In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
Chip Kelly may have left the Ducks, but the high-octane offense he made famous, as well as plenty of exciting NFL prospects, remain in Eugene.
Kelly's former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Mark Helfrich, takes over a Quack Attack that has ranked in the top 10 in scoring among FCS teams each season since 2008. He and new offensive coordinator Scott Frost (of Nebraska fame) inherit a roster boasting as much talent at the "skill positions" as any in the country.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota enters his redshirt sophomore season after breaking the school record with 38 total touchdowns in his first year as the starter. Tight end Colt Lyerla and wide receiver Josh Huff might contend for All-American status in schemes that featured them, but with the electric De'Anthony Thomas expected to take a bigger role in the club's offense in 2013, their talents might not be fully appreciated until each contends for a high pick in the NFL draft.
Veteran defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is similarly blessed with a unit filled with future NFL prospects. While the loss of versatile defenders Dion Jordan and Kiko Alonso certainly hurts, a talented Ducks' D could prove even better (statistically speaking) in 2013 than they were a year ago and perhaps push just as many prospects into the NFL.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 19
2013 NFL Draft picks: Five -- OLB Dion Jordan (first round, Miami Dolphins), OG Kyle Long (first round, Chicago Bears), ILB Kiko Alonso (second round, Buffalo Bills), RB Kenjon Barner (sixth round, Carolina Panthers), S John Boyett (sixth round, Indianapolis Colts)
Top Oregon prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. RB De'Anthony Thomas (5-09, 178, 4.34)*
It is difficult to describe Thomas' game-breaking ability as a runner, receiver and returner without venturing into hyperbole. Famously nicknamed "Black Mamba" by Snoop Dogg, Thomas' ability to slither and slip past would-be tacklers is certainly serpent-like. Playing behind future NFL draft picks LaMichael James (2012 second round, San Francisco 49ers) and Barner, Thomas nonetheless has emerged as the most feared back in the country. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry in 2012, rushing for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns despite only toting the rock 92 times. Barner, by comparison, had 278 rushes last year. With Barner handling the bulk of the running duties, Thomas often did his damage via short receptions out of the backfield, leading the Ducks with 45 catches for 445 yards and another five scores in 2012. He also scored off of both punt and kick returns in 2012, contributing to his 108 total points as a redshirt sophomore -- the 8th most points scored by any player in a single season in school history.
Despite his gaudy production, Thomas' lack of bulk makes him a tough evaluation for the NFL. Some are sure to question his role in the pros, as he won't see the wide-open running lanes in the NFL as he's found in college football. However, as evidenced by April's draft, the NFL is evolving into a league in which players who can make defenders miss in the open field are much more highly valued than ever before. The St. Louis Rams' bold trade up for diminutive wideout Tavon Austin and the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to bypass other, more traditional backs for similarly elusive runner Giovani Bernard as the first running back drafted in 2013 provides evidence of the league's new emphasis on playmakers. As such, Thomas' incredible combination of lateral agility, balance and acceleration could demand a high draft choice whenever he elects to make himself eligible to the NFL.
2. TE Colt Lyerla (6-5, 246, 4.59)*
Throughout Kelly's tenure with the Ducks (and previously, under Mike Belloti), Oregon has emerged as one of the country's top producers of NFL tight ends, with five players from the position being drafted since 2002. While Lyerla's production isn't staggering (25 catches for 392 yards and six TDs in 2012), his freakish combination of size and athleticism is expected to earn him a higher draft-day grade than any of them. A former linebacker whose athleticism and vision prompted the Ducks to employ him as a running back, at times, last season, Lyerla's upside could, in fact, earn him a higher grade than any Oregon tight end since the New England Patriots selected Russ Francis with the No. 16 overall pick in 1975. Lyerla's numbers aren't likely to explode in 2013 as the Ducks' offense is expected to remain focused on quick passes and their dynamic running game and he isn't a dominating blocker despite possessing a rocked-up physique and good overall strength. Any NFL team looking for a matchup nightmare, however, might fall in love with Lyerla's upside.
3. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (5-10, 190, 4.52)*
With opponents forced to try and keep up with the Ducks' high-octane offense, Oregon's defenders are often in position to make big plays -- something that Ekpre-Olomu proved quite adept at exploiting in his first season as a starter. Athletic, physical and instinctive, Ekpre-Olomu (full name is pronounced ee-fo eck-pray-olo-moo) registered a Pac-12-leading 20 passes defensed in 2012, including four interceptions. The former prep safety showed off his big-hitting ability last year, as well, tying for the league-lead with six forced fumbles.
