Getting to know the Ducks

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BearTerritory caught up with publisher AJ Jacobson this week, and posed a few questions about No. 9 Oregon, as the Ducks (3-1) move closer toward hosting California (3-1) in this Thursday's marquee Pac-12 match-up at Autzen Stadium.
BearTerritory: Which unit for the Ducks has surprised the most through four games?
A.J. Jacobson: Following the 2010 season, Oregon graduated four seniors off their offensive line two-deep including three-year starter at center Jordan Holmes and his backup. For a rebuilding year, the group has performed quite well led by senior tackle Mark Asper and junior guard Carson York. Redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu has stepped into the center role and performed well.
BT: The offensive line has allowed just 17 tackles for loss and one sack this season after losing a lot of experience. Who has stuck out the most in leading the charge up front?
AJ: The prior question gave away the punch line to this answer. Offensive tackle Mark Asper has taken over the leadership role for the unit for the most part. Asper is older-than-average for college as he participated in his Mormon Mission following high school and is married with a child. His maturity has paid dividends; players call him "The Mayor".
BT: Defensive back Cliff Harris has seemingly underperformed this season, even taking into account that he missed one game early on. Is he ready to break out, or is there something missing from him this year?
AJ: In our opinion, Harris' off-field performance has hurt his play on it. The first game of the season against LSU, one in which his team needed him most, he was suspended. Since that time, he has seemed unable to fully earn his start back from the youngsters who got the reps during fall camp ahead of him. Talking to defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti several time on the subject, we expect Oregon to continuously press Harris to mature overall so he can tap into his potential on the playing field.
BT: Oregon has seemed to step up the running game at the expense of the passing game, going from 244.5 yards through the air and 286.2 yards per game on the ground in 2010 to 299.5 yards passing and 234.25 yards rushing in 2011. Has that been due to a change in scheme or has it been a function of opposing defenses?
AJ: I think those numbers are deceiving for a simple reason. Oregon with its spread uses the running backs in the passing game as an extension of the running game. Many of those yards attributed to passing were short swing passes to the backs in space resulting in several very long runs after the catch. Take those out and the pass/run numbers are very even. The other factor is the LSU game in which the Ducks gave up two quick scores to start the second half resulting in an unusually high passing total.
BT: Cal has been slowly working freshman tailback Brendan Bigelow into the offense, but the Ducks have been doing the same thing -- to a greater degree -- with De'Anthony Thomas, who has played in all four games on offense and three on special teams. What has he brought to the table so far, and how can we expect to see Oregon utilize him this Thursday?
AJ: De'Anthony Thomas (DAT) will be used to complement LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner but not often as the single back at this point in his development. What DAT brings is unusual speed and instincts with the football in his hands, and the ability to catch it. From Day One of fall camp we could recognize that he was special, even amongst excellent athletes. Running backs coach Gary Campbell told us DAT is 'the best freshman I have ever had', a group which includes a dozen backs who went on to play in the NFL.
BT: Thomas, Barner and four others have returned kicks, while four Ducks have returned at least two punts this season. Is that a function of coach Chip Kelly specifically trying to throw opposing special teams for a loop?
AJ: No actually that seems to be more a function of guys getting dinged up and depth. With this years' running back depth, the coaches feel more comfortable using LaMichael James and other heavy-minute players in those roles. Also with the depth, the slightest ding gets a guy the hook and there doesn't seem to be much drop-off one through three amongst the returners.
BT: Is Barner suffering any after-effects from missing two games with a leg injury?
AJ: Probably the biggest after-effect is simply trying to get back into the rotation as much as he would like. Many young, hungry and talented players want his minutes. Barner is very fast and an excellent back, but competition is fierce in that unit. Physically he tells us he is 100%.
BT: Will placekicker Rob Beard miss his fourth straight game, and will leading tackler Michael Clay miss his third consecutive contest, or are they back to full-strength?
AJ: It is very tough to answer those questions as all Oregon practices are closed and the coaches will not discuss injuries. However in both those cases, we have observed that the players seem to have been more active in practice this week based upon watching them exit the practice facility.
BT: Rumors have been swirling that the Bears will be debuting their white helmets for the Thursday-night clash. Any clue as to the Ducks' sartorial selections?
AJ: No clues but some intriguing chatter about some throwback uniforms seeing the field for this Thursday's contest. This seems to all be based upon a solitary tweet coming out of NIKE this week of unknown veracity.