By: Damian C. Reynolds
The most recent Heisman trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, now plays for the Tennessee Titans. However, despite an improving Pac-12, No. 7 Oregon is expected to compete in the conference title game.
Replacing Mariota is the biggest question mark for the Oregon Ducks, but they’re not worried. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams Jr. nearly won the 2014 Walter Payton award, the FCS’ equivalent to the Heisman. Regardless, he’ll be named the week one starter against, guess who, Eastern Washington according to Pac-12 beat writer Kyle Bonagura.
If Adams doesn’t work out, they have a solid backup in Jeff Lockie who went 17-for-20 during cleanup time in the South Dakota and Wyoming games last year. Lockie also completed all nine of his passes in the spring game for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
If neither Adams nor Lockie works out, Oregon has the option of either redshirt freshman Morgan Mahalak or true freshman Travis Jonsen. Either way, the Ducks have plenty of options to replace the only Heisman winner in school history.
Another concern is how the Ducks will protect their quarterback. Four of the five offensive linemen from last year are gone, including two All-American and 1st Team All Pac-12 players Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu. Despite the amount of talent gone from the offensive line, Oregon still returns seven players with starting experience, which the quarterback will be thankful for down the road.
Oregon runs a front-seven two-deep system on the defensive side of the ball. Ten of those 14 players in the rotation return, including senior defensive end DeForest Buckner and inside linebackers Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. These three combined for 21 tackles for loss last season.
The Ducks also have to worry about replacing linebackers Tony Washington and Arik Armstead. Washington alone had 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last season. But Tyson Coleman, Torrodney Prevot, and Christian French should be able to pick up the slack, seeing as how they combined for 14.5 sacks last year.
And how can we forget about makes Oregon a headache for everyone else in the nation? Speed.
A fast-paced Oregon offense goes without saying, but return ace, wide receiver, and cornerback Charles Nelson will be back. He’s only a sophomore and played in every game last year. He has two punt return touchdowns on his highlight reel as well as some experience on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Note: Oregon played 15 games last year, which is three more than their regular season schedule. This may cause stat inflation.
Despite all the question marks, the media believes Oregon will win the Pac-12 north, only to lose to Southern Cal in the conference title game.