EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Ducks shake-off distractions the way their playmakers elude defenders — quickly and without looking back.
An NCAA investigation lurks, their head coach almost jumped to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and an ESPN The Magazine article suggested half the team smokes marijuana. The Rose Bowl-winning team also lost its starting quarterback and Heisman-finalist running back to the NFL draft.
Those events might signal a program in decline. But Oregon enters 2012 as a top-5 team in most polls, including fifth on the AP Top 25, and a favorable schedule — except for back-to-back road games against USC and California that loom in November — could set up coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks for another run at the national championship.
The Ducks, with 65 freshmen and sophomores, might even have stronger squads in the years to come.
“I think we have talent here and I’m excited about it, but we still have a young football team,” said Kelly, who has compiled a 34-6 record while leading the Ducks to three consecutive conference championships.
Typically known for its lightning-fast offense and ever-changing uniforms, Oregon’s strength in 2012 is projected to be on the defensive side of the ball. The Ducks defense finished 67th in yards per game last season, but it’s a deceptive statistic. The offense struck so quickly that the defense spent almost 60 percent of the game on the field.
“We go against the fastest offense in the country four times out of the week, so I think we’re mentally and physically prepared to go 60 minutes with any team,” said linebacker Michael Clay, a senior who will be joined by fellow standouts such as defensive end Dion Jordan, linebacker Kiko Alonso and safety John Boyett.
Kelly contends the defense should have gotten more media attention in each of the past three seasons. He batted away a suggestion that the Ducks add heavier players instead of prioritizing speed and stamina.
“We have guys that go up to 295 and 300, and they run as well as anybody in the country,” Kelly said. “And I think it works for our defense. Personally, we don’t want the big, slow clunky guys that get tired after two plays.”
The question marks are on the offensive side of the ball, but fans and pundits believe Kelly has the answers.
The coach said he won’t name a replacement for quarterback Darron Thomas until the end of August practices. Thomas was 23-3 as a starter before leaving early for the NFL draft.
Bryan Bennett, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, played well in limited duty last season, throwing for 369 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. But Marcus Mariota, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman from Honolulu, outplayed Bennett in the spring game, setting up the position battle ahead of the Sept. 1 season opener against Arkansas State.
Kelly said he isn’t opposed to playing both quarterbacks, but expects one QB to emerge during camp as the obvious choice.
“I can’t give you a concrete thing — a ‘Hey, I need to see this,” he said. “It’s always been which guy moves the offense better.”
Besides finding a new quarterback, the Ducks must replace the most prolific running back in school history in LaMichael James, who also left for the NFL after his junior season.
Kenjon Barner will get a chance to be the primary running back after backing up James the last three seasons. The senior has rushed for 1,856 yards and 20 TDs in his career, including 939 yards and 11 TDs last season on 152 carries.
Also returning is sophomore De’Anthony Thomas, whose spectacular freshman season included 595 yards rushing, 605 yards receiving, 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 TDs overall.
How much more can he do?
“Hopefully a lot,” Kelly said. “There are some things he’s done in practice that you kind of just go, “Wow.”
“For a true freshman to come in and play receiver and running back and to be able to handle both those roles speaks a lot to his football acumen,” Kelly added. “He’s a smart kid, understands concepts well and we’ll keep adding to his plate a little bit.”