A football season is a long and arduous process. You start out with players trained, conditioned and healthy, ready to go head-to-head to achieve an end goal. But as the schedule wears on, things can go awry, strategies aren’t up to snuff, leadership can be poor and casualties are suffered. Luckily for the Oregon Ducks, they have been victorious over all opponents, everything has gone smoothly in execution of strategy, choices of leaders, etc. But no matter how well a team prepares, there is no squad that is impervious to injuries and the Ducks now know this all too well.
Deep into a blitzkrieg across the college football landscape and within sight of a final battle for supremacy in Miami, the Ducks are beginning to lose key players — mostly on defense — to injuries. On the verge of depletion, the Ducks are calling upon young faces to mature quickly.
Head coach Chip Kelly runs closed practices and refuses to field inquiries about his players’ health, leaving it to keen observation and guesswork as to who will fill the voids in the final skirmishes en route to what Kelly and the Ducks hope to be a BCS title game appearance.
After just one game in the 2012 campaign, a battle in which Oregon was dominant against Arkansas State, Oregon lost two of its most experienced and decorated leaders in free safety John Boyett and offensive lineman Carson York to season-ending injuries. Boyett finally succumbed to dual tears in his patella tendons, an injury he played with, unbeknownst to the media and fans, for all of the 2011 season. York, who injured his knee in last year’s Rose Bowl win, broke his kneecap in the first game of the 2012 campaign.
As the two most senior starters on Chip Kelly’s roster, the Ducks lost experience, leadership and loads of talent in the loss of Boyett and York, who had already racked up accolades over the years and were expected to bring home more awards this season. Filling in for York has primarily been Ryan Clanton, but the offensive line this year has changed constantly week to week with minor injuries altering who plays up front. Most linemen have been asked to go beyond the constraints of their official position and play all along the line.
“I think playing tackle and guard is pretty much the same, it isn’t like wide receiver going to quarterback,” Kelly said. “The only position that doesn’t apply to in our system I think is center because of what we ask them to do.”
The seven players who have started at one of the five spots on the O-line for the Ducks this year include Jake Fisher, Everett Benyard, Ryan Clanton, Nick Cody, Hroniss Grasu, Tyler Johnstone and Mana Greig (now out for the season with an injury).
When it was announced Boyett was done for the year and done as a Duck, the response from fans and analysts was far more fearful than who would step up on the O-line, due to the fact that Boyett was a higher-profile player by virtue of his position and by his body of work.
Coming in from the reserves to take on the vacancy left by Boyett was the relatively unknown Avery Patterson. The converted cornerback competed for, but did not win, the rover position over current starter Brian Jackson and did not figure to play a big role in 2012. That changed when he was called up to the starting ranks.
Patterson was brilliant in his new role, and in three straight games he recorded an interception, taking two to the end zone for points. He was more than anyone could have hoped for as the substitute for a star. But devastation struck again. The Pittsburg, Calif., native wrenched his knee in pursuit of a Cal Bear last week at Berkeley, going down in agony in front of friends and family close to home. It is reported that he is out for the remainder for the season with a torn ACL.
Oregon’s defensive front is battered up and down the line, with starters Isaac Remington, Dion Jordan and Taylor Hart all having missed last weekend’s game at Cal with an unknown timetable for their returns to action. It gets worse though. Stalwart defensive tackles Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi have injuries with undisclosed severities. And those guys’ backup, Jared Ebert, has been out hurt for more than a month.
Last week at Cal, the Ducks utilized true freshmen Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci as well as switching former defensive end-turned-tight end, Koa Ka’ai, back to defensive end. Even if the starters return for Oregon, expect to see the Ducks rely on up to 12 defensive lineman in the home stretch of the season.
As we move back into the linebacker corps, things get a bit better with the only injury worth reporting being Kiko Alonso’s hurt wrist that he suffered less than a month ago, but he returned within two weeks of the injury to force a fumble and pick a pass against USC.
The secondary is Oregon’s second most-beleaguered unit, which, having been subtracted Boyett, now has to deal with replacing Patterson. Sophomore Erick Dargan, a high school teammate of Patterson’s, has seen significant field time already this year and has played just about every secondary position, making him the figured candidate to step in. But things aren’t so simple, as often-used third and fourth cornerbacks Troy Hill and Dior Mathis did not travel to play against Cal due to injury.
Moving forward, the depletion of resources is now the source of intrigue for many, as Duck fans wait to see if Kelly will re-allocate some of his versatile athletes. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is said to be able to play the safety position. If he moved, freak-of-an-athlete De’Anthony Thomas, who at one point was rated the number one high school cornerback in the country, could triple-dip, filling a secondary position in addition to his already stellar offense and special-teams efforts.
Wideout Keanon Lowe, who played both sides of the ball in high school, was also said to have taken reps on defense at practice on Monday along with Thomas.
“We think that the way we have structured practice allows us to maximize guys getting quality reps in practice,” Kelly said. “And we hope that if guys get put in a situation that they need to play that we have gotten them enough snaps in a practice situation where they can play.”
“We have been fortunate with some of our leads this season that we can play down the depth chart and guys have played before,” Kelly said. “We won’t be in game 11 going, ‘Oh my god I’m in the game’.”
For the Ducks, December couldn’t come fast enough. Oregon glided through the first half of its schedule blemish- and relatively harm-free. Despite running roughshod on USC, the Ducks’ first big opponent, the game was the first in which Oregon endured a multitude of injuries. The matchup against Cal claimed more victims and with two regular season games against bruising teams, Stanford and Oregon State, and most likely a matchup in the Pac-12 Championship against either UCLA or USC, the team from Eugene hopes to stay on its feet in the final lap, before having a month to recuperate for the bowl game.