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March 31, 2014

Oregon spring practices: A primer

The Oregon Duck football team kicks off the 2014 season on Tuesday with their first of fifteen spring practice sessions at the Autzen Stadium complex in Eugene, culminating in an intrasquad game on Saturday May 3rd.

Duck Sports Authority has put together a primer to help fans prepare themselves for the action.

New Faces:

Erik Chinander - After a two-year stint as a linebackers graduate assistant for Oregon during Chip Kelly's final two years with the program, Chinander followed Kelly to Philadelphia where he served as assistant defensive line coach under Jerry Azzinaro. The 34-year old is a native of Iowa where he walked on as an offensive lineman. Chinander was tabbed to replace Don Pellum coaching the linebacker group following Pellum's promotion to defensive coordinator.

Jalen Brown - 6-foot-2, 185-pound WR, Phoenix (Ariz.) Mountain Pointe - Rated as the No. 89 overall player in the nation for the Class of 2014, Brown was an Army All-American and a high four-star recruit. With a nifty combination of size and speed, Brown has the type of talent to play as a true freshman and has a shot at doing so given the graduation of two senior off the WR two-deep.

Dominique Harrison - 5-foot-11, 185-pound CB, Contra Costa C.C. - Harrison was a three-star rated recruit and the No. 65-ranked junior college player in the nation in 2013 and was the Bay Valley defensive player of the year. Harrison has an opportunity to make the two-deep given the departure of Terrance Mitchell for the NFL draft. Redshirt available.

Haniteli Lousi - 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman, College of San Mateo - Lousi is a versatile athlete who could play inside or out for Steve Greatwood but stands a better time at guard given the depth chart. With a relatively young group of interior linemen for the Ducks, the three-star rated recruit has an opportunity for playing time in 2014 though learning the system will be key to that. Redshirt available.

Johnny Ragin III - 6-foot-3, 215-pound linebacker, Wilsonville (Ore.) via California - Ragin will be sitting out in 2014 after transferring from the University of California, where he participated in eight games as a true freshman. In the Class of 2013, Ragin III was ranked as the No. 3 player in the State of Oregon and was a four-time academic all-conference awardee in high school.

Tui Talia - 6-foot-5, 275-pounds defensive end, Diablo Valley C.C. Talia was ranked as the No. 11 JC player in the nation last year and was named California C.C. defensive player of the year. There will be plenty of opportunity for Talia to play in 2014 given the graduation of five scholarship defensive linemen. How fast he picks up the extensive defensive playbook will be his limiting factor. Redshirt available.

What to watch for:

The word "watch" is a bit inaccurate here because very few people outside of the school's payroll will be allowed access. Like last year, the spring practice sessions will be closed to the media and fans however exceptions will be made for major donors and their families. The school itself will again be issuing on GoDucks.com a daily report of practice observations produced by University staff.

Independent information and analysis of the team's progress will be gleaned from post-practice interviews with players and coaches. From these, Duck Sports Authority has some key questions we will be trying to answer.

With three of four defensive back positions open, is there reason to worry?

Sure there is reason to worry but it is probably not necessary. Coach John Neal is one of the best in the nation at developing talent and has a stable of excellent athletes ready to step up. At free safety senior Erick Dargan will be pushed by redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson, seniors Troy Hill and Dior Mathis will battle for the left cornerback position along with newcomer junior Dominique Harrison, and junior Issac Dixon and sophomore Reggie Daniels will start spring at the top of the Rover depth chart. All of these players are capable of starting at the Pac-12 level.

Who will emerge on the defensive line?

The answer to this will go a long way towards determining how good the Oregon defense is in 2014. With a no-huddle offense as their partner, the Oregon defense needs to get itself off the field on third downs and many of those situations will be decided at the line of scrimmage. At nose tackle Alex Balducci and Stetzon Bair will have their chances, and maybe Arik Armstead will slide inside at times too. At left defensive end Armstead will certainly be a force along with Sam Kamp and possibly J.C. transfer Tui Talia. Another player to keep an eye on is sophomore T.J. Daniel who received some solid praise for his practice play last year.

Will the defense change with the retirement of Nick Aliotti and the promotion of Don Pellum?

Probably not too much as Pellum coached under Aliotti for most of his career. Still though, every person is different and the defense will likely take on some of Pellum's personality throughout the years. But the problem is that in addition to a new coach and a new defensive coordinator, only five of the eleven starters on defense return. How quickly Pellum can gel the group will be one of the keys to 2014.

With 10 of 11 offensive starters returning, are there any questions?

Sure there are always questions. Who will back up Mariota? For most of last year it was Jeff Lockie first and Jake Rodrigues next. But that could easily change. What will the carry distribution be at running back? Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner are two of the answers, but will newcomer Royce Freeman or somebody else enter the mix?

One wide receiver spot is also wide open following the graduation of Josh Huff. Dwayne Stanford, Chance Allen and Darren Carrington might earn the nod. Or it could be incoming freshman Jalen Brown. Or somebody else.

The Ducks enter the 2014 season with high expectations as most pundits have them in the top five of their preseason rankings. The quest to prove that, return to a BCS Bowl and answer some questions begins tomorrow.


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