The series continues with the Media Day favorites in the Pac 12 North - the Oregon Ducks. Read on and decide if they will truly be crowned King of the North.
Head Coach: Mario Cristobal (2nd Season, 3rd Season Overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Marcus Arroyo (3rd Season)
Defensive Coordinator: Andy Avalos (1st Season)
Regular Season: 8-4 (5-4)
ESPN Football Power Index: 31
Offensive Efficiency Rank: 25
Defensive Efficiency Rank: 41
Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 87
QB Herbert and Offensive Line Pave the Way
There is a whole lot of hype surrounding Oregon’s offense, but last season’s inconsistent results warrant a “wait and see” outlook for the Pac 12 North favorites in 2019. Oregon’s 2018 offensive performance was uneven deterred by a horrid two game road stretch in October at Washington State and Arizona. Before the rough patch, this looked like the conference’s top offense but excessive drops by WR’s, an injury at LT, and some unexpected struggles by future NFL 1st round QB Justin Herbert manifested as the season took its course. Herbert shocked the conference electing to return to Eugene in 2019 and enters the season with Heisman consideration.
Herbert had a strong sophomore season under previous head coach Willie Taggart in 2017 before an injury sidelined him derailing Oregon’s conference title hopes. Taggart later spurned the Ducks for the head job at Florida State. He had hired an all-star recruiting staff at Oregon and most of it was retained when Oregon handed the job to his co-OC Mario Cristobal. The Ducks proceeded to land better recruiting talent than any prior era, but the on-field results have been rather unconvincing. Many think 2019 can be the season that springs Oregon back into the national spotlight and all eyes are on QB Justin Herbert and this unproven coaching staff.
Justin Herbert has all the tools to be the number one selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. The 6’6’’ Senior has incredible arm talent, an even-keeled demeanor, and surprising mobility. He has 28 starts under his belt and should be ready for a memorable farewell season. Herbert is not the only reason to bet on the Ducks as their 153 returning career starts on the offensive line are the most by any college football program since 2011. Not only is the OL experienced, but it is incredibly talented with four starters earning All-Conference honers last season. Tackles Calvin Throckmorton and Penei Sewell, Guard Shane Lemieux, and Center Jake Hansen starlight a unit that may be the best in the entire country. Their 2018 play dipped after LT Sewell’s injury vs Washington, but they have more quality depth and versatility this year and should be better equipped to handle attrition. Cristobal is a former OL coach who emphasizes a downhill running game. The Ducks are aligned to have one with a talented stable of running backs behind its top-tier offensive line. C.J. Verdell returns after topping the thousand yard mark in 2018 and there are plenty of viable options behind him including Travis Dye who ran for over 700 yards last season.
Oregon’s receivers led the entire FBS with a whopping 52 dropped passes in 2018. Dillon Mitchell was seemingly the only guy Herbert could rely on and he decided to leave early for the NFL. The WR position is the most significant question posing Oregon’s offense in 2019, but the staff did a nice job importing new talent that can contribute immediately. Penn State grad-transfer Juwan Johnson will likely start on the outside after solid production for the Nittany Lions and Jaylon Redd returns after flashing potential in the slot. Incumbent starter Brenden Schooler suffered an injury early in fall camp opening the door for a pool of young, highly recruited players to stake their claim in the rotation. Redshirt freshman Bryan Addison and true freshman Mycah Pittman are among the top of the list who have impressed in practice. Altogether, this unit should be better despite losing its top player. Herbert will have more options and hopefully less drops. Rounding out the offense is a solid group of experienced TE’s led by Jacob Breeland and Cam McKormick. McKormick has endured poor luck with injuries, but this unit is deep enough to run power sets and be one of the top TE units in the conference.
Overall, this offense needs to produce heavily in Herbert’s senior season for Ducks fans to have confidence in Cristobal and Offensive Coordinator Marcus Arroyo. They have done a remarkable job stocking the roster with talent and have an embarrassment of riches at critical positions. This offense has the potential to control games on the ground and execute in the passing game with one of the country’s top signal callers.
Experience, Young Talent, and Lots of Depth on Defense
Defense hardly existed in Eugene during the last two years of former head coach Mark Helfrich’s tenure prompting his eventual demise. His replacement Willie Taggart made a splash hiring Defensive Coordinator Jim Leavitt and the veteran delivered an instant turn around in 2017. Taggart’s move to Florida State may have complicated the relationship between coordinators Cristobal and Leavitt who both wanted the head job. Cristobal won that face-off but Leavitt stayed on to coach the defense. The odd couple officially broke up after mixed results in 2018 and Cristobal escorted Andy Avalos in after serving three years as the DC at Boise State. Avalos inherits a solid combination of depth, experience, and explosive young talent for a unit that should improve from last season.
Avalos’ defense will vary between an even and odd front and the Ducks return a lot on the interior. Massive Juniors Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu form an impressive duo in the middle with quality depth rotating in. Exciting newcomers highlight the DE and Stud LB positions with true freshman five star recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux and Miami transfer DJ Johnson battling veterans for starting spots. The Defensive Line is much deeper than it has been in Eugene and should be grow explosive as the newcomers find their footing.
The name to know at LB is three year starter Troy Dye. Dye is as accomplished and versatile as they come with preseason All-American consideration. OLB La’Mar Winston returns after starting nine last season and the MLB spot returns part-time starters Isaac Slade-Matautia and Sampson Niu. Just like the DL, there is depth with highly recruited first and second year players pushing guys with starting experience.
There is a lot to like in the secondary with both starting CBs returning in Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir. Graham was elite in 2018 and the duo should be among the best in the conference. Cornerback depth was poor last season but should improve with the arrival of heavily recruited true freshman Mykael Wright. Jevon Holland returns at safety after his breakout true freshman season leading the team in interceptions. Alongside him is a competition between upperclassmen Nick Pickett and Brady Breeze. Like a lot of Pac 12 teams, the Ducks will be in nickel a lot and are excited about the play of redshirt freshman Verone McKinley in that role.
Altogether this is easily a top half Pac 12 defense with potential for much more. Andy Avalos’ coaching chops will be tested by how the team adjusts to his scheme and how he fits his deep cast of talent into roles where they can be successful. There are skilled veterans to build the young talent around and there is no reason the defense should hold the Ducks back from their conference title aspirations.
Are They Back?
The hype train is about to take off in Eugene and a lot of fans are undecided whether to jump on board. It is unrealistic to expect first and second year players to win championships no matter how highly recruited they are. Fortunately, that is not the case with Oregon. The Ducks have a boatload of accomplished players to lead the way while they sprinkle in its top 10 recruiting classes from the last two years. It has been a while since Oregon has been a national contender, but they have also underwent three different head coaches in a three year span. The stars are aligned for a Pac 12 North title for Oregon in 2019 and Week One vs Auburn will tell us how good this team really is.