Position groups that must improve: No. 5

The first day of spring practice is more than a month away, but it’s never too early to take a look at what Oregon must do this spring to be a championship contender in the fall.

We’ll be doing different countdowns looking at players, position groups and position battles over the next month, and we’re starting this week with the five position groups that need to improve the most. The first group is one that experienced quite a bit of success last season but will need to continue to make major strides.

No. 5: The offensive line

2013 review: The Ducks averaged 274 rushing yards per game (No. 9 nationally, No. 1 in the Pac-12) and 6.3 yards per rush (No. 5 nationally, No. 1 in the Pac-12). The line protected quarterback Marcus Mariota pretty well, and the redshirt junior was a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Football Foundation Player of the Year. He led the conference in fewest interceptions (four), touchdown percentage (8 percent) and yards per completion (14.96). However, the offense underachieved in Oregon’s two losses last season, and much of that blame can be put on the offensive line. The Ducks rushed for 76 fewer yards than their season average against Arizona and 212 yards fewer than their season average against Stanford.

Why they must improve: The line returns five starters from its last few games, so there is a baseline of chemistry there. However, they’ll spend the spring without left tackle Tyler Johnstone as he recovers from knee surgery. Stepping in for him will likely be Andre Yruretagoyena, who played in three games last season as a backup guard. He’ll be tasked with protecting Mariota’s blind side through the spring and, depending on Johnstone’s recovery, possibly a bit in the fall. Oregon will have pull it together quickly in 2014, as the Ducks will face a very tough Michigan State defense in the second week of the season. If the offensive line isn’t stout by Week 2, the Ducks could pick up an early season loss that could be enough to keep them out of the playoffs. Last season, the Rose Bowl champion Spartans gave up just 86 rushing yards per game (No. 2 in the nation) and 2.8 yards per rush (No. 3 in the nation). Up front, they have the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year in Shilique Calhoun. Usually an offensive line has time to jell in September games and put the pieces together, but the Ducks won’t get that luxury as Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will come to Autzen Stadium with a game plan to attack any tiny deficit he sees in the Ducks' offensive line.