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Deep talent and Marcus Mariota's return revive possibility of championship contention

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Quarterback Marcus Mariota says that while the Oregon Ducks improved their field-goal kicking in 2013, they need to score more touchdowns in 2014.The fortunes of the Oregon football program turned on Dec. 3 when quarterback Marcus

Mariota announced he would not enter the NFL draft and will return to the Ducks for his junior season.

Without him, the Ducks, who tumbled out of national title contention late in the 2013 season, probably would have fallen from Pac-12 title contender status.

Wide receiver Bralon Addison remembers where he was when the Mariota news reached him.

“I was sitting in the academic center when my phone buzzed. I was getting a tutor and happened to pull my phone out,” he says. “I ran out of the tutor room and just gave a big yell. I was pretty happy about that.”

A healthy Mariota, the 6-4, 215-pound Hawaii native, would give the Ducks the biggest difference-maker in the Pac-12, a dual-threat wonder.

“I’m glad I’m his teammate,” Addison says. “I can only imagine how scary it is for a defensive coordinator, knowing he’ll come back and have a whole offseason to get healthy and to get better. Marcus is the centerpiece (of the offense). We’ve got a great quarterback to lead us. When we found out he was coming back, we were all enjoying it.”

Oregon went 11-2 in coach Mark Helfrich’s first season, but the Ducks faded in November with losses to Stanford and Arizona and a near-loss at home to Oregon State.

The Ducks will have 10 offensive starters returning in 2014, with receiver Josh Huff the only departing senior — the versatile De’Anthony Thomas, more of a sub on offense, has skipped out on the Ducks to enter the NFL draft.

On defense, things will be different, though, since coordinator Nick Aliotti retired and some key defensive linemen, a four-year linebacker (Boseko Lokombo), and some secondary starters depart, including junior corner Terrance Mitchell.

Fortunately for the Ducks, standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, like Mariota, has decided to play another season rather than try his skills in the NFL.

Oregon didn’t necessarily tear up opponents from the Nov. 7 Stanford loss on. The offense managed only one touchdown against Texas in the Alamo Bowl, a game in which Mariota, having healed a knee injury for the most part, displayed his

terrific speed (15 carries, 133 yards) and great arm (18 of 26 for 253 yards, TD).

So, even though Mariota returns, the Ducks have some work to do, offensively. The running backs, including Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, accounted for only 88 yards on 25 carries against the Longhorns, and the Ducks had to settle for four field-goal attempts, making three, on five other trips deep into UT territory.

Offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who took advantage of the talents of Mariota and receivers Addison and Huff all season, says the Ducks have to get back to running the ball well and finishing drives.

“It’s something we’re going to address in the offseason,” Frost says. “We weren’t scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Part of it is, I need to get us in the right play calls. We need to be able to run consistently when we get it down there. We struggled with that, and penalties have killed us.”

Says Mariota: “We move the ball well (to the red zone), and we tend to kick field goals. We can’t leave points (out there). ... We have an offseason to prepare for that kind of stuff, just to continue to push finishing. We’ll get it done.”

If anything, there’s a silver lining to being forced to kick field goals: The Ducks have found someone who can make them. After Alejandro Maldonado’s huge misses from 2011 and 2012, Matt Wogan went 6 of 8 in UO’s final four games of 2013.

Mariota threw for 3,665 yards on 63.5 percent passing, with 31 TDs and just four interceptions, and he added 715 yards (7.4 per carry) and nine TDs on the ground —  comparable to his 2012 numbers. One can only assume things will be about the same in 2014. But he knows he needs more work. At the top of the list: Ball security and accuracy.

“I’m really looking forward to this upcoming year, to get better, not only as a football player, but as a person. I’ll earn my degree, grow with a lot of these guys and just enjoy it,” he says.

Mariota has a 3.15 GPA in general science, and he has “a couple solid terms left” to achieve his degree.

Mariota will have support on offense next season. Marshall had 1,038 yards and 14 TDs in 2013, and Tyner gained 711 yards and scored nine TDs. Each averaged 6.2 yards per carry.

Also, the Ducks have a verbal commitment from 6-0, 225-pound prep star Royce Freeman of Imperial, Calif., as well as Thomas-like Budda Baker of Bellevue, Wash. It’s undetermined which position Baker, the Northwest’s top prospect, will play.

Addison had 61 receptions for 890 yards and seven TDs, and he and Keanon Lowe return as receiver starters. Other receivers need to step up to be playmakers.

The team’s top three tight ends — Evan Baylis, Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown — also return.

Another strength on offense could be the five returning starters on the offensive line: center Hroniss Grasu, tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher, and guards Cameron Hunt and Hamani Stevens. A junior college transfer, Haniteli Louisi, could figure into the mix. Yes, as Frost admitted, the Ducks struggled to run the ball late in the season. But one would think the O-line can only get better and do its part to improve the run game.

“Knowing we have this core group of guys — all five coming back — is very important,” Grasu says. “Just getting together in the offseason, building relationships off the field, it’s what we’ve done every year. That’s important for an O-lineman, having a relationship off the field.”

Says Mariota, of the returning O-line: “That’s huge, especially with a guy like Hroniss, who’ll be a senior, anchoring that offensive line. I look forward to playing with them again next year.”

As Mariota referenced, Frost wants to see turnovers curbed. In the Stanford and Arizona losses, UO had a combined minus-five turnover margin.

“Every year, you’re going to have a chance at Oregon to compete for a championship, and you’ve got to play well in all the games,” Frost says. “You go minus-five in turnover margin and you don’t have a chance.”

Helfrich says he’ll take his time finding the new defensive coordinator. The Ducks sent Aliotti out on top in their 30-7 Alamo Bowl victory, allowing just one scoring drive, which was aided by a fourth-down conversion.

But the Ducks lose some senior defensive linemen. They will return rotation D-linemen Tony Washington, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstread and Alex Balducci, but not experienced depth. Tui Talia, a JC transfer, could help.

Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone return as starting linebackers, a place where plenty of talent appears to be in the mix.

The secondary will need work. Ekpre-Olomu solidifies things, but a new corner (Dior Mathis?), free safety (Erick Dargan?) and rover (Reggie Daniels?) will need to step up. Another JC player, Dominique Harrison, has been brought in to help. John Neal ranks as one of the Pac-12’s best secondary coaches; he’ll be up to the challenge.

Clearly, the UO defense will be a key to the Ducks’ 2014 hopes, unless Mariota and his offensive mates can outscore everybody.

“It’s always about the next man up,” Malone says. “I have great confidence in our coaches. We’re going to elevate ourselves and be even better.”

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