Marcus Mariota's victory in the 2014 Heisman voting was all too easy. With 5,224 total yards, 57 total touchdowns, 10 yards per pass attempt and only four interceptions, the Oregon quarterback was an engine of both offensive efficiency and sheer volume. In the midst of heavy injury losses along the OL, Mariota carried the Ducks all the way to the Playoff final against Ohio State before Oregon was finally outscored ... despite 333 passing yards from the Heisman-winning quarterback in the title game.
Can the Ducks win the Pac-12 again and get back to the playoffs without Mariota? Bill Connelly says don't count them out, and there are a few indicators that suggest Oregon could be scary good once again.
The Ducks just have to answer two key questions.
Can the new QB avoid turnovers?
Oregon's not alone here. Alabama, Florida State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Baylor, Georgia, and Notre Dame have all been discussed as potential Playoff candidates, yet each of them have to replace starting quarterbacks.
Which seems most likely to be able to plug and play at the most crucial position?
Mariota has had the position on lockdown at Oregon for the last three years, but even before his time the Ducks enjoyed excellent QB play. Oregon has averaged over seven yards per pass attempt every year all the way back to 2006, when Dennis Dixon was at the helm.
The Oregon equation on offense is very simple. The Ducks use spread-option principles to create one-on-one match-ups for their skill players. They recruit speed at those positions, and then run as many plays as it takes for that speed to exploit a one on one match-up and generate points.
Here's a sample Duck scheme that captures much of what they're looking to do on a down to down basis:
In this scheme, which they used to great effect against Florida State, they use a flex RB/slot weapon like Byron Marshall or Charles Nelson as the H-back while playing a TE like Evan Baylis at fullback in a sort of inverted, modern wishbone set.
The H-back releases to the flat and takes a defender with him, in this instance the strong safety. The fullback pulls around and looks to kick out the unblocked defensive end, which allows the Duck OL to double team both defensive tackles before having the tackle and center climb up to the linebackers.
Even with Florida State in an eight-man front, the Ducks are getting double teams at the point of attack, a one-on-one match-up for speedster Charles Nelson on the perimeter, and no one is left to tackle the RB unless someone beats a block. The QB just has to make the right choice and get the ball to the right place on time.
Oregon's supporting cast in 2015 is absolutely loaded with players that had big years in 2014. They have multiple receivers who've done a lot in this system, including 2014's leading receiver Byron Marshall, returning star Bralon Addison, and up and comer Charles Nelson. Tight end Evan Baylis returns along with Johnny Mundt and possibly Pharoah Brown.
The OL took a lot of hits in 2014 from injuries and now has to replace star center Hroniss Grasu as well as left tackle Jake Fisher. However, former left tackle Tyler Johnstone returns from injury, former walk-on Matt Pierson is back after starting much of 2014, and the young right side of Cameron Hunt and Tyrell Crosby is also back.
Between the system and all the returning talent, the job is going to be pretty simple for whomever takes over as QB. The big question is simply whether he can protect the football so all his skill position talent can score points.
The race seems to be down to Mariota's back-up Jeff Lockie and grad transfer Vernon Adams. Adams seems to be the greater talent, but he'll really need to demonstrate mastery over the system to justify any risks when the formula of one-on-one match-ups+speed=points is likely to yield big results either way.
Can the Duck D continue to force turnovers?
Oregon's defense was solid on standard downs in 2014 (23rd in the country), relatively weak on passing downs (51st) and pretty average against the run game (46th). This was plainly evident in the Playoff, when both Florida State and Ohio State ran through the Ducks defense like a hot knife through butter.
What made it a good defense, besides being fairly stingy on standard downs, was that Oregon was very effective at forcing fumbles, which led to them finish first nationally in turnover margin per game. The Ducks forced five turnovers from Florida State and four from Ohio State, though in the latter instance it was obviously not enough to stop the Buckeye machine.
Another question for 2015 will be whether the Ducks can replace the lost turnover-forcing production. Many of the key actors that made their fantastic turnover margin possible are now gone.
Cover safety Erick Dargan is moving on after picking off seven passes and forcing two fumbles a year ago. Weakside linebacker Tony Washington, who forced three fumbles and had six sacks in 2014, is also gone. Impact DL Arik Armstead declared for the NFL after helping Oregon get push when rushing just three. Finally, the Ducks lose starting cornerbacks Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who combined for three interceptions and three more forced fumbles.
The losses in the secondary are the most concerning issue for the Ducks. They return a pair of inside linebackers in Walker and Hardrick that were very solid in 2014, along with three talented outside linebackers in Tyson Coleman, Christian French, and Torrodney Prevot, who may actually upgrade pass rush. As a back-up in 2014, Prevot had five sacks and forced three fumbles. He can play as either the strongside or weakside linebacker, which could allow him to be a de-facto starter filling in for either Coleman or French.
Meanwhile the only returning starter in the secondary is rover Reggie Daniels, although corner Chris Seisay and free safety Tyree Robinson both played extensively in the Playoff.
Getting a better pass rush will be essential for the Ducks as departing safety Erick Dargan and corner Ekpre-Olomu were stars and truly great coverage players for Oregon who will be difficult to replace.
Oregon often used just a three man pass-rush in 2014, which was made possible in part due to the great play of Armstead, which greatly helped their secondary by eliminating passing windows with dropping linebackers:
In 2015, the Ducks are going to need to help their back end with pressure and possibly more 2-4-5 nickel alignments to get a third corner on the field without forcing one of their talented outside linebackers to the bench.
Their best chance at leveraging the returning talent into another strong defense is going to require that they get the most out of their safety tandem of Daniels and 6'4" 205 free safety Tyree Robinson. Robinson's ability to cover ground on the back end or man up a slot receiver could be very useful in allowing Oregon to play a lot of cover 1 and disguise where the pressure is coming from the weakside with the rover dropping into the box:
Or from the strongside, with the free safety dropping over the slot while the rover drops deep:
This kind of disguise is always the goal with the 3-4 defense, but it still takes versatility from the safeties and outside linebackers to make it work. With versatile players at either spot, that should make life easier for the corners and coverage overall by allowing the defense to be flexible, easily disguised, and yet simple for the players.
Oregon had this in the playbook last year, but it could be a bigger part to its strategy as the Ducks look for ways to get Daniels playing in the box and put a greater emphasis on getting pressure on the QB to help out their young corners.
Oregon is going to have speed for days on offense and defense once again. If the Ducks can shift some of their tactics up and find a quarterback that can manage the system, that speed will once again provide them with good offense, good defense, and maybe another shot at the Playoff.