We’ve already taken a deep look at Oregon’s receiving corps in our preview coverage leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday, but the news today out of Eugene necessitates a reevaluation of the situation with Mariota’s aerial targets. The Ducks flew to Texas today without Darren Carrington, the freshman that had been the team’s most productive receiver in both the Pac-12 championship game rematch against Arizona and the Rose Bowl victory over Florida State.
Carrington tested positive for marijuana in an NCAA-issued drug test, leading to the team’s suspension of the player. I won’t get into the absurdity of testing for a drug that has no discernible performance-enhancing benefits, or the backroom lobbying and intrigue that led to marijuana’s classification as an illegal substance under U.S. law in 1937… at least not here, at least not today. Carrington, by all accounts, is a decent kid from a solid family background that chose to do something that a statewide referendum voted to decriminalize two months earlier.
No, that conversation isn’t for now. For as ludicrous as it is might be to test a player for a recreational drug with no benefit for athletic performance, the drug has clearly been on the list of banned substances under NCAA bylaws and Carrington has already lost an appeal to appear in Arlington next week. The Ducks must now search for their next great receiver to step up and blow up on the field.
Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost thought they had found that next great receiver… in Carrington himself. With top returning receiver Bralon Addison injured in the preseason, number-one tight end Pharaoh Brown suffering a gruesome leg injury in the win against Utah, and Devon Allen’s season ending on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl, the receiving depth was already getting tested. The loss of Carrington, who had caught 14 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns in the past two wins over Arizona and Florida State, rips another serious hole in the two-deep.
So who is left to catch Marcus Mariota’s passes?
On the positive side, the team’s leading receiver remains healthy despite all the injuries in the lineup. Byron Marshall, still nominally listed as a running back on the roster after rushing for over 1000 yards last season, evolved into a slot receiver in the offseason in a conscious attempt to mitigate the impact of a slew of departing receivers. Marshall still chips in on the ground, but the offensive game plan will likely look to utilize his catching ability and elusiveness as he adds to his team-leading 834 yards.
Dwayne Stanford becomes Mariota’s top outside threat, a six-foot-five target to challenge the Ohio State secondary. The sophomore experienced peaks and valleys this season, exploding with six receptions for 103 yards and two scores against California… and never eclipsing 100 yards at any other point this year. He has been a solid second or third option so far this season, but becoming the top deep option will require a rapid acceleration of his maturation.
Senior Keanon Lowe and freshman Charles Nelson are the next options in the passing game, with each gaining more than 300 yards this season. Lowe was injured during the UCLA game and missed three games in his final season, while Nelson was slowly weaned into the lineup before exploding for seven receptions and 104 yards against Arizona in the Pac-12 championship. Both are key components of the Ducks’ return game this season, especially Nelson, but both will also have to be pivotal parts of the passing game against the Buckeyes after the most recent loss.
Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner offer additional help from the backfield, with 25 receptions between them throughout the season. We might seem more passes to both players in the flat as Helfrich and Frost look for ways to get them both the ball in space. Tyner is an interesting case — at various points during the season he suffered injuries to first his left and then his right shoulder, ultimately missing four games. After last year’s freshman campaign saw him gain over 700 yards and nine scores, Tyner seemed to have a sophomore slump while the true freshman Freeman took over as the top running back. But he also broke out against Florida State with 13 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns, and he has proven capable of catching the ball in the past.
The tight end position seemed to take a huge blow with the loss of Brown, as the team’s other two active tight ends caught only six balls during the regular season. But then Evan Baylis equaled that production just in the Rose Bowl against the Seminoles, picking up 73 yards in the process, and the team also has the option of using Johnny Mundt in any potential two-tight-end sets.
Other receivers that have seen limited action include basketball star and return man Johnathan Loyd, junior-college transfer Zac Schuller, and little-seen players like redshirt sophomore Chase Allen and speedy redshirt junior B.J. Kelley. Any one of them could potentially see playing time against Ohio State, and Helfrich and his offensive staff might consider increasing the playing time for one or more of them to alleviate the loss of Carrington.
Mariota will hit his targets, and Oregon still has plenty of players that can catch the ball and manipulate open spaces on the field. And Ohio State still has a secondary that is talented but young, affording further possibilities of exploiting the coverage for gains. Where the loss of Carrington might hurt most is in terms of downfield blocking, something that has helped propel the Ducks’ success this season in both the passing and the rushing games. But it wasn’t like Carrington was the only player that is trained to commit to becoming a blocker, and this could be another reason why we see more sets that feature Mundt and Baylis in this game.
Oregon can still become the first new school to win its first national championship since Florida won its first under Steve Spurrier in 1996. But it will need to craft a creative game plan that most effectively utilizes its talent, and the reigning Heisman winner will need to be his usual efficient and accurate self through the air. Carrington’s loss tests a unit that has become increasingly thin through the course of this year, but recruiting has stocked the cupboards enough that Oregon should be able to limit the impact of the fact that its top deep threat of 2014 is sitting back in Eugene watching on television.