The last four years of Oregon Ducks football has seen the program fall from national powerhouse to Pac-12 doormat. The team bounced back from an abysmal 4-8 2016 season with a decent 7-5 mark last year. I can see this team being a sleeper for the conference title next year, but it also wouldn’t be a shock to see them struggle. Let’s start with the good:
Since taking over for Dakota Prukop during the 2016 season, Herbert has been stellar. In his 17 games under center, the Eugene native has completed 65 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,919 yards and 34 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. While he’s certainly no Mariota, Herbert isn’t a statue either: he’s proven to be pretty capable when he takes off on a run. There isn’t really much to this: if he manages to stay healthy this year, Herbert will lead the Ducks to great season.
After watching maybe the worst defensive season of football I’ve ever seen in 2016, I can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we are: I think the Ducks’ defense will be great in 2018. Starting up front, Jordon Scott and Jalen Jelks had a terrific year. Scott, coming off of a breakout freshman year, anchors the center of the line and has deceptive quickness for a guy as big as he is. Jelks also had a huge year, racking up 6.5 sacks, 15 tackles-for-loss and seven pass deflections. Troy Dye will continue to be a force at linebacker after a monstrous 107-tackle season. In the secondary, Ugochukwu Amadi provides a veteran presence, while Thomas Graham will look to build on a strong first year performance. Deommodore Lenoir is another name to watch –- he didn’t break out the way Graham did, but his combination of physical traits and competitive fire is nearly unmatched.
I know his first showing as head coach against Boise State didn’t end well, but hear me out. That game came after a ridiculous roller coaster of events that culminated in Willie Taggart bailing for Florida State, and I think Cristobal will prove that it was an anomaly. First off, the players love him. It’s impossible to say for sure, but I’d wager that the social media campaign started by the team was a big factor in his hiring. The players also clicked with Taggart last year, and the culture change from 2016 was immediately clear. On top of that, his history at programs like Miami and Alabama in their primes is, in my opinion, the thing the Ducks have been missing. Having a coach with a championship pedigree is huge in terms of attitude and drive. Finally, he wants to be at Oregon. While I was a big fan of the Taggart hire at the time, in hindsight it’s pretty clear that this was a stepping stone job for him. He may not have planned to leave after one year, but I doubt he ever saw Eugene as his long-term home. After seeing that happen, Cristobal told Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens to make his buyout as high as he wants. Translation: he’ll be here a good long while.
So the Ducks are going to go 12-0 and win the Pac-12, right? Well, not quite –- we haven’t gotten to the bad yet.
A new group of backs
Now, this is not meant to be a knock on Tony Brooks-James, Darrian Felix, CJ Verdell, or any of the other backs on Oregon’s roster – there are going to be growing pains when a guy who scored 16 touchdowns last year leaves. Brooks-James has proven himself to be a lightning-fast weapon with the ball in his hands. However, the team lost its power backs with the departures of Royce Freeman and Kanai Benoit. As a perennial thousand-yard rusher, Freeman was always going to be tough to replace. When he filled in, Benoit was a pretty effective replacement. Now, Oregon’s backs mostly fall into the speed category. Despite his talent, it’s hard to know if Brooks-James has the frame to be a three-down back for a whole season. Felix (and his young compatriots) may be excellent, but with almost no game experience, only time will tell.
A young receiving corps
To be fair, this was an issue last year even with senior Charles Nelson on the team. Junior Dillon Mitchell will be one of the veteran members of the group, and should ostensibly have the best year. In practice, it remains to be seen if he can fill that roll. While he’s a dangerous player in the open field, Mitchell gets himself into trouble by running laterally too much. He sometimes struggles to gain separation from physical corners as well. Brenden Schooler is the other elder statesman, but the converted safety has yet to establish himself as a go-to option. Johnny Johnson will likely resume his role as the team’s resident deep threat, but the rest of the group is unproven. Jaylon Redd and Daewood Davis both have potential, but lack a wealth of game experience.
When Herbert went down with a broken collarbone last year, Braxton Burmeister took over. To make a long story short, it didn’t go well. I found myself having flashbacks of the nightmare of Jeff Lockie throwing away the 2015 Alamo Bowl. This year, if Herbert gets hurt, the Ducks won’t have Royce Freeman to lean on. Ideally, you have young players to backup your veteran starters. With most of those veterans gone, a spate of injuries (like that seemingly cursed Cal game last year) could lead to a trial by fire for the team’s youth movement. Now, that group may turn out to be stellar –- but if I were a head coach, I’d feel more comfortable with some old stalwarts on my team.
There’s a lot of potential on this team. If they can sidestep these concerns, the Oregon program could become a national contender sooner rather than later.