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Spring preview: Oregon

The Ducks will remain prolific on offense, but they need to grow up on 'D.' Dave Miller

Print This April 02, 2014, 07:45 AM EST

Oregon began spring practice on Tuesday as Mark Helfrich prepares for his second season as the team's head coach.

Let's take a look at some of the issues facing the Ducks as they get set for their spring game on May 3.

Marcus MariotaUS PRESSWIREMarcus Mariota set a Pac-12 record by throwing 353 consecutive passes without an interception.

Keeping Mariota healthy: Dual-threat star quarterback Marcus Mariota decided to return to Eugene instead of entering the NFL Draft after setting a Pac-12 record by throwing 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Mariota paced the Ducks' offense against emerging Pac-12 squads Washington and UCLA, but the team continued to have issues with the Stanford defense last season. Although it was clear that Mariota's MCL injury was a big reason why the Ducks were knocked out of the BCS title game picture. The QB had 20 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions before the injury but four picks after being banged-up. And he had zero scores on the ground after the knee issue. There's no question that Mariota was running along with Jameis Winston in the Heisman Trophy race before the injury. He is the face of the Ducks and the No. 1 reason why they could remain contenders for a spot in the new College Football Playoff.

Plenty of backfield depth: Mariota will have a lot of help on the ground in the form of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, who combined for over 1,700 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in 2013. The duo will be joined this year by top recruits Royce Freeman and Tony James, and there is a lot of buzz about James. Some close to the Ducks believe that James can be De'Anthony Thomas Lite, as he could line up all over the field. Making matters worse for opposing defenses is the fact that the Ducks return all five of their starting offensive linemen from last season, including center Hroniss Grasu, who was a Rimington Trophy finalist last year.

Replacing Aliotti: The Ducks opened spring ball without longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti for the first time in 16 years, as assistant Don Pellum takes over a unit that is talented but inexperienced. How quickly the unit grows up will help tell the tale of whether this team can claim the Pac-12 crown. Up front, the Ducks are led by linebackers Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick as well as DE/OLB Tony Washington. But the top defensive recruit brought in by former head coach Chip Kelly could be ready to break out. Arik Armstead is no longer playing basketball, so his focus is 100 percent on the gridiron. Can he be an impact Pac-12 defensive lineman as many believed he'd be upon arrival? JUCO transfer Tui Talia also has a chance to make an instant impact at end. But free safety Erick Dargan must be ready to step in as a starter after Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson graduated. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson has intimidating size at 6-4 and is very athletic. Special teams ace Issac Dixon and Reggie Daniels will also be in the mix at the other safety spot.

Other notes

The Ducks have nice depth at tight end, where Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis all possess different strengths and weaknesses. Brown is the most talented but dealt with an injury and suspension last season; Mundt needs better technique as a blocker; blocking is Baylis' strength.

Who will replace three-year starter Terrance Mitchell opposite All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu? Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay, seniors Dior Mathis and Troy Hill as well as JUCO transfer Dominique Harrison.

Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.

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