Head coach Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks open the season at home against Arkansas State. - AP

Ducks have questions, but also potential to be great

EUGENE — Monday morning, ESPN college-football analyst David Pollack weighed in with a prediction for the national-title game: Florida State versus Oregon.

Wouldn't it be a good idea to know who the quarterback at Oregon is first?

No doubt, the Ducks have arrived at a preferred place in the game. They are a preseason top-five team, given a shot at the national title, yet they just lost their leading career rusher (by almost 1,800 yards), LaMichael James, and the quarterback spot is still a matter of conjecture.

Assumptions are made when you have gone 34-6 and played in three straight BCS bowl games, and the assumption seemingly everybody makes about the Pac-12 is that Oregon and USC are going to play for the league title.

"That's what everybody wants to talk about," linebacker Michael Clay told me here over the weekend. "We want to take it week by week."

Chip Kelly, the coach, is preaching the same stuff: Win the day. Fast, hard, finish. Faceless opponents. He will have to be at his persuasive best to convince the Ducks they have no worries going undefeated entering the USC game Nov. 3.

Gone is last year's testy intersectional opener with Louisiana State, replaced by the opening triad of Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Then five Pac-12 opponents, none of which appear in Oregon's league.

In fact, the possibility seems to exist the Ducks could coast and thereby not approach their potential for the key games of November.

"I guess as a coach, it always is a concern," said defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. "It sounds like coach-speak, but the way we try to approach it is, we have a certain standard by which we play and live by."

Kelly has conducted closed practices throughout fall camp, so the battle between quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota is a closely guarded secret.

And indeed, said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, it is close, notwithstanding the fact Bennett is a year older and performed admirably as Darron Thomas' backup a year ago.

"We've tried to put them in as many real-live situations as you can without playing 'live,'" said Helfrich. "They've both had good camps."

All we know is that Bennett threw for six touchdowns with no interceptions last year, ran effectively - and that Kelly can do the unconventional thing. He named Thomas the starter over veteran Nate Costa two years ago.

The widespread take is: Why would it matter? That's a feeling fueled by lineman Nick Cody's observation on the progress of the offense in camp.

"In terms of the playbook and understanding the calls on offense," said the senior from Brush Prairie, "we're further along than we've been at this point since I've been here."

One reason for the confidence in Oregon is De'Anthony Thomas, the only player in the country in 2011 with more than 400 yards in rushing, receiving and returns. He seems a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy.

"That guy is just dynamic, special, electric," said Helfrich. "He's such a great guy to be around. He does everything a million miles an hour.

"He'll be the tailback, the receiver, the scout-team punt-cover guy, and he gives exactly the same effort."

Now the Ducks are talking up a true freshman, 5-foot-10, 185-pound Texan Bralon Addison, as a player with some of the same skills. When I asked Helfrich about offensive players who have had strong camps, Addison was first to his lips.

Still, it is on defense where the Ducks could separate themselves this season. Aliotti, between some frets and hedges, concedes the group has a chance to be his best at Oregon.

"Our first guys are as good as we've ever had," Aliotti said. Readily, he clicks off the names of five players who have consistently brought it in fall camp - linemen Dion Jordan (all-Pac-12 last year), Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi and linebackers Boseko Lokombo and Clay.

So a lot of things are in place, if you don't count quarterback. I asked Cody what the ceiling is for the Ducks.

"As high as we push it," he said.



Oregon at a glance

Last year: 12-2 (beat Wisconsin in Rose Bowl).

Coach: Chip Kelly (34-6 in fourth year at UO).

Leading lights: RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas, RB Kenjon Barner, DE Dion Jordan, LB Kiko Alonso, S John Boyett, P Jackson Rice.

Key stat: Oregon scored exactly 300 points more than its opponents in 2011.

The schedule: Ducks' first five Pac-12 opponents (through October) combined to go 15-30 in league last year.

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