|Receiver De'Anthony Thomas :: Getty Images|
It's perhaps an indication of what Oregon has accomplished during Chip Kelly's tenure that the biggest question of the 2012 season (who will be the breakout quarterback?) hasn't been especially controversial. Redshirt sophomore Bryan Bennett played well in relief of Darron Thomas in seven games last season, and in his only start, a 45-2 rout of Colorado, Bennett had 225 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota thrilled in this year's spring game with an 82-yard touchdown run that had fans buzzing.
The competition will go on for a while, and if the Ducks seem confident that either player could lead them, it is because both have shown talent and potential ("both," Kelly said, "are what we're looking for in a quarterback") and also because of Kelly's track record with the position. Over his five seasons in Eugene (two as offensive coordinator, three as head coach), the offense has morphed to fit the varied skills of several different quarterbacks. Some passed. Some ran. All won.
The good news for Bennett and Mariota is the talent that will surround them, since Oregon has much of its nucleus from 2011 intact. The defense, the strength of which is a veteran linebacking corps, could be the most effective that the Ducks have fielded in recent years. Though the exciting Thomas and LaMichael James are gone, the offense features an experienced line anchored by redshirt sophomore center Hroniss Grasu as well as playmakers in running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas (who will also continue to play receiver).
If Oregon is to win its fourth straight conference title, however, the quarterback must meet a high standard. Both Bennett and Mariota are dangerous running threats -- easily more dangerous than Thomas and faster than Jeremiah Masoli before him. "You have to go back to 2007," said Kelly, referring to Dennis Dixon, "to find that flat-out speed they have."
The comparison has Ducks fans salivating, especially as both QBs fit Kelly's preference for the spread option: "quarterbacks who have the ability to run, not runners who can throw." If the Ducks' recent trend at the position continues -- plug-and-play -- Oregon's status atop the Pac-12 should too.
25 -- Average minutes of possession for the Ducks in 2011, shortest in the FBS. They did, however, average the third-most points.
Kenjon Barner, RB, Sr. -- While LaMichael James got most of the carries and attention last year, Barner rushed for 939 yards. Chip Kelly called him Option 1A in 2011, and now Barner will take his turn as the Ducks' featured back.
John Boyett, FS, Sr. -- The fourth-year starter has been Oregon's most consistent defensive back, a steadying influence in a middle-of-the-pack secondary. He led the team with 108 tackles in 2011 and had an interception.
Michael Clay, LB, Sr. -- Clay was the leader of a playmaking unit and had the Ducks' second-most tackles (102) last year despite missing three games with an ankle injury. His strength at weakside linebacker is his speed.
Dion Jordan, DE, Sr. -- As a first-year starter in 2011, the converted tight end became a disruptive force, leading Oregon in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (13). His combination of height (6-foot-7) and athletic ability fits the Ducks' scheme, which requires ends to pass-rush on one play and cover a slot receiver on another.
Colt Lyerla, TE, So. -- A highly touted in-state recruit, the question last year wasn't if or when Lyerla would play, but where. He wound up at tight end, and at 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, poses a matchup problem for defenses. Though he had only seven catches as a freshman, five went for TDs. As a replacement for David Paulson, now with the NFL's Steelers, Lyerla will be counted on to make big plays.
Arik Armstead, DE, Fr. -- The gem of Oregon's 2012 class graduated early from Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove, Calif., and enrolled in March. Expectations rose after he looked more than comfortable going up against Oregon's O-line in the spring game.
Every day last season, De'Anthony Thomas spent time in the head coach's office. He wasn't in trouble. When it came to Thomas, the biggest problem Chip Kelly had was figuring out how often and how best to use him. Take the Rose Bowl, for example. Oregon's 45-38 win over Wisconsin was keyed by Thomas's spectacular touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards. There wasn't a third rushing attempt. "I don't know if I've ever had a kid average 77 yards a carry," Kelly said afterward. "I'll see if next year we can get him an extra carry or two."
Because Thomas split time at running back and receiver, he didn't fit neatly into either position group, and Kelly didn't have anything to do during position meetings. So the coach and the precocious freshman got together every afternoon to discuss X's and O's and the game plan for the week. By the end of the season the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder known since childhood as Black Mamba (Snoop Dogg -- yes, that Snoop Dogg -- gave him the nickname after watching Thomas run wild against a youth football team the rapper was coaching) had produced 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns. "A hell of a year," said Kelly, and he's already planning ways to help Thomas top it.
With the early departure of LaMichael James to the NFL, Thomas will see more action at running back (though Kenjon Barner figures to be the starter), and he will also continue to play receiver. In Oregon's scheme he gets the ball in a variety of ways, often in open space, where his speed causes plenty of trouble for defenses. USC coach Lane Kiffin has compared him with a smaller version of Reggie Bush. "He's special," said Kiffin, who still isn't sure how Thomas, who was committed to USC until right before Signing Day, escaped Los Angeles.
Thomas was certainly a catch as a recruit. He capped a standout high school career at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles by helping the Cougars to a 12-win season, finishing with 1,299 yards rushing, 359 receiving and 22 total touchdowns to go along with the 42 tackles and five interceptions he made as a defensive back.
At Oregon, Thomas began making plays right away, racking up 122 all-purpose yards in last year's season opener against LSU. But he also had two critical fumbles on consecutive touches in the loss -- providing an opening for a teachable moment in the meetings with the coach that followed. Week after week, Thomas's involvement in Kelly's game plans increased. "He's an amazing kid," said Kelly. "He's a very intuitive football player. How quickly he picked things up was kind of surprising."
Although Thomas was never the Ducks' first option, he quickly became a potent weapon, whether running (595 yards, seven touchdowns), receiving (46 catches, 605 yards, nine TDs) or returning kickoffs (27.3-yard average on 36 attempts, two TDs).
Thomas, not one to boast, isn't exactly the most loquacious interview subject. What does he expect from this season? "Me just playing my role," he said. His thoughts on getting the football more often? "Just to contribute, that's all I want to do." Running back or receiver in 2012? "I'll just do whatever for the team."
Kelly's goal is more specific. He wants to "take the leash off" Thomas, and the coach plans to continue meeting with his emerging star to figure out ways to make that happen. "He just presents so many challenges," Kelly said. "How many ways can we get him the ball?" It's clear the coach plans to find Thomas an extra carry or two.
SI: The four new coaches in the Pac-12 all plan to play some version of the spread. Is that better or worse for defensive coordinators?
CK: The toughest thing for a defensive coordinator is when everybody is different. When there's a lot of carryover, there's a little more familiarity. It's when [there's a] drastic [change] from week to week that it's more difficult to prepare.
SI: What are your thoughts on the playoff?
CK: One byproduct is that the nonconference schedule is going to [continue] softening because people are afraid of a loss. I worry about that. We like playing those games, but we had the question last year: What if we didn't open with LSU, and we were a one-loss team [losing] to USC? Where are we? Are we in the mix?
SI: What's the best invention of the last half-century?
CK: Digital videos. Less than 10 years ago [when I was at New Hampshire] one of our coaches had to fly to Chicago to exchange film. It was awful.
SI: What music do you listen to?
CK: I'm all over the map. That's why I love Pandora. I can go from the Dropkick Murphys to Frank Sinatra to Journey.
SI: How much of your favorite music -- any Broadway? -- winds up getting played during practices?
CK: Very, very minimal. I've got nothing to do with that. I had a little bit more juice early in my career. Now I've been phased out. I still think they play The Lion King a little.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 Preview.