Golden Spotlight: Chip Kelly And His Oregon Ducks Offense

"Yeah, even I'm impressed at how fast we score."

(For more on Oregon's defense, go here)

For all the talk of Oregon's up-tempo pace wearing down defenses on gameday, the real benefit may be coming during the weekdays. Chris Brown of Smart Football tweets:

I think the likely biggest advantage Chip Kelly gets from his tempo and his practice tempo is just more reps, i.e. more practice than others

I have to agree with this sentiment. It's a pretty revolutionary tactic to take advantage of limited practice hours. People forget that unlike the NFL, NCAA football has very short practice sessions, and it exacerbates the problems that college coaches face in trying to get players to absorb playbooks and execute their offenses. With the way Kelly runs shop, there's more time to run more plays and get better execution from their personnel. The result has been a ferocious 55 points per game.

You'll see that while Oregon's offense lapsed at times last year as they struggled getting up to the speed Kelly demanded of his players; with so many returning starters and a year to adjust to this pace, there's been no let-up this season. Cal had to stop practice earlier than usual on Wednesday simulating Oregon's up-tempo pace purely due to the intensity of the pace. I don't know if it'll pay off this year (I'm guessing it won't; one week of this type of practice is barely enough and runs the risk of gassing our players out), but it'll be a good test run for next season.

It'll be something to think about adapting next year--not the Oregon offense itself, but a hurry-up pace to get more reps in for offense and defense (I'm sure as I speak already half the college football teams around the country are planning to do this to catch up.). Not the offense itself isn't a marvel to watch, but I'm sure if Oregon wasn't going this fast, they'd be much more containable. The next few years will bear out whether Kelly can sustain this level of success when everyone else begins adjusting to this type of scheme.

Statistics

Rushing offense: 307 rushing yards per game (4th), 6.33 rushing yards per carry (4th), 35 rushing touchdowns (T-1st), 47 tackles for loss allowed (42nd), 11 fumbles lost (107th).

Passing offense: 5 sacks allowed (tied for 7th), 260 passing yards per game (30th), 8.5 passing yards per attempt (tied for 20th), 63.8 completion rate (32nd), 23 passing touchdowns (tied for 9th), 6 interceptions (tied for 22nd), 158 passer rating (14th).

Total offense: 567 total yards per game (1st), 7.2 yards per play (tied for 5th), 27.9 first downs (1st), 54.7 points per game (1st), 65 touchdowns this season (1st), 48.78% on 3rd down conversions (19th), 87.76% red zone conversion rate (26th), 67.35% touchdown rate in the red zone (29th), 58.82% on 4th down conversions (40th), 179 plays of 10+ yards (4th)60 plays of 20+ yards (tied for 3rd)32 plays of 30+ yards (tied for 3rd)20 plays of 40+ yards (tied for 1st).

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Personnel

Quarterback

Darron Thomas is a much more complete quarterback than Jeremiah Masoli. He might not sell the reads quite as well as Masoli did, but for a sophomore the guy has the offense down pat. Thomas isn't as quick a runner as Masoli, but he still gets his pretty quickly with defenses intent on limiting LaMichael James.

More importantly, Thomas is a much better passer than Masoli, and it's put so much pressure on defenses to figure out to handle both facets of the offense--if they focus on stopping the run, they risk Thomas throwing the ball down their throats. Thomas has an exceptionally good pump-fake to draw defenders inside only to have them beaten deep, something that killed Cal's defense last season. It was his main weapon in dispatching the Furd. 

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But how much will Thomas run this week with Nate Costa out? David Piper from Addicted to Quack recognizes the inherent danger that a true freshman is now Oregon's backup for the remainder of the season.

We all remember 2007, when we were ACL'd out of a shot at a national title.   Nate Costa was our insurance policy, and we had the comfort of knowing that should something happen to Darron Thomas, Nate would be able to come in and still play at a high level.  Now, we have Bryan Bennett backing up DT.  And while Bennett has by all accounts been impressive in practice this season, he's a true freshman that hasn't taken a snap in a game all season.  You don't really want to have to throw him in a game in the middle of a national title chase.

Here's the terrifying stat for Oregon fans: Not since Kellen Clemens in 2004 has Oregon had the same quarterback start every game. Time to start knocking on that wood.

