Ducks have fleet of new receivers
EUGENE — When Marcus Mariota needed to deliver a clutch throw last season, Oregon's star quarterback usually put his trust in Josh Huff to make a big catch.
The dependable senior was on the receiving end of several defining plays for the Ducks in 2013:
Oct. 12 at Washington: After being carted off the field with what appeared to be a serious leg injury, Huff returned in the second half. With Oregon only leading the rival Dawgs 21-14, Mariota found Huff for a 65-yard touchdown on second-and-7 to silence the sellout crowd at Husky Stadium on the way to a 45-24 victory.
Nov. 29 vs. Oregon State: After the Beavers took a 35-30 lead in the final two minutes, Mariota calmly marched the Ducks down the field and connected with Huff for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds left to steal a 36-35 victory. It was Huff's third touchdown of the Civil War classic at Autzen Stadium.
Dec. 30 vs. Texas: After Oregon took a 13-7 lead on the Longhorns, thanks to a defensive touchdown and two Matt Wogan field goals, Mariota threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Huff with 44 seconds left before halftime, allowing the Ducks to take control of the Alamo Bowl en route to a 30-7 victory.
Huff finished with the Oregon season record for receiving yards (1,140) and tied the season record for receiving touchdowns (12). He had six 100-yard receiving games during the 11-2 season, also a school record.
Now the question is: Who is Mariota going to look for when games are on the line this fall?
"I trust all those guys. Those guys are going to step up in those moments," Mariota said last week of the young group of returning receivers. "I have all the confidence if it's fourth-and-11 to tie the ball game up or whatever the situation may be. Really, all those guys out there have done an awesome job so far. I really look to them and I'm confident in them."
Mariota made the statement two days before Bralon Addison suffered a torn ACL in spring practice. The explosive junior was Oregon's most productive returning receiver with 61 receptions for 890 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
With the graduation of receiver Daryle Hawkins and running back De'Anthony Thomas leaving a year early for the NFL, Mariota's top four targets from last year are gone.
Keanon Lowe is now the most productive returner, with 18 receptions for 233 yards and three touchdowns last season. The senior receiver said the younger players on the team are ready for their time to shine.
"I couldn't be more excited about this group. I think we've got a lot of guys that compete like we've never had before in our meeting room. I think we have a lot of talented guys in our meeting room who are definitely ready to step up," Lowe said. "With Josh's touches being gone, Bralon's touches being gone and even De'Anthony's touches being gone, there's a lot of opportunity. I know for a fact we all realize that, and that just pushes us even harder."
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich refused to acknowledge Addison's devastating injury publicly.
"I can neither confirm nor deny anything. Thanks for asking, though," Helfrich said. "Bralon was at practice (Friday) and the wide receiver group, every single one of them, is trying to get better."
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost and wide receivers coach Matt Lubick opted to put a positive spin on the situation, noting that Addison will still be an important part of the program behind the scenes while he rehabs the injury and on the field when he gets healthy.
There is also time to adjust without the dynamic Addison with nine more practices remaining in the spring and three weeks of fall camp before the Aug. 30 opener against South Dakota.
"We've got a great group, a very hungry group and a talented group," Lubick said. "We've got a lot of players around them with a lot of different options. We've got a good tight end package, we have a great running back package, we've got a lot of options."
Some of the possibilities at wide receiver include:
Dwayne Stanford: After appearing in 13 games as a freshman in 2012, the intriguing 6-5, 205-pound sophomore sat out last season while recovering from his own spring knee injury sustained a year ago.
"He's been doing well. He had some big plays today," Helfrich said of Stanford after Friday's scrimmage. "A guy that I think is working back to full confidence."
B.J. Kelley: One of several players with track speed and oozing with football potential. It's clearly time for the 6-2, 183-pound redshirt junior to step into a bigger role.
"We're waiting on B.J. Kelley to be the guy we expect him to be," Frost said.
Devon Allen: The potential TrackTown standout now has an opportunity to get on the fast track in Oregon's offense. The 6-0, 190-pound redshirt freshman is having a strong spring.
"I'm really excited for his development. He's been practicing hard and he's one of the guys that gets it," Lowe said. "I'm glad he gets it in spring so he can take that to the summer and continue to get better."
Jalen Brown: The 2014 recruit, a 6-2, 185-pound true freshman from Phoenix, enrolled at Oregon early and caught Mariota's eye during the winter conditioning program.
"I think his intelligence is the biggest thing," Frost said. "He's able to get lined up and know what he's doing having only been here for a quarter and four practices. That's rare. I think as he gets more confidence he'll be playing with more speed and more aggressiveness. He's got a chance to be really good."
Chance Allen: Another Houston-area import who has been mentored by Huff and Addison. The 6-2, 200-pound sophomore caught five passes for 98 yards last season.
"Chance and Dwayne (Stanford) are improving and have a chance to really help us," Frost said.
Darren Carrington: The redshirt freshman received rave reviews from the staff for his practice habits last year and was competing at a high level this spring until suffering a wrist injury.
"The defensive coaches say Carrington was probably the best scout team receiver they've ever had over there last year. So we've had high hopes for him coming in," Frost said. "He did some really good things early, and we're expecting him to be back here at the end of spring ball helping us."
Johnny Loyd: Dana Altman's steady 5-8 point guard is not a novelty act on Helfrich's team.
"It's been unbelievable to see his emotion and how eager he is to learn," Lubick said. "He has put a ton of time in on his own to get caught up with the guys. He had instant respect the day he stepped on the football field because people know what type of person he is. He's a great athlete but an even better person."
Suddenly, the search for Mariota's go-to-guy in 2014 is a serious topic.
"There's guys that have that look in their eye, whether it's the basketball player who wants the last shot or whatever the analogy is," Helfrich said. "You see that in practice too, guys that love to compete all the time. I think for the most part we're competing well, we're not competing as smart as we should be right now."