should become a phenomenal weapon for Kelly, and the schedule gives a rebuilt offense time to get acclimated.

The defense is another story. This has the potential to be a dominant unit from Game 1. The front seven is filled with talent and depth, and should be able to mask any deficiencies in the secondary.

A 10-win season seems a lock, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the Ducks win 11 or even 12. It seems likely that the Ducks will play USC twice, once in the regular season and once in the league title game. The regular-season game is in L.A., and the title game is hosted by the team with the best regular-season record, so Oregon could make two trips to the L.A. Coliseum.

Oregon has played in three consecutive BCS bowls, the only team in the nation that can make that claim, and a fourth consecutive BCS appearance seems extremely likely.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 18th nationally
The buzz: The Ducks did not finish with a flourish, as they did in 2011, when they landed five-stars Lyerla and De'Anthony Thomas late in the process, but Kelly and his staff cobbled together a strong group. Armstead has star potential. Oregon also loaded up with fellow four-star DEs Alex Balducci and DeForest Buckner. TEs Evan Baylis and Pharaoh Brown are nice additions, and four-star RB Byron Marshall could be a perfect fit in Oregon's offense. The Ducks went to Butte, Mont., to land DE Cody Carriger, and he could be a major surprise. – Adam Gorney, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

TE Colt Lyerla. Lyerla was a five-star member of the class of 2011 but was able to graduate early and went through Oregon's 2011 spring practice. This proved to be enough of an advantage for Lyerla that he was able to win the backup job at tight end last season behind Paulson. Lyerla only caught seven passes in 2011, yet proved to be a playmaker as five of those receptions were touchdowns. With Paulson's graduation, Lyerla has the opportunity to become a frequent target of the new quarterback. – A.J. Jacobson, DuckSportsAuthority.com

For more on Oregon throughout the season, check out DuckSportsAuthority.com

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