And just like that, college football is back and Oregon fans can all finally return to their beloved Autzen Stadium. . .or at least watch all the action happening inside via the boob tube. For pigskin lovin’ folk, all is right in the world again, myself included.
Tomorrow, Autzen Stadium will awaken from hibernation as Mariota and Company play host to the South Dakota Coyotes; and by “play host” I mean “look to put up a record number of points,” and start the season off on the right foot.
The players and coaches will all tell you they are focused on “Winning the Day” and considering South Dakota faceless, but Duck fans know better. If Oregon falls, the nation will have witnessed a miracle. So Oregon fans, as you prepare to watch the Duck do pushups all night, here are a few other things to pay attention to:
1. Mariota Milestones
A fan favorite, Marcus Mariota returns to Autzen even more improved (if that was even possible). The newly graduated and 100% healthy quarterback seems to have found his voice and carries himself with even more swag and confidence. It comes as no surprise Mariota is at the front of the Heisman race and is set to break a number of Oregon records. Going into the season, Mariota needs just 4 passing touchdowns to surpass the record of 66, currently held by Darron Thomas. He also needs just 1 Touchdown to set the record for career touchdowns he currently SHARES with Joey Harrington. Additionally, Mariota is just 332 yards away from breaking the record for total yards of offense which currently stands at 8, 140, by Bill Musgrave. There’s little doubt each of these records will be broken in game 1.
2. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu Returning Punts
in what may be one of the newest team developments, it was announced this week that senior corner back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will be returning punts. In and of itself, this isn’t earth shattering news, but what makes it so interesting is the injury risk associated with that position and the extremely bright future for Ekpre Olomu, who opted to return to Oregon this year despite his favorable projected draft stock. Currently, Ekpre tops a number of college football award lists and is projected as a top 2015 draft pick. In short, he will be making a huge sacrifice taking on this extra role which will have his mother, and Duck fans everywhere holding their breath after every opponent’s punt.
3. Running Backs 3 Headed Monster
Perhaps one of the most exciting things to watch tomorrow will be the running backs. For the first time in a long time, Oregon has named three different starting running backs, including freshman, Royce Freeman. Oregon practices are of course closed to the media, but all reports seem to indicate this kid is extremely talented. To put it in perspective, Byron Marshall is easily compared to De’Anthony Thomas, and Freeman is still listed as a co-starter. Additionally, Marshall has openly talked about how much Freeman’s talent is challenging him to step up his game. Throw in powerback, Thomas Tyner, and this trio could be a force to be reckoned with.
After some of Oregon’s top receivers departed after last season, most Duck fans saw a huge question mark moving forward. With a duel-threat quarterback at the helm, having dependable targets is a critical part of the equation. Enter Devon Allen, Keanon Lowe, Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington. Each is said to bring different things to the table. Allen for example, spent the offseason tearing up Oregon Track and Field, while Lowe brings a wealth of game experience. Who will emerge as the lead target? In case you are wondering, I’ve got a particular close eye on Darren Carrington.
5. Pellum’s Defense
After 17 years at Oregon, Defensive Coordinator, Nick Aliotti retired opening the door for new Defensive Coordinator, Don Pellum, a 30 year veteran of the Oregon Football program. Though new to this head role, Pellum’s long tenure with the progam has allowed for a seamless transition, so we are told. He has said changes to the system will be few, but there is expected to be a new focus on fundamentals. Will this be the case? or will a new look be unveiled?
6. Mark Helfrich, Year Two
With a year behind him as Head Coach, Helfrich enters this season facing huge expectations. With a Heisman hopeful quarterback and a team starting the season atop the polls, anything less than a National Championship will instantly and perhaps unfairly, bring intense criticism. It’s no secret, Helfrich took on some big shoes to fill and this year should really show just how well he’s handling the team and all the pressure associated with being in charge. Does he have the team’s respect? Can he make the appropriate call on critical 4th downs? Can he take this team and it’s fans all the way?