Ducks, loaded with returners, will be hunted in 2014
SAN ANTONIO — It was an eventful 2013 for the Oregon football program.
For the first time ever, the Ducks won two bowl games in one calendar year — defeating Kansas State 35-17 on Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl in Chip Kelly's final game and dominating Texas 30-7 on Monday night in the Alamo Bowl to cap Mark Helfrich's first season as head coach.
Oregon (11-2), ranked No. 10 entering the bowl season, figures to be somewhere near the top five when the 2014 preseason polls are released this summer.
The Ducks, who were No. 3 in the first Associated Press rankings back in August and battling Florida State for the No. 2 position in the BCS standings entering November, will once again be the hunted with the return of Marcus Mariota and 10 starters on offense.
"Sometimes the guys that are hunting instead of being hunted are the guys up there," offensive coordinator Scott Frost noted before Oregon stole the spotlight back from Mack Brown and the Longhorns between the lines at the Alamodome. "I watch the National Geographic Channel and I see documentaries of wolves chasing elk. And sometimes it's better to be the wolf than the elk that's out front because everyone is trying to bite at your heels.
"We were up at the top for eight weeks this season. Sometimes when you play that way you start to be defensive instead of attacking. Sometimes I think it's easier for a team like Auburn, rather than a team like Alabama or Oregon, because they're on the rise and on the chase."
Auburn, which will face No. 1 Florida State in the final BCS national championship game before the College Football Playoff begins after the 2014 regular season, didn't even receive votes in the preseason AP poll.
"There's only one undefeated team left in the country this year," Frost said before the win over Texas when asked about the Ducks' motivation for a December bowl. "We're working hard trying to be that team one of these years, hopefully real soon. The first step is winning this game."
After the convincing victory over the Longhorns, the Ducks were still being asked about the 26-20 loss at Stanford. Do they think they would still be unbeaten had Mariota not suffered a partially torn medial collateral ligament leading up to the Pac-12 game of the year?
"Who knows?" senior wide receiver Josh Huff said. "When he's healthy, he's great to the offense. He just makes the offense go. Just got to wait to make sure to find out."
Mariota provided an exciting preview of the possibilities for next fall by leading Oregon with 133 yards rushing and 253 yards passing against Texas.
Oregon's entire offensive line also returns, led by all-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu. Running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, wide receivers Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe, and tight ends Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt are also back.
Huff exits as one of the great receivers in program history, delivering three touchdowns in the 36-35 victory over Oregon State in the Civil War and 104 yards receiving and a touchdown against Texas in a memorable Alamo Bowl for the Houston native.
Left tackle Tyler Johnstone will have to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee sustained in the second quarter on Monday.
De'Anthony Thomas, who was not a major part of the game plan against Texas, might decide to take his talents to the NFL draft.
"We're young on offense. I know that's hard to say, but we got in the huddle the day before the game to do a walkthrough and 10 of the 11 guys in there are coming back," Frost said. "I think we showed a little youth (against Texas). I don't know how many penalties we had, I stopped counting them up there on my calculator.
"We definitely know the things we struggled with a little this year and we're going to fix them. But we have all the same guys back and that makes it easier to fix them."
Helfrich said he planned to take 24 or 48 hours to celebrate New Year's and then will begin focusing on making 2014 a memorable year for Oregon football. His first order of business will be finding a replacement for retiring defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and continuing work on what appears to be a strong recruiting class.
The Ducks will once again lose several standout players on defense, including defensive end Taylor Hart, defensive tackle Wade Keliikipi, linebacker Boseko Lokombo and safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson.
Oregon's starting cornerbacks, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, will also have to decide whether to return to school or go to the NFL before the Jan. 18 early-entry deadline.
True freshman placekicker Matt Wogan made field goals 25, 32 and 39 yards in the Alamo Bowl before hitting the right upright on a 32-yard try.
"There is a lot going for us going into next year. A lot of momentum, a lot of experience," Marshall said. "It should be fun with Marcus coming back next year. I'm excited to see what happens."