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How Oregon plans to fill void after Darren Carrington's suspension

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DALLAS – Matt Lubick did a fine impersonation of Monty Python's Black Knight on Saturday.

At the College Football Playoff national championship media day, the Oregon receivers coach kept insisting his diminishing corps of pass catchers is fine. It was reminiscent of the 'tis-but-a-flesh-wound insistence by the Black Knight as he had one limb after another severed in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

"This is the healthiest we've been in a long time at receiver," Lubick insisted. "To be honest, our depth right now is better than it was last year at this time. I think we've got six or seven guy."

That's some serious depth, because the attrition has been astounding.

Darren Carrington, the Ducks' second-leading receiver in terms of yardage, was left home for this game due to an NCAA suspension that multiple outlets reported Friday was a failed drug test. Devon Allen, their third-leading receiver, was injured on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl and is out. Tight end Pharaoh Brown has been out since early November due to a knee injury. Bralon Addison tore an ACL in the spring and has missed all season (despite speculation he could play Monday, Lubick said he's "still not ready.")

Darren Carrington had seven catches for 165 yards and two TDs in Oregon's Rose Bowl win. (AP)
Darren Carrington had seven catches for 165 yards and two TDs in Oregon's Rose Bowl win. (AP)

Those personnel losses aren't likely to engender much sympathy from Ohio State, which is on its third quarterback of the season. Both teams have had to adjust and overcome on the fly. But the most recent setback is Oregon's.

Carrington was coming off a huge Rose Bowl performance in the rout of Florida State, catching seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns. And that followed a seven-catch, 126-yard, one-touchdown performance in the Ducks' Pac-12 title game blowout of Arizona. Those were the freshman's two best games as a collegian.

And then his season went up in smoke.

"Darren's my friend," said Allen, who is out with a knee injury. "I love that guy and it sucks that he can't play and the NCAA made an example out of him. …"

This one is on the player, not the NCAA. Whether you agree with the drug-testing rules of college sports is immaterial. They're in the rulebook, and the players know them. Break one and suffer the consequences – and hurt your team in the process.

Unless, of course, Oregon can dig even further down the depth chart and still find playmakers for Marcus Mariota to connect with.

They did that by moving Byron Marshall to receiver after two seasons at running back. Marshall was a 1,000-yard rusher last year, but the emergence of freshman Royce Freeman gave coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost the latitude to move Marshall to wideout in order to offset the Addison injury.

Marshall has delivered. He led the Ducks in receptions (66) and receiving yards (834) while still getting 51 carries as well.

"He's helped us a ton," Lubick said.

So, too, has Charles Nelson. The freshman has 21 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns on the season, but the numbers in the last four games are 16 catches, 262 yards and four TDs. He hurt the Seminoles as well.

"He gets better each week," Lubick said. "I've got to get him on the field more. He makes plays every time he's on the field. As a coach, that's a good problem to have."

Oregon needs to reignite Keanon Lowe, a guy who has made 65 catches in three seasons – but none of them since Nov. 22. He hasn't scored a touchdown since Oct. 2.

While there are options in Marshall, Nelson and Lowe, they have one problematic characteristic in common: they're short. Marshall is listed as 5-foot-10, Lowe 5-9 and Nelson 5-9. Fast is good, but big and fast is better.

After losing the 6-2 Carrington, the only size option for Mariota among the main wideouts in Dwayne Stanford, listed as 6-5 and 201 pounds. He's had 39 catches for 578 yards and six touchdowns on the season.

Byron Marshall led the Ducks in receptions and receiving yards this season. (Getty)
Byron Marshall led the Ducks in receptions and receiving yards this season. (Getty)

Oregon got an unexpected lift from tight end Evan Baylis in the Rose Bowl. Baylis had only caught four passes all season, then came up with six for 73 yards – several of them key receptions to keep drives moving.

The wealth of targets shows a few things: Oregon has recruited really well at the skill positions, bringing in Stanford from Cincinnati, Nelson from Florida, Baylis from Colorado, Marshall from California; Lubick and tight ends coach Tom Osborne have done a nice job developing players into contributors; and Mariota has the ability to make everyone look good.

"Every game it seems like a different guy is the go-to guy," Frost said. "We don't design things for one guy. Marcus gets the ball to whoever is open."

And players tend to get open. Oregon's offense puts so much stress on a defense that breakdowns happen – mental errors in coverage, and fatigue-induced busts. Mariota's ability to scramble and extend his throwing time, coupled with his receivers' speed, makes covering the Ducks all the more difficult.

"We have a bunch of highly skilled guys [at receiver] that are very confident in what they're doing," Helfrich said. "Marcus is confident in those guys and we're confident in those guys."

Fact is, Oregon has been dealing with roster instability all season. Only eight players have started every game. Four different players have started at left guard alone.

Yet the Ducks keep rolling. Oregon's secondary lost All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu heading into the Rose Bowl and still acquitted itself well against Florida State. Allen went down on the first play of that game and his loss wasn't felt. Now Carrington is gone, and auditions are being taken for another Quack Attack playmaker.

"As a coach, I think you always stress out a little bit," Lubick said. "But it's been refreshing to see the next guy stepping up."

Eventually, though, the next guy isn't as good as the guy he's replacing. Will Oregon reach that point in the season's biggest game, or is the loss of Darren Carrington just another flesh wound?