|Running back LaMichael James :: Peter Read Miller/SI|
Oregon's rapid rise to the top of the conference has been accompanied in part by chatter about how soon opponents will catch up to Chip Kelly's frantic offense. The coach scoffs at the thought. "We don't run a gimmick deal," he says. "We run the ball. We throw the ball. We're very balanced." And very good, too. Over Kelly's four years in Eugene (the first two as offensive coordinator) -- and with five different quarterbacks earning wins -- the Ducks have led the conference in total offense, rushing and scoring, and they're showing no signs of descent.More important, perhaps, is whether the program can keep up with itself. The standards of production have been raised. After two straight conference titles and last season's near miss of a BCS championship, Kelly is well aware that expectations have never been higher. Scrutiny is more intense than ever too: Oregon is under NCAA investigation for its use of scouting services."There can't be any more pressure," he insists. "We expect to win every game we play from now until the end of time."At first glance Oregon appears loaded for another run at the conference and national crowns. Heisman finalist LaMichael James, the nation's leading rusher in 2010, returns along with junior quarterback Darron Thomas, who developed into a playmaker in his first season as a starter (he threw for 363 yards in the Ducks' loss to Auburn in the BCS championship game), to lead a plethora of talented offensive skill players. And that's before talking about cornerback Cliff Harris, an All-America punt returner, who, if he returns from a suspension for a June speeding incident, will be an additional scoring weapon.With only 11 scholarship seniors, Kelly says leadership is the biggest void that needs to be filled. Oregon must replace three veteran offensive linemen and must also develop receiving threats to replace departed wideout Jeff Maehl. "Those are the two real question marks," Kelly says. The defensive losses were significant -- six starters, including the team leaders in tackles and sacks -- but Kelly liked what he saw in spring practice and believes the replacements are ready. If the coach is correct, the Ducks might not be slowing down soon.
Will Cliff Harris return from suspension and be the All-America defensive force and playmaker that he was last season?
5 -- Nonoffensive touchdowns last season for CB-PR Cliff Harris, the most in Ducks history for a season and a career.
LaMichael James, RB, Jr. -- After leading the nation in rushing and finishing third in the Heisman vote, James needs 20 yards to surpass Derek Loville's Oregon career-rushing record.Darron Thomas, QB, Jr. -- James soaked up the spotlight in 2010, but Thomas was just as important to Oregon's title-game run. Thomas proved he was much more than a game-manager by throwing for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns with only nine picks. John Boyett, FS, Jr. -- The most consistent Ducks defensive back during his two years as a starter, the former Freshman All-America was Oregon's second-leading tackler as a sophomore in 2010 and had five interceptions.Cliff Harris, CB, Jr. -- The All-America punt returner has speed to burn?on and off the field. After being clocked at 118 mph with a suspended license in June, Harris will miss at least the season opener. If or when he's allowed to return he'll provide a shutdown corner and a returner who's a threat to score every time he touches the ball.Mark Asper, RT, Sr. -- As a third-year starter at two positions (guard and tackle) and one of three returning starters on the line, Asper will be counted on to lead the Ducks' most inexperienced unit. He's a solid choice: With his wife, Michelle, he manages an apartment complex.
Dion Jordan, DE, Jr. -- Having made the switch from receiver/tight end before last season, Jordan appears poised to become the Ducks' newest defensive playmaker. At 6-7 and 230 pounds, he is long, lean and athletic?an ideal fit in Oregon's nontraditional scheme. Jordan is versatile enough to stop the run, harass the quarterback or drop back to help out in pass coverage.
De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Fr. -- In a last-minute switch, the five-star recruit spurned hometown USC and signed with Oregon, becoming the Ducks' biggest catch in years. Nicknamed the Black Mamba, the speedy Thomas could also see time at receiver.This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 Preview.