Photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
(Sports Network) - In his three years as head coach of the Oregon Ducks football program, Chip Kelly has exceeded nearly all possible expectations.
Since 2009, Kelly has led the Ducks to a spectacular 34-6 record, including a berth in the BCS National Championship game following an undefeated 2010 regular season. Even though that magical season ultimately ended with a loss to Auburn, the run brought the program back to national prominence.
The Ducks had another great campaign in 2011, finishing 11-2 in the regular season and in the process became the first Pac-12 team other than USC to win three straight outright conference championships since the league's inception in 1959. The season concluded with Kelly's first BCS bowl win as a head coach, as Oregon defeated Wisconsin (45-38) in the Rose Bowl.
With Oregon's reputation firmly planted in the FBS landscape, there's little chance the Ducks will sneak up on anyone. They attempt to claim their unprecedented fourth consecutive Pac-12 title this fall, but while there is plenty of talent and guys capable of leading on and off the field, they also face several intriguing hurdles.
The Ducks lost one of their leaders when running back LaMichael James was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. James was one of the nation's top backs last season, and during his tenure became the most productive runner in the program's history. He capped off his career in Eugene by rushing for a school-record 1,805 yards last season. James became the first player in conference history to rush for at least 1,500 yards in three straight seasons, accumulating a school-record 5,082 career rushing yards in the process, placing him second all-time in the Pac-12 and 14th in NCAA Division I history.
The team also lost its two-year starter at quarterback in Darron Thomas. After throwing for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns during UO's undefeated 2010 season, Thomas followed it up with another great run in 2011, passing for 2,761 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns. The gifted signal caller decided to test the professional waters by leaving school a year early, although it proved to be a poor decision as he went unselected in April's draft.
There's little doubt that the Ducks would be much better off had Thomas chose to stay in school for his senior season, but with the talented players replacing the departed stars, in addition to the experienced playmakers returning for another season, leaves Kelly and company confident that they can make another strong run this year.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and returning backup Bryan Bennett are in a neck-and-neck competition for the starting job. Bennett is the far more experienced of the two, having tossed six touchdowns and no interceptions in his career, which included a 156-yard, two-touchdown performance last season against Colorado filling in for an injured Thomas. He looked impressive in April's spring game as well, completing 19-of-32 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown.
On the other hand, Mariota has also made his presence felt this off-season. He matched Bennett play-for-play in the spring game, going 18-of-26 for 202 yards and a score. Mariota may also gain a leg up due do his mobility, as the Ducks' run-and-gun style offense is heavily reliant on a mobile quarterback. Bennett is no slouch out of the pocket - he ran for 69 yards in the Colorado game last year - but Mariota appears to be the more dynamic athlete, flashing his skills in the spring game with 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Coach Kelly is in no rush to name his starting quarterback, but he is confident in both of their abilities and believes the team will have success with either under center.
While the quarterback situation is still up in the air, finding James' replacement at running back is much more cut-and-dry. Kenjon Barner was more than just James' backup a year ago. He was an essential part of the offense, garnering anywhere from 10 to 20 touches a game. Barner made the most of his limited time, rushing for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 152 carries. Barner would have been a top running back prospect alongside James had he declared for the draft, but he decided to return for his senior season for a chance to shine as the Ducks' feature back.
Though Oregon also lost its top receiver in Lavasier Tuinei (48 receptions, 599 yards, 10 touchdowns), one of the most explosive weapons in the nation returns in the form of De'Anthony Thomas. The former track star was named the Pac-12 co-freshman of the year in 2011 after putting up huge numbers not only as a runner (595 yards, 10.8 ypc, seven touchdowns), but as a receiver (46 receptions, 605 yards, nine touchdowns) and a kick returner (983 yards, two touchdowns). With an increased role and another year of experience under his belt, the sky is the limit for this freakishly-talented athlete.
The new personnel leaves a level of uncertainty with this year's Oregon squad that hasn't existed in Eugene in the recent past. But Kelly's team retains plenty of talent to run his high-powered offensive attack. They will need to get by the ever-improving Matt Barkley-led USC Trojans - a showdown at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 3 may very well decide the conference - but don't count out the Ducks making another run at the Pac-12 title.