The 2010 PAC-10 Championships and National Championship runner-ups will have their sights set on another regular undefeated season.
Unfortunately, a depleted defense and an offensive line that lacks experience could keep them from running away with a PAC-12 title in 2011. If anything, Stanford will have something to say about their candidacy as shoe-ins to win the conference.
Despite their deficiencies, they still have running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas in their arsenal and should be able to utilize both to their full potential.
Overall, there’s still plenty of electricity left in this team’s roster. Their quack might not have the same luster that it did in 2010, but it will still be hard for any PAC-12 foe to ruffle their feathers if they stay healthy and play with the same swagger that got them to the National Championship only one year ago.
Remember, since this is a draft coverage site, I will only be covering players that will be eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft.
Let’s get this party started.
1. LaMichael James, Running Back (Jr.)
After coming in third in the 2010 Heisman race, James will be looking to overtake Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the “best” player in college football. Although I find that hard to believe as a huge Luck and Stanford fan, he definitely has the superb talent to convince others with less bias. There might not be a better player that fits the mold of “game-breaker” in the NCAA at this point in time. With blazing speed, terrific vision and an uncanny ability to slip through small cracks in the defensive line, James could arguably be the best running back in the NCAA (sorry Trent Richardson). Now that the Oregon offense is without playmakers in the passing game like Jeff Maehl or D.J. Davis, the weight will certainly be on James’ shoulders to produce. Now more than ever, the Ducks will need him to pick up the slack and find his way into the endzone with extreme efficiency. Considering the fact that he’s struck paydirt 38 times in the past two seasons, I have a feeling that the potential is there.
2. Cliff Harris, Cornerback (Jr.)
When you talk about shutdown cornerbacks at the college level, you have to mention Harris somewhere in that conversation. Throughout the 2010 season, he proved himself to be a valuable coverage man for the Ducks as he feasted numerous times on opposing quarterbacks. He’s the type of ballhawk that makes passers pay for every errant throw. His six interceptions in 2010 led the PAC-10 and were a big reason why the Ducks had the seventh ranked turnover margin in the NCAA. And if his coverage skills aren’t enough to entice NFL scouts, there’s always the fact that he’s a phenomenal asset in the return game. When returning punts, Harris has the ability to take it to the house every time. He’s an All-American caliber player at both cornerback and punt returner and should have no trouble striking fear in opposing PAC-12 teams in 2011.
3. John Boyett, Free Safety (Jr.)
Harris corrals most of the praise that Oregon’s secondary receives, which leaves little spotlight for Boyett to soak in. However, there’s plenty reason for him to get some recognition of his own. Boyett has quietly become the most consistent player on the Ducks’ defense and has made more than enough plays to make a case for himself as a top safety talent. When the ball is in the air, he reacts quickly and makes receivers pay when they venture into his territory. In 2010, he hauled in five interceptions (tied for second in the PAC-10) and was second on the team in tackles with 78. He’s a former Freshman All-American and should continue to build off of the tremendous potential that earned him a spot on this talented Oregon roster. Look for him to continue to build his candidacy as one of the premier safety talents in the NCAA as the season wears on.
With the loss of their two top wide receivers in Maehl and Davis, the passing game is going to have a big challenge in finding someone who can replace their production. Luckily for the Ducks, they do get their sure-handed tight end Paulson back for another season. During 2010, he hauled in 24 passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns and had the most receiving yards last year of all of the Ducks returning players in 2011. Despite the fact that he is a talented receiver from the tight end spot, the aspect of his game that really impresses me is his ability to make an impact as a blocker in the running game. He does a tremendous job of locking up his defender and driving them off of the ball, which helps James find space to make plays. Given his well-rounded play, I expect him to emerge as one of the best tight ends in the 2012 draft class.
5. Darron Thomas, Quarterback (Jr.)
There’s no denying that Thomas is a talented quarterback/playmaker for the Ducks. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s über-athletic and does a terrific job of picking up yards with his arm and his feet. Unfortunately, if he does decide to enter the 2012 NFL Draft, he will fall victim to the all-encompassing anti-spread quarterback mindset. Personally, I don’t think that he has the overall quarterbacking talent to make it in the NFL. However, like many dual-threat quarterbacks before him, he has the potential to get drafted as an athlete who can play a number of positions. Maybe not exactly at the same level as Brad Smith, but in that same mold. We’ll see how much he can progress during the 2011 season as both a passer and a playmaker.
Mark Asper, Offensive Tackle (Sr.)
Eddie Pleasant, Strong Safety (Sr.)
Carson York, Guard (Jr.)
Lavasier Tuinei, Wide Receiver (Sr.)
Josh Kaddu, Outside Linebacker (Sr.)