Running back

With the Cam Newton controversy swirling, not only is number one coming to town, but additionally your frontrunner for the silliest sports trophy in America. Although I honestly feel Thomas is just as valuable to the offense as LaMichael James, this year the spotlight is squarely on the second-year starting tailback's shoulders.

I remember thinking when LeGarrette Blount was suspended and the freshman James was installed in that this was a blessing in disguise. Blount was not well-suited for being the primary tailback at the pace Oregon runs at. James revels in it. He is the perfect match for Chip Kelly's offense, mixing speed and toughness, hitting the inside holes and getting the edge on the outside just as capably. He can break tacklers. He can stick away from everyone. He can spin away from contact without losing much of a step. He is the best running back in college football by a pretty sizeable margin.

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With James surging to the Heisman candidacy, his partner-in-crime Kenjon Barner has taken a backseat. Barner got severely concussed in Pullman, but seems to have recovered well enough that he'll be able to handle secondary duties. Barner occasionally bounces off of contact, but he's much more of a speed demon who likes running fast and away from defenders. Senior Remene Alston Jr. has been pluggable and does pretty well at the goal-line--all five of his touchdowns have come in the red zone.

However, neither of these tailbacks has proven to be as dynamic in Kelly's attack as James has been. He's been the legs that's kept Oregon's offense running at its electric rate.

Wide receivers/tight ends

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Jeff Maehl is the senior go-to receiver, as you can see by catches like the ones above. He's strong, capable, athletic, and adaptable. Without Maehl, it'd be much harder for Oregon's passing game to complement the run game as well as it currently does, because he really makes the big plays that help get Thomas grooving and confident in-game.

Maehl is starting to get help from junior Lavasier Tuinei, who's has two seven catch weeks against Washington and USC and added five more against the Furd. Both of them should be targeted early and often. True freshman Josh Huff is the big play threat (what is it with all the true frosh threats in the Pac-10? Allen, Woods, Huff...), getting five catches for 67 yards against the Furd and only one catch against USC...but for 57 yards. Tight end David Paulson has done his best to replicate Ed Dickson, but he simply isn't Ed Dickson. Thus the Ducks have again resorted to play-action and pump-fakes to get receivers open against coverage.

Ultimately though, the biggest contribution from the receiving corps has been in downfield blocking to seal the outside edges for James or Thomas on running plays. They have been pretty efficient there.

(It's funny, because despite the fast pace and number of plays the offense runs, Oregon has been unbelievably healthy this season on offense, with no major injuries other than Costa. Well, ok, funny for Oregon. It's exasperating for us.)

Offensive line

Not an athletically amazing unit, but these guys deserve plenty of credit for executing their schemes very well and making things easier for their skill players. It's a very experienced front, with all five starters from last season's unit back. Center Jordan Holmes anchors the unit, and they have two seniors with plenty of playing time under their belt at the tackle spot (Bo Thran on the left, C.E. Kaiser on the right) that have kept Thomas from experiencing any significant edge pressure.

Lucas Clark of the Oregon Daily Emerald with more on how a veteran o-line unit has helped their first-year starting quarterback.

Since Oregon doesn't huddle, Thomas must constantly communicate with his five offensive linemen in order to avoid a breakdown. The Ducks have had great success against most defensive fronts they've faced this season, something second-year offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich feels has been a complete group effort.

"The front has to know it, the tail back has to know it, hopefully the quarterback knows it," Helfrich said of the different protection schemes. "And then your receivers need to be dialed into that, too."

Thomas approaches the offensive line before every play, asking what his guys are noticing and signaling to them players he feels might be blitzing.

"All the down guys, and Darron, we're looking down field trying to see what the defense is doing," Oregon senior Jordan Holmes said. "Seeing if they're tipping blitzes and stuff. Sometimes we don't see it, sometimes we do. If we see it we'll tell Darron and he'll make the adjustments."

That give-and-take starts with the tackles on the outside, stationed in two-point stances with a better line of sight. They relay what's seen down the line where it eventually reaches Holmes before the ball is snapped - all of this in a matter of seconds.

Tomorrow, we'll go into scheme, Xs and Os, and discuss the various plays the Oregon offense runs. Time to get prepared for the video arcade.

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