Ducks' run game: What's known (and not)

EUGENE, Ore. -- With practices at Oregon closed, most of what is known -- outside of the locker room -- is speculation.

This is what is known: Marcus Mariota is the quarterback. The wide receivers are a flurry of youth. There are options at tight end and they'll likely be more involved in the pass game, but still, nothing extreme. And the offensive line is pretty much set, despite a recent shake up.

And the biggest "battle" remaining, might not even be a true battle depending on what coaches decide to do. Because between Mariota's mobility and running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, the Ducks have a pretty loaded backfield.

Could Oregon use both and employ a tandem system? Could one emerge as a featured back? Would they split carries nearly equal to keep legs and bodies fresh?

All those possibilities have their pros and cons, and the answer to those questions likely won't surface until Oregon takes the field against Michigan State in Week 2 (assuming there's no real reason to show their playbook in Week 1).

What's obvious is that the coaches and team feel very confident in both players. Center Hroniss Grasu made a pretty bold claim at Oregon media day when he said, "It's nice and comforting to know that what we have in the backfield is probably the best backfield in college football."

Then, left tackle Tyler Johnstone -- who tore his ACL on Monday and will be out for the season -- disagreed, saying that it's not just probably the best, but that it is the best backfield in America.

"I think it's kind of crazy if you don't look at it like that," he said. "What other teams have that many weapons in that small area of the field?"

He's right. Not many teams have that many weapons in that small of an area. A Heisman hopeful plus two possible 1,000-yard rushers isn't exactly an unwanted problem.

So, what else is definitely known?

Both guys -- according to those around them -- have improved on their mistakes from last season.

Tyner -- who drew praise from fans when they saw him destroy a defensive back in the Ducks' spring game -- carried the ball 115 times for 711 yards and had nine rushing touchdowns in 2013.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has been pretty open about the fact it took Tyner a while to acclimate himself to the college game. He said that with players there are the guys who come in and go full speed before they realize they need to slow down and learn, and then there are the guys who stay slower and need confidence before they can really have their best performances.

And Tyner? He's in the second camp.

"Last year I wasn't as comfortable as I am this year," Tyner said. "When I was on the field, I thought a lot. This year I'm a lot more comfortable with the offense and how to play and so everything right now is just natural."

Marshall, who led the Ducks with 168 carries, 1,038 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, has been searching for consistency this offseason. Last season his numbers fluctuated -- 2.1 yards per rush during one early-season game, 9.1 yards per rush in the middle of the Pac-12 schedule, 3.3 yards per carry in the season close against Texas.

"I think part of that with Byron is conditioning, part of that is confidence, part of that is total overall scope of the system and just cutting it loose," Helfrich said. "But that only comes again with great preparation and he's another guy who can practice a little bit better."

Neither low confidence nor inconsistency is something a coach wants in his top player (or for that matter, any player). Helfrich has harped on when someone does something a second, third or fourth time, they should be better than they were before. Given that reasoning, these issues should be behind them.

Both guys are coming into this season with high expectations. Both guys have great potential at Oregon.

But, outside of that, little is known. Yes, it sounds as though they've laid the foundation for an aggressive rushing attack, but is it enough for -- as Johnstone said -- the best in the country?

Give it a few weeks and the answer will have a chance to reveal itself against one of the best run defenses in the country. At that point we'll see if their play backs up others' words.