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March 28, 2011

So close Oregon out to do it again

The scoreboard said Oregon was four points away from a national championship. In reality, the Ducks were much closer.

There was an interception in the red zone, and Oregon was inside Auburn's 5 on two other occasions but came away with just three points. That's never easy to accept, but it's even more difficult for the Ducks, who led the nation in total offense and in scoring.

The return of quarterback Darron Thomas and LaMichael James, a lightning bolt disguised as a running back, ensures Oregon will remain explosive.

But holes must be filled along the offensive and defensive lines and at linebacker. Patching them up, which are the top priorities this spring, will be key to Oregon's hopes for another run at the title game.

There are three open starting slots on both lines, and replacing both defensive tackles off a unit that was stout against the run might be the most important task.

Despite the holes, the Ducks should head into the season as the pick to win the Pac-12 North title. But there's also a potential NCAA investigation to worry about in relation to the Ducks' recruiting methods.

Here's a look at Oregon as it prepares for spring drills.

OREGON AT-A-GLANCE
QB Darron Thomas is back to lead an explosive attack for Oregon.
THE BASICS
Coach: Chip Kelly
Last season: 12-1 overall, 9-0 in the Pac-10. Lost 22-19 to Auburn in the BCS national title game.
Spring dates: March 28-April 30.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): T Mark Asper, RB LaMichael James, TE David Paulson, QB Darron Thomas, WR Lavasier Tuinei, G Carson York, T Darrion Weems.
Defense (5): FS John Boyett, CB Cliff Harris, LB Josh Kaddu, SS Eddie Pleasant, E Terrell Turner.
Special teams (2): K Rob Beard, P Jackson Rice.
Positions of strength

The Ducks are loaded at running back. LaMichael James was a Heisman finalist and led the nation with 1,731 rushing yards last season. Backup Kenjon Barner, another speedster, averaged more than 6.0 yards per carry while rushing for 551 yards. Former five-star prospect Lache Seastrunk is ready to contribute after redshirting last season. QB Darron Thomas earned all-conference recognition in 2010 in his first year as a starter. He passed for more than 2,800 yards and threw 30 touchdown passes. He's an effective runner, too. The secondary should be solid. CB Cliff Harris is a playmaker, and the Ducks have good depth as well.

Help is needed

The offensive line could be a position of concern. Three of last season's starters are gone, including all-conference selections Jordan Holmes and Bo Thran. The defensive line also must replace three starters, including sack-leader Kenny Rowe and both starting tackles, including star Brandon Bair. There also are two holes at linebacker, and it seems doubtful the Ducks can match the production of departed starters Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. The Ducks also need a new go-to receiver with the graduation of Jeff Maehl. Oregon also lost another starting receiver in D.J. Davis, so a pecking order at the position needs to be established this spring.

3 guys to watch

LB Kiko Alonso: Alonso was the Ducks' primary backup middle linebacker in 2009, but he was suspended last season. He also had a knee injury. If he proves to be back at full speed from the injury, he'll likely move into the starting lineup.

WR Josh Huff: Huff was a big-play threat as a backup last season. He averaged 15.9 yards on 19 catches and had a 54-yard touchdown catch against Arizona State. Huff could emerge as the Ducks' primary receiving threat, but consistency is a concern.

DT Isaac Remington: Remington was a junior college transfer who sat out 2010 as a redshirt. The Ducks lost both starting tackles from last season, so Remington is expected to make a push to claim one of those jobs.

The pressure is on

CB Anthony Gildon: Gildon, a senior, started the first six games last season, but an injury forced him to the sideline and he never reclaimed his starting job from Cliff Harris. The Ducks have a lot of talented, young defensive backs on the roster. Gildon needs a strong showing this spring to hold them off.

The buzz

Back-to-back Pac-10 championships and an appearance in the national championship game definitely have raised the standards and expectations in Eugene. Consequently, this spring is vital. The Ducks need to make major progress in rebuilding the offensive line and the defensive front seven. If some key prospects demonstrate they're ready to step in and perform at a high level, Oregon could be good enough to capture another conference championship. And maybe more.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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