While competitive and alert, Ekpre-Olomu is not an elite cover corner. He possesses enough athleticism to remain at the position in the NFL but relies on vision, timing and hand-eye coordination rather than extraordinary speed or fluidity to shut down opponents, demonstrating the ability to play off, press and zone coverage with the Ducks. Ekpre-Olomu possesses broad shoulders and a well-built frame overall and is sound in run-support, making him one of the better all-around cornerback prospects in the country.
4. WR Josh Huff (5-11, 205, 4.42)
Like fellow pass-catcher Colt Lyerla, Huff might not possess the eye-popping production to earn much attention from fans and the media, but his traits will intrigue scouts. Huff, who has been starting for the Ducks since signing with the team as a true freshman out of Houston, caught a career-high 32 passes for 493 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012. He caught most of his passes while lining up outside over his career but is expected to see more action inside at the slot in 2013. This could result in significantly more catches for Huff and fits in with his skill-set. While expected to impress in timed drills, Huff does not show elite speed on tape. His physicality and toughness, however, make him a difficult matchup for cornerbacks. Huff uses his body well to shield defenders from the ball and he is a strong runner after the catch, demonstrating the balance and leg-drive to spin and run through arm tackles. Huff is not a future No. 1 target in the NFL, but his size and strength should make him an effective complementary wideout capable of contributing early in his pro career.
5. DL Taylor Hart (6-5, 292, 4.87)
Despite the fact that Hart's eight sacks in 2012 were nearly double that of Dolphins' first-round pick Dion Jordan (five), the long-armed, highly versatile defender is rarely mentioned as one of Oregon's better NFL prospects. Should Hart continue his playmaking ways now that offenses will be focusing their blocking assignments on him (rather than Jordan), that could change quickly, however.
Asked to attack the quarterback as a defensive tackle, defensive end and as a stand-up rusher, Hart's production was no doubt influenced by opponents being forced to pass often. But he's proven himself to be a standout since redshirting in 2009, playing in all 40 games since that time. Given an honorable mention nod by conference coaches after each of the past two seasons, Hart could be in position to gain significantly more recognition in 2013. He possesses a naturally large frame with good overall musculature and long arms. Despite his long arms, Hart shows impressive upper body explosiveness to jolt would-be blockers and create separation. He is surprisingly athletic, showing not only the ability to side-step laterally to keep contain but also when in pursuit.
Other Oregon prospects worth watching:
QB Marcus Mariota (6-3, 214, 4.53)*
Though only a redshirt sophomore, the physically gifted Mariota may have quite a decision to make following this season, especially if the NFL's sudden appreciation for dual-threat quarterbacks continues. Oregon's offense simplifies the decisions quarterbacks are asked to make, but there is no denying Mariota's size, athleticism and arm talent. Mariota passed for 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 752 yards and another five scores in 2012. He also broke the school record with an eye-popping 68.5 completion percentage.
OC Hroniss Grasu (6-3, 295, 4.96)*
The first center drafted into the NFL each of the past two years were juniors (Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, Peter Konz), which could make for an interesting post-season decision for Grasu, as well. Athletic and technically refined, Grasu (not Bears' first-round pick, Kyle Long) was named the Ducks' Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2012. He has started all 27 games in the middle for Oregon since redshirting in 2010.
OLB Boseko Lokombo (6-3, 226, 4.68)
Overshadowed by former teammates Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay at linebacker throughout much of his career, Lokombo emerged as a legitimate playmaker for the Ducks in 2012, registering 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble to go along with the four defensive/special teams touchdowns he's scored over his career. A native of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Lokombo was already drafted by the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League, which allows its teams to draft redshirt juniors and wait to sign them following the conclusion of their NCAA (and any NFL) careers. If the highly athletic linebacker can continue his big-play ways, however, his future lies in the NFL not the CFL.
S Brian Jackson (5-10, 205, 4.53)
While undersized, Jackson emerged as a quality starter in 2012 after being pressed into duty with knee injuries pushing incumbent starter John Boyett out of the lineup. The Hoover, Ala., native is a physical, instinctive defender who is the team's leading returning tackler (69 stops) and recorded nine passes defended in his first season as a starter.
DT Wade Keliikipi (6-3, 295, 5.06)
A wide-bodied defensive tackle with 37 career games to his credit (including 20 starts), Keliikipi is a run-stuffing presence who has averaged 20 tackles each of his three seasons of action for the Ducks. While too slow to contribute much as a pass-rusher, Keliikipi's ability to hold up in the middle could earn him late-round consideration should he post another solid campaign in 2013.
The full list of the players and teams previewed by NFLDraftScout.com can be seen here.