QB Mariota, Ducks To Take Flight
By John Baker
Will Oregon's offense take flight more often in 2013?
That seems to be the question that's getting the most play right now. Oregon has a new head coach in Mark Helfrich, a new offensive coordinator in Scott Frost, a first-team all-Pac-12 quarterback in Marcus Mariota, whom everyone agrees has room to improve, and an interesting set of proven receiving targets to go along with an as-yet uncertain running game.
Put it in the air more? Why not?
Frost and the Ducks offensive brain trust think Mariota has plenty of upside despite a pretty incredible run in 2012. With a feature back or a definitive rushing attack still a question mark, the natural place to look for offensive improvement would be in the passing game. Fortunately, Oregon has some tangible threats that come at teams from all over the field. De'Anthony Thomas is listed as a running back, but really plays the old wingback spot of the 1970s. Oregon hands it, tosses it and throws it to DAT throughout the game, making him an integral part of the passing game.
While the "Black Mamba" is known nationwide, it's interesting to note that Huff was DAT a year before DAT stepped on the Oregon campus. Huff has tremendous speed, though probably not as elusive as DAT. Still, he brings gamebreaking speed to the table on every play and, after two seasons of struggling with injuries that either kept him off the field or limited his effectiveness, we saw a little glimmer of his old self in 2012. Like DAT, he plays all over the field and will certainly be used to stretch defenses and provides Mariota a big-play wide receiver target.
If that weren't enough, the Ducks' other big-play receiver is actually a hyper-athletic tight end in Colt Lyerla. The former high school running back, who could still play the position in some Duck offensive packages, can destroy a pass defense all by himself with 15- to 20-yard strikes. He'll be a high-round NFL draft choice when he leaves Oregon, but for now he's a tight end with great speed and the skills of a running back. When you think of the phrase "matchup problems for defenses," as much as DAT and Huff may come to mind, Lyerla may be the most difficult of the bunch.
Oregon has ridden a punishing ground game to open up passing opportunities that led to big plays the last three years and it has been a formula that has worked. But now, with proven running backs gone and the passing game seemingly primed for big years from its combatants, you get the feeling the Frost and Helfrich are about to entrust more of the offense through the air to Mariota. Given the Hawaiian's calm demeanor and seemingly effortless work a year ago, it's likely he's ready for the challenge. Huff, DAT and Lyerla will make it easier.
It seems hard to imagine Oregon's air offense doing better than 250-of-373 for 2,888 yards and 35 scores overall, but the bet here is those numbers will actually be better in 2013 as the passing offense takes its turn setting up the young running game.