EUGENE, Ore.—Oregon coach Mark Helfrich says spring games are often “way overblown” in terms of assessing value, so fans probably shouldn't read too much into an efficient day from quarterback hopeful Jeff Lockie, the two-way brilliance of receiver/cornerback Charles Nelson or the return of wideout Bralon Addison in the Ducks’ spring game Saturday.
But with four agonizing months until the 2015 season kicks off, what fun is that?
Twice in the last five seasons, Oregon has come up bridesmaid instead of bride, falling in national championship games first to Auburn in 2010 and then to Ohio State in January. From the outside it’s easy to sum up these defeats as the Ducks not being able to get over the hump, and crow that until the program brings home a trophy it does not belong among college football’s elite.
But that simplistic view fails to recognize Oregon’s remarkable ascension over the last decade. Yes, Lockie said, this group will likely always be haunted by the notion of, “What could have been?” And he knows that many believe without 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ shot at a spot in the upcoming College Football Playoff is virtually nonexistent. The way Lockie sees it, however, there are “good things to build off” after last year. It was Lockie, Mariota’s backup the last few seasons, who said after the spring game that each Oregon team is going to look different, even though the Ducks’ goal will always be to play at a speed that makes opponents uncomfortable. How they’ll do that this fall remains to be seen. Before the opener against Eastern Washington on Sept. 5, Oregon needs to find a few more pieces and playmakers—starting, of course, with a quarterback.
Ironically, Saturday at Autzen Stadium, where 35,808 fans gathered to watch the Ducks for the first time since a 42-20 loss to the Buckeyes, Oregon’s most popular quarterbacks were stuck on the sideline. Mariota, the greatest player in program history and the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, flew from Honolulu to Nashville and back to Eugene, telling Helfrich he was “jacked” to be at the spring game. Mariota’s assessment of Lockie, his former roommate and one of his closest friends, as relayed by a laughing Lockie: “He said that first ball was short, I told him it was cold, and just wait ’til I warm up.” Lockie completed all nine of his passing attempts for 223 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Vernon Adams Jr., the former Eastern Washington standout who plans to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and head to Eugene by late June, watched from the stands. He told Oregon receivers coach Matt Lubick later that he enjoyed the atmosphere, and the closer his opportunity gets, the more excited he becomes. The quarterback battle is expected to narrow to Lockie and Adams by August.
|Sept. 5||Eastern Washington|
|Sept. 12||at Michigan State|
|Sept. 19||Georgia State|
|Oct. 3||at Colorado|
|Oct. 10||Washington State|
|Oct. 17||at Washington|
|Oct. 29||at Arizona State|
|Nov. 14||at Stanford|
|Nov. 27||Oregon State|
Without Mariota, who saved broken plays with ease, Oregon will likely rely more heavily on proven playmakers such as tailbacks Thomas Tyner (five carries for 47 yards Saturday) and Royce Freeman (six carries for 46 yards). Redshirt junior receiver Addison, sidelined by a torn ACL a year ago, is starting to look like his old self, though Helfrich would like to see him “totally cut loose.” Addison believes he is close. He said he felt free on Saturday, replacing fear about not being able to trust his knee with excitement at finally getting to suit up. And he looked good in the passing game—from both sides.
Besides catching four balls for 50 yards with a score, Addison threw a touchdown pass to Darren Carrington after evading defensive pressure (and getting smacked pretty good in the process, the result of him not wearing a red, hands-off jersey). Once an option quarterback at Fort Bend Hightower High in Missouri City, Texas, Addison completed each of the three passes he attempted Saturday, all from trick plays. This prompted a lighthearted question to Lockie about if Addison is now a member of the quarterback derby. The junior’s response, after a deep, playful sigh: “It’s a little upsetting. He used to give me a hard time about how he was a better quarterback than all of us, he just didn’t get [to show it]. After today, I’m sure he’s going to be talking a lot.” In reality, Addison, who caught 61 passes for 890 yards with seven touchdowns in 2013, will remain a receiver.
And then there is the curious case of Nelson, a sophomore whose role might still be undetermined.
After starring on special teams last fall—he returned a punt 50 yards for a score the first time he touched the ball against South Dakota in Oregon’s 2014 opener and was one of the best players on the kick coverage unit—Nelson switched over to defense this spring to add depth to a depleted secondary. He caught three passes for 27 yards as a wideout last year, but Oregon coaches loved him as a cornerback this spring. Nelson understood the defensive playbook almost instantly, and told coaches he was willing to do whatever necessary to help the team win.
Then he went out and caught five passes for 144 yards with two touchdowns for the winning team Saturday. He also recorded the game’s lone interception, picking off a Ty Griffin throw intended for Carrington. Helfrich joked that Nelson was the “Vegas favorite for MVP” before assuring everyone that coaches and players don’t bet on anything, per NCAA rules.
Lockie said he and offensive coordinator Scott Frost will be “leading the charge” this summer in lobbying to get Nelson to play offense full-time. He considered Nelson’s performance impressive not only because of the numbers, but also because he has practiced so little with the offense this spring.
Nelson’s role might become the most hotly debated topic of the Ducks’ off-season. Oregon needs him at cornerback, but how could it justify using him only on defense after that performance? Maybe he has a future in both. The Pac-12 has popularized the two-way player in recent years, with stars like UCLA’s Myles Jack, Washington’s Shaq Thompson and Stanford’s Owen Marecic proving their worth on offense and defense. Nelson, who played safety and receiver at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, Fla., said he thinks everyone wants to be that guy in college. Helfrich said there is no hard timetable for a decision, and Nelson doesn’t seem to be in a rush either.
But what if he was forced to choose? Asked if he prefers nabbing a pick, leveling someone with a hit or scoring a touchdown, Nelson smiled. “Well, if you get an interception, you have a chance to score,” he said. “So, it’s a win-win situation.”
It’s also possible that this season, as the Ducks again try to climb to the top, they’ll need him to do both.