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'Big Uglies' Still Key To Oregon Offense

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Spring practice has begun at Oregon and for the first time in several years, Chip Kelly isn't the man directing things. Mark Helfrich has some holes to plug, though none bigger than on the offensive line.
Spring practice has begun at Oregon and for the first time in several years, Chip Kelly isn't the man directing things. Mark Helfrich has some holes to plug, though none bigger than on the offensive line.

All the spotlight at Oregon during this year's spring practice will be on the development quarterback Marcus Mariota makes or the development of De'Anthony Thomas as the main backfield threat or the further development of running back Byron Marshall to free up DAT to play other positions — and never mind how new head coach Mark Helfrich handles stepping into Chip Kelly's shoes. But perhaps the most important development at this year's spring camp will be finding a pair of replacements along the offensive line.

What gets lost in the all the points and big plays from the Ducks offense is that for all its glitz and passion for tempo, the offense is, at heart, a between-the-tackles grinder that likes to soften defenses before administering the team's other weapons. In Chip Kelly's first season as offensive coordinator, Oregon rushed for nearly 3,300 yards, then did better than that four out of the next five years. The vast majority of those yards come between the tackles, which makes this spring's offensive line battles important to an offense had 59 percent of its offense produced on the ground a year ago.

Sure, the Ducks may pass more under Helfrich, but the new coach is too smart and has seen too much to abandon what has been the table-setting aspect of this offense. Oregon will run it plenty, folks.

When Kelly started at Oregon, he explained the running game's philosophy. 

"The inside zone play is our 'go to work' play. We want to get off the ball and be a physical downhill running football team. This is not a finesse play. This is physical football. The offensive linemen play with confidence because they know they  have help from their teammates in their blocking scheme. This is the offense we run and everyone knows that. We have great players but we also execute it well," Kelly said.

Oregon's zone read running game only has four plays — inside zone, outside zone, counter and draw. Three of those runs are distinctly between-the-tackles types of plays. Filling the losses in the O-line is as critical as any other issue facing Oregon this spring. Now you see why.

Oregon lost starting guards Ryan Clanton and Nick Cody from the 2012 squad. Finding replacements for those two will be critical if the Ducks hope to keep the running game going at a level that produces good down-and-distance situations, as well as afford Mariota some protection from all-out pass rushes.

As the situation sits now, the Ducks have some promising options. Hamani Stevens and Everett Benyard seem likely to get big-time shots at the positions. Additionally, Mana Greig could be back from a knee injury he got early last year just after breaking into the stating lineup. There are also some very good incoming freshman who will land on campus this summer who could contend for a starting spot.

The good news is that starting tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher are back with center Hroniss Grassu and all three are capable of competing for all-conference honors.

They key isn't just finding capable bodies to plug into the guard spots, but developing a cohesive relationship between the five guys up front and then creating a nice field of depth behind the starters in case someone goes down. Guys like James Euscher, Matt McFadden, Jamal Prater and Andre Yruretagoyena must also come along to make sure that the offense doesn't lose any of its potency — whether by pass or rush.

Sure, watch Mariota, Thomas, Marshall and the others on offense strut their stuff. But remember, this team keyed by its offensive line. That's the place to keep your eyes this spring.