Clark: Oregon’s wide receiver corps need to gain game experience

The month of April always proves to be an interesting time of year for the Oregon football team, and 2011 was no different.

For me, Saturday’s Spring Game was the only opportunity I had to watch the Ducks perform since returning from Glendale in January. And by most counts, the team was where I expected it to be, given so many key personnel losses.

Neither squad was particularly sharp offensively, but in the three spring games I’ve covered, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever been impressed by something on that side of the ball. The spring season is less about scoring touchdowns and more about evaluating talent and depth at certain positions.

It’s no secret that the Oregon coaching staff had plenty of evaluating to do this year, and as they hit the recruiting trail this month, more analysis is on the horizon. Yet when I look at the Ducks’ most glaring question mark offensively — the wide receiving corps — I wonder what exactly was taken away from spring drills this time around.

Having not been able to attend the majority of practices, it’s difficult to say with any certainty where guys stood at the end of the spring. Lavasier Tuinei seems to be the only one guaranteed a starting spot out wide next season, though Josh Huff was injured, and I truly expect amazing things from him in the coming years, but there is still a lot left unanswered.

A slew of young talented receivers will arrive in the summer, and maybe a few are physically gifted and quick-witted enough to make an impact early on — much like Huff last season — but looking back through Oregon’s recent history, young guns haven’t necessarily stood out statistically at season’s end.

Last year, seniors Jeff Maehl (the 52nd pick in the United Football League draft by the Virginia Destroyers on Monday night) and D.J. Davis paced Oregon’s aerial attack with a combined 1,546 receiving yards — more than half of Darron Thomas’ passing yards on the year — and 15 touchdowns.

In 2009, Maehl and then-senior Ed Dickson reeled in a combined 1,247 receiving yards, along with 12 touchdowns. In both seasons, Tuinei finished third in receptions. The year before, Maehl and then-senior Terence Scott combined for 1,172 yards and another 10 scores.

The list goes on from there, but you get the picture. Veteran receivers have more success in the Chip Kelly zone-read offense. They understand spacing and generally have strong on-the-field relationships with their quarterbacks.

Outside of L.T. and tight end David Paulson, those relationships haven’t been formed in a game situations. Justin Hoffman, a walk-on from Churchill who is known to be an outstanding practice player but hasn’t seen the results on game days, recorded just three receptions for 15 yards last season following a breakout summer camp.

Backup tight end Brandon Williams caught two passes for 48 yards but had some difficulty grasping the playbook throughout the year. From there, it’s really pretty much an open battle. Blake Cantu might be in the mix, but with the way he’s been injury-prone over the years it’s tough to expect much there. Nick Cole has been a strong practice player for two years, and he seems to be working his way up the depth chart, too.

Redshirt freshmen Eric Dungy and Blake Stanton got some play in the spring game, but again, neither have live game experience.

It sounds like a broken record by now, I’m sure, but Oregon is extremely inexperienced at a very crucial position, and in order to have a successful rushing attack, a threat through the air must be developed sooner rather than later.

This hasn’t been a question mark for the Ducks in several years, which adds a little extra incentive for those young guys heading into the next three months of down time.
Surely some will emerge as the ones ready to step up and play on Saturdays. At this point it’s just a matter of who and when.

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