Question time for Ducks.
When the Ducks take the field in Autzen Stadium at 2 p.m. today for their annual spring game, it will be the last chance to get some answers for the five questions we offered as the biggest issues for Oregon in spring practice.
The spring began with two new coaches on the staff: offensive coordinator Chip Kelly and special teams coordinator Tom Osborne. The offense was predictably slow at the start but by the end of this month was holding its own against the defense.
The Ducks had some major holes to fill due to graduation, including center Enoka Lucas and middle linebacker Blair Phillips. But there were also questions about some of the returning players, most notably quarterback Dennis Dixon, who was benched late last season.
If there was a theme to the spring, it was improved intensity. A new conditioning program was implemented, and a series of drills heavy in hitting featured more prominently in the 14 practices leading up to today's scrimmage.
What follows is a review of the five questions we posed at the beginning of the month. Some were answered definitively. Others will remain on the table when fall camp begins in August.
1. What impact will new coordinator Chip Kelly have on the offense, and particularly senior quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf?
Kelly overwhelmed the offense at the start. The no-huddle was used exclusively from the beginning of camp, necessitating the implementation of hand signals, and the process of learning his terminology was compared often to learning a new language by players and coaches.
From a schematic standpoint, very little seems likely to change from the system Gary Crowton ran the past two seasons. But Kelly wants to be more versatile. He likes the "toolbox" metaphor, so we'll play along: Kelly doesn't want to be limited to certain tools for certain jobs, he wants to have them all available at all times. As that pertains to the no-huddle, for instance, Kelly essentially wants the option of running the entire playbook without huddling, rather than just a few situational plays.
The offense certainly was more efficient as the spring wore on, though it seemed at times that coaches scaled things back. The unit would occasionally huddle in order to get better organized, and only this past week did the Ducks seem to get particularly creative in their play-calling.
A summer of work in seven-on-seven drills is certainly necessary, particularly after the quarterbacks and receivers struggled to get on the same page early in camp. Among the wideouts, Garren Strong stood out early, and Cameron Colvin came on late as he battled with Brian Paysinger for the slot position.
As for the quarterbacks, UO coach Mike Bellotti said Dixon had "a very dominant spring," but that's to be expected because of his physical gifts. Dixon's confidence has been restored; he's never going to be the vocal leader Joey Harrington was, but Dixon was generally assertive when necessary. He also appeared to have a solid grasp of the new offensive system. When he wasn't on the field, he was the quickest to signal in plays, while some of the other quarterbacks had to glance at cheat sheets before doing so.
The bottom line: The offense rarely clicked this spring, but was efficient when it did. The unit needs to use its voluntary summer workouts to iron out the kinks before fall camp.
2. Who will step up and replace Blair Phillips, in his roles as both Oregon's starting middle linebacker and the leader of the defense?
One of the most pleasant surprises for the Ducks this spring was the development of John Bacon in the middle. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound junior opened camp with the first string and never relinquished the position manned last season by Phillips, who was named Oregon's most valuable player.
"It's a confidence factor with John," Bellotti said. "John has the physical tools, and yet he, I won't say doubted himself, but just questioned some things. He's just gung-ho, full-speed ahead, and that allows him to make plays, generate confidence and keep things going."
Bacon has the personality to potentially become a leader, but players respond to performance as much as anything else, so it might be the fall before he fully establishes himself in that regard.
Filling that void this spring has been Kwame Agyeman, the returning starter on the outside, Oregon's strong safety position. Agyeman has been the defense's most consistent vocal presence throughout the spring, remaining confident enough to fill that role despite a furious challenge for his job from Jerome Boyd.
The bottom line: Agyeman said coaches told him this was one of the best springs ever for a group of UO linebackers, and Bacon's emergence as a dependable force in the middle was likely a huge key to that.
3. How will returning special teams coordinator Tom Osborne affect the kicking game, particularly the way the Ducks both kick and receive punts?
The special teams drills during today's game will better illuminate Osborne's effect on the coverage games, as Oregon has had limited reps in those situations during its two previous scrimmages this spring.
What is known so far is that the Ducks have been energized by Osborne's organization and enthusiasm for special teams. Clearly, the team suffered from not having a coordinator the past two seasons.
As far as the punting units are concerned, there was good news and bad news. Josh Syria was compared to Josh Bidwell by Bellotti, who knows a thing or two about punting. Bidwell is still in the NFL, nearly a decade after leaving Eugene. Syria has a powerful leg that gives him impressive hang time, and his devotion to honing his technique should make him more consistent than any of the punters Oregon has employed in the past four years.
On the other side of the coin, the Ducks are still struggling with fumbles in the return game. Patrick Chung's ball security issues carried over from the fall, and he wasn't the only player to fumble in scrimmages this spring.
The bottom line: Overall improvement on special teams appears likely, given the additions of Osborne and Syria, but the Ducks still lack a dependable punt returner.
4. Which version of the reshuffled offensive line will best account for the loss of senior center Enoka Lucas, a three-year starter?
Just as Bacon did on defense, center Jeff Kendall took over with the first-string and rarely faltered. He's as big and as healthy as he's ever been, and he stepped in nicely for Lucas.
Still, there's no guarantee Kendall will be the starting center in the fall.
The Ducks remain committed to trying two-year starting left tackle Max Unger there. Unger sat out this spring after hernia surgery, but he is Oregon's best lineman, wherever he plays.
Bellotti expressed some frustrations with Fenuki Tupou once or twice during camp, but the transfer who redshirted last fall held down the top spot at left tackle as camp progressed. Unger's position next season could be determined by which player the staff has more faith in between Tupou and Kendall.
The bottom line: Kendall did a nice job, but by the time the Ducks open the season against Houston, Unger might have won the job as Lucas' replacement.
5. How will Kelly and the offense better employ Jonathan Stewart, who had more than 15 carries just twice in the second half of last season?
This is another answer that will be illuminated today, and even more so in the fall.
Stewart was limited in scrimmages, so there weren't a lot of answers provided this spring.
One note: The use of the I formation, which some fans are clamoring for, was severely limited by the infrequent participation of the team's lone fullback, Jason Turner, who was continuing his recovery from a knee injury.
The bottom line: Stay tuned. Kelly and Bellotti are committed to featuring Stewart prominently, but there was little reason to do so this spring.
UO SPRING GAME
2 p.m. today at Autzen Stadium. For expanded UO football coverage, go to www.registerguard.com