Spring Practice Primer: Oregon Ducks

College football never ends, and during the next few weeks, teams will be getting ready for the 2013 season in their spring practice sessions. Here's a look at the Oregon Ducks  and what they'll be working on this spring.

Marcus Mariota should be a Heisman candidate in 2013.  (USATSI)
Marcus Mariota should be a Heisman candidate in 2013. (USATSI)

Spring practice began: April 2

Spring game: April 27

2012 record: 12-1

Returning starters: 15 (eight on offense, seven on defense)

Former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich inherits a program that went 36-4 the last three years with three straight BCS bowl appearances. The Oregon brand -- personified by its frenetic, wide-open offense and gaudy uniforms -- is now a staple on the college football scene, and Helfrich has been tasked to maintain it following Chip Kelly's departure for the NFL. It helps that the roster for 2013 is deep and talented, so the Ducks should come out of spring as legitimate national title contenders. 

The Least You Need To Know About Oregon This Spring

-- This is Mark Helfrich's team. The onus is on Helfrich to make his own mark on the program starting now. Of course, he'll continue to run the spread offense designed by Kelly, while adding some nuances. New assistants Matt Lubick (receivers) and Ron Aiken (defensive line) help give his first staff a distinctly fresh feel, and it's up to Helfrich to get everyone acclimated. By most accounts, Helrich is a well-liked figure around the Oregon program, but does he possess what it takes to keep the Ducks competitive at the national level? Does he have Kelly's killer instinct? The next 25 days will give us an inkling as to whether the transition from Kelly to Helfrich will be successful.

-- Holes must be filled at linebacker. Middle linebackers Kiki Alonso and Michael Clay are gone, as is uber-talented outside backer Dion Jordan, so these starting positions are up for grabs. Juniors Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick are both out for spring with injuries, so the front-runners to get the most looks on the inside are sophomores Tyson Coleman (34 tackles in 2012) and Rahim Cassell (19 tackles), plus junior college transfer Joe Walker. Meanwhile, junior Tony Washington (20 tackles) and sophomore Christian French (13 tackles) will vie for Jordan's spot. There is certainly a lot of potential in this unit, especially with starter Boseko Lokombo returning at the other outside backer position. The development of the 6-foot-5 French into a contributor could be key, as his physical tools are similar to those of Jordan's.

-- Keep an eye on the running back position. All-American Kenjon Barner has graduated, and the Ducks are now surprisingly thin at running back thanks in large part to the transfers of Tra Carson, Dontae Williams and Lache Seastrunk in the past couple of seasons. Junior De'Anthony Thomas returns, but the spindly speedster is unlikely to take much of a pounding in the spring, so sophomore Byron Marshall has a golden opportunity to grab hold of the position. He showed flashes as a true freshman, rushing for 447 yards and four touchdowns. Look for him to carry the load for most of spring ball, with walk-on Ayele Forde getting some reps, too. Marshall will need to do all that he can to establish himself, as highly-touted five-star recruit Thomas Tyner arrives in the fall. 

-- The Ducks must find a backup quarterback. Oregon is set at quarterback with sophomore Marcus Mariota, a rising star who could emerge as a Heisman candidate this season. But the Ducks need to find a capable backup in case Mariota gets hurt. The transfer of Bryan Bennett took away an experienced reserve at the position, so that leaves redshirt freshmen Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie, as well as walk-on senior Dustin Haines as the only viable backups. Rodrigues is the most physically gifted of the bunch and is the odds-on favorite to emerge behind Mariota, but the crafty Lockie can't be counted out. Whoever wins this position will likely play quite a bit in the fall during blowouts and become the starter when Mariota eventually moves on to the NFL.

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