PHOENIX — Oregon head coach Chip Kelly hates looking ahead.
Or at anything other than the team’s next opponent, Kansas State.
But for some of Oregon’s best players, their next opponent is their last.
Offensive lineman Ryan Clanton took a winding path to Oregon that led him from Bakersfield, Calif., through City College of San Francisco. The junior college experience gave him the preparation he needed to become a veteran and a rock this year for the Ducks. Days before his last game, Clanton reflected on what he would say to himself if he could go back to his first day in Eugene.
“I’d tell (myself) to listen to what (offensive line coach Steve Greatwood) tells you the first day you get there,” Clanton said. “And not try to figure it out by yourself. I spent a whole year, I was not paying attention to what he was saying. I was really trying to figure it out by myself and being hard-headed, and then I finally gave in and I was like, ‘Wow, that was easy.’”
For Greatwood, Clanton’s development has been a source of pride.
“To watch him go from sort of a junior college guy that was feeling his way,” Greatwood said, “to, I think, a very proven veteran player right now, his fundamentals have really grown. He’s kind of reshaped his body and proved his athleticism. … Guys like Ryan — the leadership. I’ve never really had a junior college kid come in and be a leader and be so accepted by the group.”
The Ducks’ offensive line was one of the most injured units on the team this year. After Carson York and Mana Grieg both suffered season-ending knee injuries, the line was shuffled around, and reserves like Tyler Johnstone and Everett Benyard were called up as the next man in. Still, the line paved the way for Oregon to lead the Pac-12 in rushing for the seventh straight year. They also allowed redshirt quarterback Marcus Mariota to be sacked 18 times, second fewest in the conference behind Arizona.
Now, Clanton will protect Mariota for the last time in the senior’s career.
“This is what you work for, all those days in the offseason,” Clanton said. “You know, it’s too hot, you wake up and you don’t want to go lift, or something happens and you feel like doing something else that day… This is what it’s all for.”
Fellow senior Kenjon Barner will also enjoy his last game running behind Clanton. The two Californians said one of the things they’ll miss the most after moving on is the environment of their adopted home.
“It’s very rare an entire community is as loving, caring and giving as Eugene,” Barner said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind community.”
“You don’t get to see a city as clean with wildlife that beautiful every day,” Clanton said. “Taking my truck out, it’s funny. They like the truck in Oregon, but you can tell a lot of people are saving the earth, and I’m the one churning the earth.”
The seniors have a little time to figure out where they’re headed next. For now, their full attention is on K-State.
“This is it — this is the big one,” Clanton said.