Coming off of a National Championship Game loss to the Auburn Tigers at the end of the 2010 season, the Ducks got immediately thrown into the fire to start 2011. When we did our Pre-Season Preview of Oregon we pegged them at #3 and I thought they would have a legitimate shot at returning to the National Championship Game. Oregon had a great season in 2011 but they got off to a rough start by losing their opener to a LSU team that would run the table in the regular season. Oregon fought through some off-the-field issues before and during the season and overcame some injuries to LaMichael James and Darron Thomas to go 12-2 losing to only LSU and USC. Oregon lost to USC by only 3 points and it would have been very interesting to see how the final polls would have played out if Oregon could have won that game and ran the table. To get the insides scoop on the 2011 Oregon Ducks season and to take a sneak peak into 2012 we caught up with Dale Newton of The Duck Stops Here.
Shortly after finishing up our Q&A with Dale, the Chip Kelly/Tampa Bay news hit. Take a look at the Q&A and then read our take (along with Dale’s) on Chip Kelly’s flirtation with the NFL.
CFBZ: Oregon went 12-2 and had another great year under Chip Kelly. If you could re-play one of those losses which would it be?
Dale Newton: You can’t replay losses, but the Ducks have the opportunity to bury one twice in two epic confrontations with the USC Trojans during the 2012 season. Last fall Oregon lost 38-35 after trailing 38-14 with just 3:28 to play in the third, missing a chance at overtime when a 38-yard field goal hooked wide left on the last play of the game. The loss crushed a 21-game home winning streak and any lingering hopes the Ducks had of returning to the national title game, but the most excruciating part was watching Matt Barkley celebrate afterward, so impressed with the accomplishment he held a press conference a few weeks later to announce he was staying in school, complete with a gigantic Christmas tree, the band and the rally squad.
The Ducks will play USC on November 3rd in The Coliseum, and both teams could be 8-0 for that game. The two teams could meet again in the PAC-12 Championship Game, with the November 3rd winner earning home field advantage. Vindication is better than a hypothetical replay. Let’s aim for that.
CFBZ: Coming into the season there were a lot of questions about the defense. How do you feel the defense performed this season?
Dale Newton: The defense played great. They won twelve games and the first Rose Bowl in 95 years.
Oregon’s defense will always be maligned and misunderstood nationally, because folks rank teams by points and yards. The Oregon offense scores quickly and often, so Nick Aliotti’s troops are called on to defend 80 plays a game. They have long been a swarming and effective unit, that struck this year for 45 sacks and 40 turnovers. In the Rose Bowl victory, they held Wisconsin to ten points in the second half and no points on four possessions in the fourth quarter. It’s necessarily a different style of defense because the Ducks are built to score, not win a 9-6 snoozefest. Even so, they play aggressively and well, flying to the football and getting the ball back to Chip Kelly’s potent offense. And they’ll be even more physical and athletic in 2012, with Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and John Boyett as senior leaders and future NFL stalwarts.
CFBZ: What is the lasting memory you will have of this season?
Dale Newton: After all the talk that Oregon couldn’t win a big game or match up against elite teams with big offensive and defensive lines, Oregon won the most entertaining and well-played bowl game of the year, capping the best season in school history.
De’Anthony Thomas’s record-setting 91-yard run in the Granddaddy has to be the sweetest individual moment, not only because it spearheaded a tremendous, historical victory but because it represents such promise for the next two seasons. This young man scored 16 touchdowns on just 101 offensive touches, adding two more on kick returns of 93 and 96 yards.
CFBZ: Darron Thomas unexpectedly made the decision to go pro. You have an article up on your site about his possible replacements and you say that you think Bryan Bennett has the early advantage. Who do you want to win the job?
Dale Newton: Bryan Bennett’s a 65-35 favorite to win the job, although both are supremely talented and well-suited for the Oregon spread. He has a year longer in the program, a start and four game appearances, and that experience gives him a significant edge over Marcus Mariota, who won’t make the decision easy. Mariota may be the most complete, talented quarterback the Ducks have ever had. He’s an honor roll student who can make every throw, including flicking a ball 40 yards to the numbers on the dead run. Bennett, on the other hand, is a poised leader and nimble runner who showed flashes of brilliance coming off the bench when Darron Thomas suffered a knee injury in mid-season, leading a 20-point second half in a comeback win over ASU and a surgical 45-2 dismantling of Colorado in Boulder.
