Rejiggered Ducks kick off fall camp
It has been seven months since Oregon’s triple-overtime loss at the Alamo Bowl ended the Ducks’ streak of consecutive double-digit-win seasons at seven.
In the aftermath of the choppy 9-4 campaign, fourth-year coach Mark Helfrich will reboot with a reshaped staff when fall camp opens Monday.
The Ducks will be flying just below the national radar at No. 22 in the coaches poll as they begin three weeks of critical preparation for the 2016 season, which begins Sept. 3 against UC Davis at Autzen Stadium (2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
Most important storyline
Brady Hoke takes over as defensive coordinator after Oregon finished 2015 ranked 116th in points allowed (37.5 ppg) and 117th in yards allowed (485.3 ypg).
The Ducks lose Pac-12 defensive player of the year DeForest Buckner to the NFL and last year’s starting linebackers to graduation.
The secondary, which struggled last fall, must show dramatic improvement early in September as the former Michigan coach transitions Oregon to a 4-3 scheme.
Hoke said seniors T.J. Daniel (defensive line) and Johnny Ragin (linebacker) and fourth-year junior Tyree Robinson (cornerback/safety) have emerged as leaders.
“You have a young front seven, and I think some of the strength of our defense needs to come a little bit from the back end,” Hoke said. “That’s good if there’s leadership there. To develop the kind of defense that you want to play and have an identity of the defense we want to be, it really has to start up front with how we play the game.
“We need to play with a physicalness, a mentality and a toughness that you play the game of football with.”
Key position battle
The Ducks might be even more talented at the skill positions than the 2014 team that won the Pac-12 title, the Rose Bowl and appeared in the College Football Playoff championship game.
But there isn’t a ready-made Heisman Trophy candidate to lead the way at quarterback.
At some point during fall camp, Helfrich will conclave with first-year offensive coordinator Matt Lubick and quarterbacks coach David Yost to choose a starter.
Montana State graduate transfer Dakota Prukop is the favorite to replace former Big Sky rival Vernon Adams Jr., but Travis Jonsen and Terry Wilson made strong impressions with the staff and teammates during the spring.
Lubick wants to game plan around a clear No. 1, but there is still a chance more than one signal-caller will take meaningful snaps this fall.
“I think there’s definitely something to having some continuity, whoever that guy ends up being, to having one guy,” Lubick said. “But there’s always a chance to bring a guy in for a package here or a package there because of our offense and the flexibility that we have with it.”
In the spotlight
Oregon’s star is the soft-spoken Royce Freeman. If the Ducks exceed outside expectations and contend for championships, the junior running back should emerge as a serious Heisman candidate.
Freeman’s total rushing yards (3,201) and total touchdowns (38) over the last two seasons eclipse the statistics put up by Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (2,319 yards, 15 touchdowns), LSU’s Leonard Fournette (2,987 yards, 33 touchdowns) and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (2,699 yards, 28 touchdowns) in those categories.
Entering the season, Freeman is 1,881 yards shy of LaMichael James’ Oregon career rushing record.
“Royce is a tremendous leader for or football team because of the way he works and his mindset, just how humble he is,” Lubick said.
“When you see your best player or the one with the most accolades go out and practice at a high level every single day with urgency, that carries a lot more weight than we do as coaches as far as, ‘This is the way we do it, this is the way to be a good football player on and off the field.’
“What he brings from an attitude standpoint and a work-ethic standpoint is worth it’s weight in gold.”
Burning campfire questions
Can Pharaoh Brown, a first-team all-Pac-12 tight end in 2014, return to form after sitting out last season to recover from a devastating leg injury?
Will Devon Allen rejoin an already-deep wide receiver group — Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson, Dillon Mitchell, the list goes on — after the Olympics?
Can the Ducks’ revamped defensive line, which also loses the concrete block that was Alex Balducci at nose tackle, develop into a group capable of holding its own against the physical offensive lines of USC, Stanford and Utah?
Will Don Pellum prove to be an important part of the solution, as Helfrich predicts, returning to the role of linebackers coach after two seasons as defensive coordinator?
“I felt that from day one, that’s how coach Helfrich runs a program,” Hoke said when asked about fitting in with Oregon’s old guard. “When we all got together, we went right back to work.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter @rgduckfootball .