Certain armchair analysts will go on breathlessly about the x's and o's of Saturday's 2013 Spring Game but they'll only be fishing for hits--coaches rarely reveal much in the plain vanilla milkshake that is a spring intrasquad scrimmage, and much of what happens is no more telling than the seventh inning of a Cactus League baseball game. The veterans come out early. No coach wants to give the rest of the league a four-month advance notice on the new wrinkles of the offense, or get a key player banged up in a simulation that's mainly an opportunity to cap spring practice and allow the alumni to work on their tans and tailgate assembly.
But what a great party the Oregon spring scrimmage has become. There's national TV coverage, this year on the PAC-12 Network. There's a salute to the troops, the Oregon rally girls, sunshine and 60 degrees, an opportunity to gather with old friends, wash down blackened brats with a delicious cold beverage, and lie about our golf games.
On the field, it's a great first look at young players in their first extended competition. Particularly interesting will be the progress of understudy quarterbacks Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues. This week Marcus Mariota admitted to being stressed out before his debut last spring, and the poise and playmaking ability he displayed that morning was a harbinger of his successful battle with Bryan Bennett and subsequent four-year assault on the Oregon record book. Mariota ran for two touchdowns and 99 yards, passed for 202 and another score while leading a rout, thoroughly outplaying Bennett, signalling clearly to Duck fans that all the closed-practice rumors were true: Super Mario was the real deal, and about to Donkey Kong the rest of the PAC-12.
Rodrigues and Lockie aren't likely to be as impressively flashy as MM was. Instead of a red jersey #8 should have worn a red cape, accurate and nimble and fast, looking completely in command the first time he ran the offense in live competition. Tomorrow, Rodrigues and Lockie will be considered successful if they scrape through the day without looking shellshocked and overwhelmed in their extended auditions; they'll face the number one and number two defenses much of the day while Mariota likely won't play more than a series or two.
Two key questions: how well is Rodrigues moving on his repaired leg, 15 months after a devastating injury, and how well does Lockie, primarily a pro-style passer in high school, run Oregon's read option? Lockie's the shortest and smallest of Oregon's four quarterbacks, but looks athletic enough in his high school tape to be effective. He has good field vision and makes good decisions. Reports say Rodrigues has a big arm but still walks with a bit of a limp. Fans will be keeping an eye on his mobility. A key with strong-armed passers is learning what throws to make and which to leave alone. As young players, there's a tendency for them to force the ball occasionally. Oregon's fast, ball-hawking secondary will help him refine that skill.
Pharoah Brown and Bralon Addison have been mentioned a lot in spring interviews, and one or both of them having a good day on Saturday would be a good sign for the Oregon offense. With some question at running back this year now that both LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner are gone, Mariota needs a wider array of targets and for a couple of those targets to establish themselves as go-to, big-play receivers. If the Ducks passing attack is destined to become a bigger part of the offense, somebody has to prove they are the guy to fill the void left by Jeff Maehl two years ago. The committee approach works well enough as a change of pace, but to have a formidable, big-play, gameplan-changing passing attack, you need two or three receivers who bring strong production and reliablity in the clutch.
The first step is winning the confidence of the coaches and the quarterback, and there's no time like tomorrow for establishing that.
De'Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner will likely do a capable job spearheading what has been the nation's most explosive running game, but with a laser-accurate quarterback with the ability to make all the throws, the situation simply begs for someone to show they have the goods to be counted on for chunk plays in the passing game. Chance Allen and B.J. Kelley have the size and speed, DAT is his scary self in open space, and Lyerla has the impressive physical package if he ever puts it together every down. Fans would love to see one of these guys, or Keanon Lowe or Josh Huff, establish a foothold on greatness with a five catch, 100-yard day in the Autzen sunshine.
Defensively, the biggest question for Oregon is at linebacker, and Saturday could be a great opportunity for the three or four healthy inside linebackers to show they can be the active, aggressive presence the Ducks need. In particular, transfer Joe Walker hopes to overcome those first-game jitters to make a strong impression. Making some plays and creating some collisions tomorrow would be a down payment on a bigger role in the fall.
Never be carried away with Spring Game results, or those pesky x's and o's. Remember the National Championship Game year, 2010? Nate Costa was sharp and precise, throwing underneath for big gains to Maehl, Chad Delaney and Lavasier Tuinei. The highlight play of the game was a 66-yard flea flicker touchdown heave from Darron Thomas to D.J. Davis. The flea flicker never showed up in the fall playbook, and Davis, a terrific contributor and role player in the receiving group that season, had a long reception of 38 yards in the regular year.
One key glimpse of the future in that game: true freshman Terrance Mitchell, an early enrollee, made an immediate impression with a pick six off Thomas, a poorly thrown ball into double coverage. Fortunately Thomas didn't make more than a half dozen throws that bad while going 13-1, a season that saw him throw 30 touchdowns against just nine picks as first-year, redshirt sophomore starter. Mitchell's big splash in his Duck debut proved to be prescient; he's now one of the best corners in the league, and with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, one of the nation's best tandems.