The job will be won in competition over the next eight months, and it will make both quarterbacks better players. It will add intensity to every practice, workout session and passing drill. They’ll be judged over their body of work. The winner will be perfectly prepared to led an offense surrounded by an awesome array of big-play weapons. Both the youngsters have better physical skills for the offense (running and throwing) than Thomas. It’s a question of them developing the command and comfort to make effective decisions distributing the football. They have a relatively easy September schedule to cement their progress.
It won’t be a popularity contest. The winner will earn the job, with his body of work during spring ball, off-season workouts and fall camp. Chip Kelly is a great developer and teacher of quarterbacks, and either one of them will be ready to lead a veteran team as far as they can go.
CFBZ: What do you see as the biggest opportunity areas for this team going into the off-season?
Dale Newton: They have to replace LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, and a reliable tight end and team leader in David Paulson. There will be two new starters on the offensive line with Mark Asper and Darrion Weems graduating. Defensive end Terrell Turner, linebacker Josh Kaddu and Safety Eddie Pleasant are gone from the defense.
In each case, the players behind them played a lot in 2011 and played extremely well. Kenjon Barner rushed for 945 yards and 11 touchdowns in a 1B role for the Ducks, and he’s mature and articulate with a knack for the big play. This is his team now, and he will step in to LMJ’s role as the feature back and make it his own. He’s a natural spokesman for this team, a senior leader.
Tight end Colt Lyerla played as a true freshman and has unworldly talent, a 6-5, 238-pound athlete who can take one step and leap a 65-inch high plyobox: he has a 40-inch vertical leap. A five-star player coming out of high school and an Army All-American, Lyerla caught 7 passes last seasons in spot duty and averaged 21 yards a catch, five of them going for touchdowns. Duck fans are excited to see what he can do in a full season as a mainstay of the offense. Four promising redshirt freshman join the offensive line after a year to grow and acclimate. On defense, Dion Jordan could blossom into an NFL early-round draft pick at defensive end. The 6-7, 240 pounder led the Ducks with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, and his wingspan and athleticism present a formidable challenge for offensive lines. He’s a disrupter and a playmaker, a converted tight end in just his third season on the d-line.
Linebacker Michael Clay recorded 102 tackles last year despite missing three games. Kiko Alonso had a breakout performance in the Rose Bowl, with five tackles, two sacks and a spectacular diving interception in the fourth quarter, earning MVP honors. Safety John Boyett will be in his fourth year as a starter, and he set a school record with 17 tackles against Wisconsin in Pasadena. It’s a defense that runs and hits, and this year they will add depth and experience after three stellar recruiting classes. Oregon plays as many as 24-26 players a game on defense for meaningful snaps, a practice that builds motivation and depth, which will pay enormous dividends in Chip Kelly’s fourth year as head coach.
Offensively, a big challenge has to be to rebuild the passing game. Leading receiver and Rose Bowl MVP Lavasier Tuinei graduated. Both Bennett and Mariota have stronger arms and better passing mechanics than Darron Thomas, if they can refine their decision-making. Three promising redshirt freshman receivers join the travel squad in Devon Blackmon, B.J. Kelley and Tacoi Sumler, and all have the speed and playmaking ability to terrorize a secondary. If Bennett/Mariota and these young receivers hone their timing and develop an effective connection, Oregon’s offense becomes even scarier and more potent in the drive for a fourth straight PAC-12 Championship.
This is a team that is foundationally committed to the slogan that appears in the tunnel and on the Autzen Stadium walls: “Win the Day.” They don’t overlook anybody. They don’t care about star ratings, awards or rankings. They are simply committed to becoming better football players and more successful people every single day. It works. Oregon is 34-6 with Kelly as head coach.
CFBZ: Bonus Question: Out of all of the new Head Coach hires in the Pac-12, which coach do you think will have the most immediate success this coming season?
Dale Newton: Tough question, because all four newcomers were good hires for their schools, but all four inherit eroded situations. Say Mike Leach, who’ll swing the sword for the Cougars with a senior quarterback in Jeff Tuel backed by promising sophomore Connor Halliday, throwing to 1000-yard receiver Marquise Lee, an explosive talent. The other three coaches will need a year to install their system and build a culture; Leach will have the Cougars chucking the rock and climbing the mizzen mast, and they’ll be the quickest turnaround to respectability. The wide-open offense and bold, swashbuckling style just lends itself to quick results.
Previous 2011 Exit Surveys
Big 12- Kansas Jayhawks