Mariota's Back, But Ducks WRs Need To Answer Questions
By John Baker
While the return of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota offers Ducks fans a chance to let out a collective sigh of relief, the team needs to figure out whom will catch his passes in 2014.
Oregon lost a lot of productivity with the departures of Josh Huff, De’Anthony Thomas and Darryle Hawkins, not to mention the early-season loss of potential all-American tight end Colt Lyerla. In total, that’s 109 catches, nearly 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns sashaying out the door; that's no small amount of production no matter how many yards this team gains.
Huff, in particular, will be hard to replace. After fighting through injuries that left him at less than full strength for the better part of the last three years, Huff became Mariota’s top receiver and comfort zone when he needed to make a play in the passing game. His 62-1,140-12 stat line doesn’t fully explain the vibe that Mariota and Huff developed during the 2013 season.
But where one person sees challenges, another sees opportunity. And at Oregon, the cupboard is certainly not bare.
If the 2014 season were to start tomorrow, Mariota would still find plenty of talent to cultivate, including a receiver who seems likely to become his No. 1 option, much like Huff. The Ducks still can trot out two season-long starters in Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe. Addison finished 2013 with 61-890-7, but seems poised to take a step up the ladder as the new No. 1.
Addison perhaps doesn’t have Huff's straight-line speed, but he’s plenty fast and is a tremendous route-runner against man or zone coverages. Lowe is a steady-Eddie type of receiver who has toiled in anonymity for the Ducks the last two years. He had 18 catches and scored three times a year ago, but is an effective blocker downfield and seems to make a key catch nearly every game. The team will expect him to become more involved in the offense.
When Lyerla imploded his college career, Johnny Mundt and later Pharoah Brown stepped into the breach at tight end. Mundt had one huge game and 16 catches overall for the Ducks. Both return and it is likely that Brown will emerge the starter. He was hurt early in the season and didn’t start to get rolling until late in the season, but the Ducks have recognized his athleticism and big-play potential since fall camp. He has NFL ability. Assuming good health, Oregon will count on Brown to be the tight end Lyerla was supposed to be. And let’s face it, Mundt has proven he can be dynamic when given the chance.
Those are the key players we know about, but what about the rest of the cast? Ah, the potential is delightfully big, speedy and explosive.
Leading the way likely will be Chance Allen, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound speedster who had five catches in 2013, but has been a source of whispers for more than a year now. With room now available in the playing rotation, Allen will get a chance to earn the right to play and produce. He seems to have all the tools to be a big-time player in Oregon’s passing offense. Now he’ll get a long look to be that guy. He won’t be alone, though.
B.J. Kelley and Eric Dungy return after seeing bits of playing time a year ago. Dwayne Stanford, a 6-foot-5, 195-pound speedster, was hurt most of 2013. All three have shown the ability to make plays in the offense within their limited roles and at least one of them must step forward to be a contributor. Stanford, with his size and speed combination, is perhaps the most intriguing prospect of the entire receiving corps. A healthy outing will tell much about him.
Devon Allen, who has the speed to be a factor, also will want playing time, but may be a year away in terms of development. Add into the mix several freshmen and a transfer or two and Oregon has a wealth of talent at the receiver position.
Even with Huff gone, the emergence of Addison gives Oregon a top-flight receiver to build the passing game.
Mariota’s return was a welcome development for the Ducks and their faithful fans, but for the first time in a couple years the receiving corps will see some shuffling and some new faces emerge. While it’s exciting, it will be an adjustment for Mariota and the offense getting some new faces in sync.
A problem? No. Just a big opportunity for Oregon's receivers.