Here are the keys to a Ferrari, Mark Helfrich. Just don't crash it. Not since Larry Coker took over the 2001 Miami Hurricanes has a new coach been handed a roster so stocked with premier players. Oregon has dramatically upgraded its recruiting of late with the biggest improvements coming on the offensive and defensive lines, a necessity after getting pushed around by the likes of Auburn and LSU.
The question is whether Helfrich, who served as the offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly for four seasons, can continue the tempo-based spread option wizardry that made the Ducks one of the most compelling teams to watch at any level of football.
The collection of skill players is so brilliant that NFL scouts won't be overly concerned this year and next, but the exact nature of Helfrich's play-calling, game-planning and player development talents will come into focus down the road.
Top senior prospects
WR Josh Huff: Huff has proven time and again he can take advantage of single coverage and strike off play-action. He runs a limited route tree, but is a great run blocker as one would expect in an option offense. Huff knows how to operate in the red zone and where to sit down against zone defenses. His time in the 40-yard dash will be crucial to proving he is more than the beneficiary of a brilliant scheme.
DT Taylor Hart: Hart emerged as a fine interior pass rusher in 2012, racking up eight sacks, which was the most on the team and three more than No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. Hart has good balance and finds ways to stay on his feet when cut blocked. Despite his size, it doesn't always translate into the strength to disengage from blockers. Hart is more of an effort player than a great athlete.
RB De'Anthony Thomas:The "Black Mamba" is a walking, talking big-play threat, using unreal speed and acceleration to score as a running back, receiver, punt returner and kick returner in 2012. Thomas is outstanding catching the ball -- he has 91 receptions in two seasons. He is also brilliant in the return game, averaging 17.1 yards per punt return and 24.3 yards per kick return last season. At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Thomas is never going to take the pounding an NFL feature back must endure, but could be a truly special utility player in the mold of Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles.
TE Colt Lyerla: Lyerla is an outstanding athlete who is devastating attacking the seam (averaged 15.7 yards per catch, best of any player on the team with 10 or more receptions). He occasionally lined up at running back and even scored a rushing touchdown against Arizona. Lyerla is also a very effective blocker. He is unlikely to produce eye-popping statistics, but is on the short list for the unofficial title of best tight end in college football.
QB Marcus Mariota: The best dual-threat quarterback to run Chip Kelly's offense since Dennis Dixon, Mariota has all the tools to eventually play on Sundays. An outstanding runner, Mariota did a nice job of resisting the urge to immediately take off when under duress. Didn't make a ton of NFL-caliber throws, as Kelly dialed up a healthy number of screens with deep shots off play-action mixed in, but certainly has terrific arm talent. However, his mechanics broke down under pressure from Stanford.
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu: Ekpre-Olomu knows how to play the ball, intercepting four passes and breaking up a whopping 16 with aggressive hands. He is listed at 5-foot-10, so Ekpre-Olomu might get typecast as a nickelback. However, he showed a physical edge to disrupt USC star WR Marqise Lee in critical situations, with a key interception at the goal line.
OT Jake Fisher: A former high school tight end, Fisher has made a seemingly effortless transition to offensive tackle, starting all 13 games last season. Not surprisingly, given his background, Fisher knows how to get out in space on screens. Even after bulking up to 295 pounds, Fisher doesn't appear to have lost any of his flexibility.
DE Arik Armstead: Armstead, the top recruit in the class of 2012, is expected to start as a second-year sophomore. An excellent basketball player (a walk-on with the Pac-12 tournament champs, though he did not play this past season), Armstead knows how to position himself and has quick feet. Older brother Armond signed with the New England Patriots this offseason after a successful one-year stint in the CFL.
C Hroniss Grasu: Grasu asserted himself as the top center in the Pac-12 last season. Starting all 27 games the last two seasons, Grasu moves well for a near 300-pounder and has unreal endurance at that size to sustain the Ducks' breakneck tempo (played 80-plus snaps in five games in 2012). Stanford was able to overpower Grasu and collapse the pocket from the nose, which is the one blemish in an otherwise brilliant season.
RB Thomas Tyner: The No. 2 high school running back recruit in the nation, Tyler has yet to even participate in a college practice, but possesses all the tools to become the next great Oregon running back. Tyner has a great mix of speed and power, which could allow him to become the perfect complement to Thomas. This is a name to tuck away.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 14 vs. Tennessee: The Volunteers are most certainly in rebuilding mode, but do return four veteran offensive linemen, including standout left tackle Antonio Richardson. The decibel level of Autzen Stadium as well as the presence of Taylor Hart, Arik Armstead and Tony Washington (expected to replace Dion Jordan at outside linebacker) should result in Tennessee seeing a constant dose of Pac-12 speed in their SEC backfield.
Oct. 26 vs. UCLA: If dealing with Stanford's outside linebackers was a challenge in the 17-14 overtime loss that cost the Ducks a shot at the BCS championship, wait until Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher get a load of Bruins pass rusher extraordinaire Anthony Barr. Barr has an unreal set of physical tools and can only get better as he actually learns the nuances of playing defense. The best way to neutralize Barr might be a heavy dose of zone-read runs, forcing him to commit to either Mariota or the running back.
Nov. 7 at Stanford: There are a staggering number of high-level prospects in what should be the de facto Pac-12 North championship game, but none might be more important than De'Anthony Thomas. Considering the struggles Mariota had against the Cardinal last season (21 of 37 for 201 yards, one touchdown, one interception), constantly motioning the "Black Mamba" out of the backfield should allow Mariota to read coverages and create mismatches for Thomas as a receiver.