Envious Thoughts On the Oregon Offense

Chip Kelly's name isn't always mentioned among the top minds in college football -- a list that typically includes Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Chris Petersen. Maybe it's because the Duck offense has fallen off the ridiculous point-per-minute pace from earlier in the season, as the Quack Attack came into the game against UCLA averaging a paltry 54.3 points per game. Underachievers. Slackers.

It's a fast-paced, zone read-based team that takes advantage of the threat of the run with an extensive play-action passing game and some nice wrinkles like motioning the running back from one side of the quarterback to the other pre-snap to catch defenders in the wrong gap. Perhaps more dangerous is the pace at which the Ducks play -- one of the fastest in the country and one that works with incredible precision given the pressure put on the players to execute at a high level, particularly the offensive line, which must determine their assignments in an incredibly short period of time.

In the first half against UCLA, a 32-3 beatdown, the Ducks possessed the ball for barely more than ten minutes, picking up 357 yards on 9.2 yards per play and scoring touchdown on four of five possessions. Somehow, Oregon managed only a field goal on the final drive as UCLA stiffened in the red zone and was able to bring some effective blitzes. By contrast, Texas gained only 349 yards in the whole game against the Bruins. Blech.

The two stars on offense are two players from the state of Texas who weren't recruited by the home-state Longhorns. Quarterback Darron Thomas, a redshirt sophomore from Aldine, was a four-star recruit and one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the class. Rather than going after Thomas, Texas recruited three-star Riley Dodge that year, a player eventually de-committed and ended up at North Texas playing for his father, eventually moving to wide receiver. #Fail

Four-star quarterbacks in the heavily-recruited state of Texas don't exactly come from nowhere -- Thomas had offers from the likes of LSU, Miami, Nebraska, Missouri, Florida, and Oklahoma State before settling on the Ducks. Known as a playmaker in high school who could pick up yardage on the ground, it's his development as a quarterback that has been impressive at Oregon.

Against UCLA, Thomas stood tall in the pocket -- helped by excellent protection by his offensive line -- and delivered accurate balls all over the field, completing his first 10 passes spanning the first 20 minutes of the football. His mechanics, footwork, and release all looked solid and when he did get pressured, he showed a willingness to take hits in order to get the ball out. Thomas also got through his reads with ease, often going to his second, third, or fourth option.

His backfield mate, LaMichael James, was every bit as impressive, as he has been ever since seizing hold of the starting job after LaGarrette Blount's meltdown. A quick, darting runner who almost looks like Jamaal Charles at times with his ability to make defenders miss in small spaces, he's the perfect running back for the Oregon zone scheme because he can see the cutback lanes and hit them quickly. Vision, patience, and lateral agility, the hallmarks of a successful zone back.

Like Thomas, James barely ranked as a top-50 player in the state amid questions about his size and durability and wasn't particularly highly recruited, with his best offers coming from Arkansas and Nebraska. Here's a thought though -- if the other team can't get any solid hits on the kid, the durability questions become much less important.

James didn't register on the Texas recruiting radar after the early part of the process, as the Longhorns opted for Tre' Newton and Jeremy Hills and were spurned by Darrell Scott. Newton has been a solid, if unspectacular contributor, while Hills has done virtually nothing. The Longhorns probably figured that James couldn't pick up the blitz well, but somehow Oregon manages to scheme around that by not asking him to do things he can't do. Amazing.

Tight end David Paulson had a major impact on the game as well, stretching the seam vertically and making a spectacular one-handed catch. A three-star recruit by Rivals who was ranked 42nd at his position coming out of high school as a 225-pounder with 4.65 speed, the great majority of the now 240-pound Paulson's catches in his career, as in more than 85%, have gone for first downs, a stark contrast to Greg Smith, who has only had one or two catches go for a first down in his career (the throwback pass against OU in 2008?) and is good for nothing more than a meaningless checkdown on third downs.

There's nothing revoluationary about what Oregon does offensively -- there are plenty of teams that run the same variations of the zone read as the Ducks and plenty of other teams can go up tempo. What makes Oregon stand out is that the coaching staff clearly went out and made some excellent evaluations in the recruiting process, finding players that fit the system. Perhaps the most impressive is the athletic offensive line that excels in both the zone-blocking scheme and pass protection. The state doesn't produce many high-quality football players, so the Ducks scoured the country to find the often-overlooked talent that has turned Oregon into a top program nationally.

In addition, the coaching staff has developed those players, particularly Thomas, said to have improved greatly. From the recruiting process, to player development, to in-game coaching, Chip Kelly has made his mark as one of the top minds in his profession and the proof is in the results.

All in all, it's a good time to be a Ducks fan.

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