Fall camp is underway but there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. This week, we’ll be outlining a few storylines to keep track of as the month wears down and the opener against South Dakota approaches.
Today, we start off with one of the more heavily discussed topics of the summer: the situation at running back.
The top dogs in the race are Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Though, there are names mentioned outside of those two as a possible tempo change throughout the game -- Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit, Tony James. But don’t get too distracted. This is a two-man game right now.
Marshall has the experience factor -- he was the only 1,000-yard rusher on the team last year as he led the Ducks with 168 carries and 14 rushing touchdowns. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said that Marshall’s next step would be “cutting it loose.”
There shouldn’t be any hesitation considering he knows his main competition is coming off strong year-end performances. Last week, Helfrich spoke about how Tyner took more time to grow accustomed to the college game, but Helfrich was happy with the progress he made during the season. Tyner ended up toting the ball 115 times for 711 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. So, there’s definitely a benefit to getting 50 extra carries, but there’s also a benefit with year-end momentum, which Tyner had.
But to think that the Ducks could only have one special running back would be shortsighted, especially considering the obvious lack of experience the Ducks have at wide receiver. Helfrich has made no bones about the fact that the team is looking for whatever offensive formation works best for the Ducks. If that means two running backs, then so be it. And if these two backs are as good as everyone is lauding them to be then two backs could be the way the Ducks go.
“I like that we have two running backs because all the pressure isn’t on either one of them,” left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. “I think they’re just as talented, either one of them. They can platoon. If we have two running backs of their caliber, they’re always going to well rested and they’re always going to be explosive.”
Plenty of teams have had success going with a tandem at running back and experienced success. In 2005, USC used Reggie Bush and LenDale White to amass 3,042 rushing yards. Two seasons later at Arkansas, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones rushed for more than 3,000 yards in a season. This season, Texas could employ something similar with Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown and Georgia may do the same with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
But what none of those teams have is Marcus Mariota.
Throw Mariota into that equation and the Oregon run game gets pretty difficult to stop. Could run game coordinator Steve Greatwood get really creative this season? Absolutely. Could either Tyner or Marshall explode so much during fall camp that they force the hand of the coaching staff into choosing a featured back? Absolutely. It's still early, but it's something to keep track of.
Realistically, this story line won’t play itself out for the public until the Michigan State game. The Ducks aren’t going to give too much away in the season opener, knowing that Mark Dantonio and his staff are going to see that game tape. In 2013, the Spartans finished in the top three nationally for rushing yards per game (86.3), yards per rush (2.84) and rushing touchdowns (8).
So come week two, we’ll get a much better sense of what the Oregon run game will actually look like this fall. If anyone truly believes we’ll know anything much sooner, they’re overreaching. Helfrich is going to keep his cards close to his chest and only show them when he must. And he’s going to need to against the defending Rose Bowl Champions.
Either way, it’s something to keep an eye on this fall camp to see if any hints are dropped regarding what exactly the Duck run game will look like this fall.