Long an underdog in college football, Oregon is adjusting to the role of being a favorite.
The Ducks are two-time defending Pac-10 champions, and they finished No. 3 in both major polls after losing to Auburn in the BCS National Championship game in January. The Ducks lose half of their starters to graduation, but they return the two biggest keys to their high-powered offense, quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James.
Add in what many people consider to be the best recruiting class in program history, and Oregon almost certainly will be the favorite to win another conference championship and remain in the top five next season.
The Ducks led the nation with 47 points per game, and in addition to Thomas and James, they return starting receiver Lavasier Tuinei and tight end David Paulson along with key skill-position reserves, including running back Kenjon Barner and wide receiver Josh Huff.
The most important thing for Oregon in the next couple months might be to avoid the offseason troubles that plagued the Ducks last year.
After reaching the Rose Bowl, Oregon suffered through a horrible offseason last year when quarterback Jeremiah Masoli headlined a list of four players who were kicked off the team following legal troubles. James and kicker Rob Beard also ran into legal problems that led to them being suspended for the first game of the 2010 season.
Coach Chip Kelly was doing national interviews defending his program, which had its Rose Bowl appearance quickly overshadowed by off-the-field troubles.
The Ducks seem to have learned a lesson from last year, and three weeks since the end of the season, there had been no off-field distractions for the team, which was celebrated with a parade through town in January.
TOP OF THE CLASS
ATH De'Anthony Thomas (Crenshaw High School, Los Angeles) -- Oregon's recruiting class got a huge boost when the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Thomas made a late switch from his commitment to USC and instead signed with the Ducks after making a visit to Eugene. Ranked as the No. 5 overall recruit in the nation by Rivals, he was slated to play cornerback for the Trojans but will likely be a running back or receiver for Oregon. He ran for 1,299 yards and 18 touchdowns and had five interceptions as a senior at Crenshaw.
TE Colt Lyerla (Hillsboro High School, Hillsboro, Ore.) -- The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder was the top recruit in the state, earning a five-star label by Rivals. After rushing for 1,519 yards and 25 touchdowns and registering 45 tackles and two sacks as a senior, the biggest question surrounding Lyerla is where he will play at Oregon. He is expected to start out at tight end or receiver, but he could move to linebacker.
WR Devon Blackmon (Summit High School, Fontana, Calif.) -- The four-star recruit is another typical pickup by the Ducks under Chip Kelly, who looks for speed and athleticism in athletes and then finds a place for them on the field. The 39th-ranked player in the nation picked Oregon over USC and UCLA after playing quarterback, running back and receiver in high school, but he will focus on receiver for the Ducks.
OT Andre Yruretagoyena (Chaparral High School, Scottsdale, Ariz.) -- The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder was an early commit for the Ducks before their run to the national title game, and he remained one of their top recruits. Ranked seventh at his position by ESPN, he is considered a dominant run blocker who will need to add weight in college.
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