57F Autzen Stadium, Eugene, OR
Oregon coach Chip Kelly is no doubt ready to see his team take the field after an eventful offseason for him and his program.
He has named Marcus Mariota the school's first freshman starting quarterback in an opener in 21 years as the fifth-ranked Ducks open the campaign Saturday night against reigning Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State.
Kelly flirted with taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job this offseason before opting to stay with the Ducks. The NCAA alleged in February that Oregon violated the organization's regulations in the way the school used recruiting services over the past four years, and an investigation could be pending.
The coach later was forced to address a story in ESPN The Magazine reporting on widespread marijuana use among his players.
"If we had that many kids doing it, we wouldn't be 34-6 (over the last three seasons)," Kelly said in April.
His team went 12-2 a year ago, winning the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin after its third straight conference title.
Darron Thomas was at quarterback the last two years, but Mariota now becomes the first freshman starter at the position in the first game since Danny O'Neil in 1991, winning the job over sophomore Bryan Bennett, Thomas' backup a year ago.
"We had 37 practice opportunities and through the body of work, we felt that Marcus gave us the best shot in our opening game," Kelly said.
Mariota, a 6-foot-4 native of Hawaii, only emerged into consideration during the annual spring game, when he completed 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown.
"To finally know that you're the guy and to finally get things going and to get prepared, it's exciting," Mariota said.
The freshman will be part of one of the best backfields in the country despite the departure of San Francisco 49ers second-round draft pick LaMichael James, who led the nation with 150.4 rushing yards per game in 2011.
The Pac-12's top-ranked rushing attack still has Kenjon Barner, who gained 939 yards a year ago. De'Anthony Thomas is also back after he finished with 595 rushing yards, a team-high 605 receiving yards and 18 overall touchdowns.
"I've just been patient, waiting, and now that it's here, I'm ready to take advantage of it," Barner said about being the starter.
The Ducks expect nothing but good things from a defense led by linebacker Michael Clay, who has noted that the unit goes up against the high-tempo Oregon offense in practice daily.
That should serve as excellent preparation for Arkansas State, which is installing an up-tempo style under new coach Gus Malzahn. Malzahn should be familiar to Ducks fans since he was Auburn's offensive coordinator two seasons ago when the Cam Newton-led Tigers beat Oregon for the BCS title.
The coach is replacing Hugh Freeze, who left to take over Mississippi.
Malzahn seems to have the perfect centerpiece to his hurry-up, no-huddle offense in reigning Sun Belt player of the year Ryan Aplin, who threw for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns while running for 10 more last year as the Red Wolves went 10-3 with an appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has compared the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Aplin to New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees. Aplin seems to have Brees' confidence ahead of this trip.
"A lot of people are probably doubting us and saying we're going to get killed and whatnot, but that's just fuel to our fire," Aplin said. "We're going to go out there and give them hell and do what we do best, up-tempo, and hopefully put a shock to them."
Malzahn, meanwhile, dismissed running back Michael Dyer following a July incident in which a state trooper found marijuana and a gun during a traffic stop. Dyer was a former Auburn star who rushed for 143 yards two years ago in the national title game against the Ducks.
Aplin has two fewer targets since Earl Lucas was dismissed for violating team rules and fellow wide receiver Tres Houston was suspended for the entire season for the same reason.
"I think any time you do something new, there's going to be a learning curve," Malzahn said.