Oregon Spring practices were painful to watch for offensive line enthusiasts. The defensive front dominated Coach Greatwood's charges in team play throughout the fifteen sessions as Jerry Azzinaro was able to break into the staff in grand fashion. Fall camp should be a different story.
The question at hand boils down to whether spring was a real indication of what fans should expect from the 2009 offensive line. Greatwood certainly will have a handful of guys with some game time to draw from. The most experienced is junior C.E. Kaiser with eleven starts at right tackle in 2008. Next is junior Bo Thran with four starts at left guard and one at right tackle. The last veteran is another junior, Jordan Holmes who started four games at left guard. Out of 65 total offensive line starts in 2008, the other 45 went to graduating seniors. Sophomore Mark Asper is the other returning member of the Holiday Bowl two-deep.
Oregon's new 'Running Game Coordinator' concurred. "You look at the amount of experience that we lost and who we have coming back, Jordan, Bo and C.E., two of those guys didn't participate," Greatwood said. "Then Mark Asper but Mark had a minimal amount of snaps last year."
So Greatwood has four players out of fourteen with some game experience returning for 2009. The problem during spring was Thran and Kaiser were out recovering from off-season surgeries, and they were the most experienced two. Compounding that was a series of spring dings to the remaining group, causing various players to miss significant practice time and left Greatwood scrambling to get youth up to speed. Some practices were downright comical with single digit numbers of OL available, and likely effected Kelly's decision-making for the Spring Game format.
Of course defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti wasn't helping matters, nor were his minions. With a strong and speedy group of linebackers to send at will, Aliotti had the defense in active mode as looks be the trademark of the 2009 group. At times the defense appeared to know the offense better than their counterparts; reading plays and snap counts as if they were in the offensive huddle. Azzinaro piled on. His intense demeanor translated into the play of the defensive line who were able to pin their ears back while the youthful offensive line had to think about what to do.
"The defense right now knows us better than we know ourselves," Greatwood told DSA at the end of camp. "They're off on the snap count faster than we are, they know that. They know our formations they know what we're going to do, they know our line calls. I'm not worried about that. I just want to see guys compete and execute and go as hard as they can."
It was good for the young offensive linemen that practices were held in the morning. Far fewer fans bore witness to the horrors as would have in years past. The preseason magazines rank the team high and place no asterisk by the OL group. Ultimately, they may well be right. Kaiser and Thran sitting out meant major reps with the first team for guys like Darrion Weems, Carson York, Nick Cody, Max Forer, Charlie Carmichael and Ramsen Golpashin, all of whom emerged like gigantic butterflies. They spent fifteen practices against a defense better prepared for their offense than anybody they'll face all season. The two-deep that blossomed from spring with the veterans back in place spoke volumes to their progress.
At the end of spring camp, Coach Greatwood reflected on what he had seen. "We'll be all right," assured the 25-year coaching veteran. "It's always darkest before the dawn. As long as these guys continue to compete, which they will, we'll be fine. Hone their technique and compete. They just have to believe in each other and trust in each other and we'll be OK."
For those who have followed the work of Steve Greatwood over the years, that comment is easy to believe.