Just moments before writing this, news hit the Twitterverse that true freshman QB Justin Herbert will start this Saturday against Washington. After finding some success last year with an FCS grad transfer QB in Vernon Adams, the Ducks dipped into the I-AA ranks again and roped in Dakota Prukop, who looked good early in the season running the offense. He’s appeared to regress a little bit since then, and did not look good against Washington State last week.
It’s hard to say why the coaches are making the move to go with Herbert, because Prukop hasn’t exactly been awful. Oregon’s most glaring holes are on defense, not offense. Maybe after five games they realized that Prukop can’t save their season, and Herbert (while likely more mistake-prone because he’s a freshman) can offer some big-play potential. Who knows? He’s big at 6’6”, and is a pass-first QB, but definitely has some mobility. He’s no Brandon Dawkins, but maybe the Oregon coaches saw Washington struggle to wrap up the big Arizona QB, and thought Herbert could offer something similar.
When asked if Prukop is still the starter, Head Coach Mark Helfrich replied, “Yeah. I mean we’re still competing.” Not the most convincing answer. This is the first time since 2006 an Oregon QB has been benched for a reason other than injury. Is there a full-blown QB controversy brewing in Eugene?
Oregon native Mark Helfrich joined the Ducks’ staff in 2009 as an offensive coordinator and QB coach under Chip Kelly. During those years, Oregon’s offense was nearly unstoppable. They played at a breakneck pace, utilizing their incredible speed all over the field to create explosive plays and 1-on-1 matchups in space. Kelly called the plays, but Helfrich was a key figure in practice and game planning. He helped develop Rose Bowl QBs Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and Marcus Mariota, winning National QB Coach of the Year honors in 2010 and 2012. Oh, the irony.
When Helfrich took over in 2013, he slowed down the offense some, sacrificing some overall yardage numbers for better efficiency. Oregon’s 2012 offense, possibly their best in school history, averaged a yard less per play than the 2013 version which Helfrich oversaw. They still run a spread with a lot of zone read concepts, but as soon as Helfrich took over the passing numbers went up, helping to round out an already potent rushing attack.
Former offensive coordinator Scott Frost took the UCF head coaching job, so Helfrich promoted WR coach Matt Lubick to offensive coordinator. So far this season, the offense is still a threat, even with uncertainty under center.
Dakota Prukop: 1,173 yards, 8 TDs, 2 INT, 66% completion, 8.44 yds/attempt. 155 rushing yards, 1 TD.
Justin Herbert: 70 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT. 60% completion, 14 yds/attempt. 4 yards rushing, 1 TD (note: all stats from one drive against WSU).
Dakota Prukop was supposed to keep the offense humming along. He had a great game against Virginia, passing for 3 TDs and over 330 yards. The following week against Nebraska he struggled throwing, registering no TDs and staying under 150 yards. He did show off his legs in the absence of RB Royce Freeman, rushing for 97 yards on 20 carries. Prukop actually ranks pretty high nationally in passing efficiency, at 32nd, ahead of WSU’s Luke Falk. Despite this, throughout the WSU game, he looked lost on reads, had a hard time breaking down the coverage, and just didn’t seem as if he was in control. He was eventually pulled out late in the game to make way for Justin Herbert. Despite not having a great game against WSU, he’s still been solid all year behind a young OL, and you can’t help but think it’s a move to rebuild for the future by benching him.
When Justin Herbert entered the game, he promptly drove his team 85 yards down the field for a touchdown in his first game action of the year. What’s impressive is that he beat out a much more heralded QB from the 2015 class, Travis Jonsen, who many tipped to be the starter if Prukop wound up elsewhere. Herbert’s only DI offer was to Nevada, but the hype around the young QB is growing, and there’s a belief among insiders that he’s a future star for the Ducks. He doesn’t look like fast or super mobile due to his height, but his scrambling absolutely must be accounted for, similar to former Utah QB Travis Wilson.
Royce Freeman: 56 rushes, 463 yards, 7 TDs
Tony Brooks-James: 39 rushes, 271 yards, 6 TDs
Kani Benoit: 32 rushes, 222 yards, 2 TDs
For all the QB hoopla surrounding Oregon, the running backs are where it’s “business as usual” for the Ducks. It all starts with Royce Freeman, who is arguably the team’s best player, and the best running back in the conference. He’s got excellent size and power at 5-11, 230 pounds, but also incredible speed to run away from defenders. He’s got pretty much everything you want in a pure running back and averages over 8 yards per carry. His incredible rushing totals this year are from only 3 complete games, as he left the Nebraska game early due to injury, and missed the following week vs. Colorado. He will be a load to bring down, and regardless of the outcome, I would not be surprised to see Freeman get 100+ yards and a TD or 2 against the Dawgs.
Freeman injured against Nebraska and Colorado? No fear, in steps Tony Brooks-James who rushed for 157 yards and 4 TDs in those games. He’s a one-cut-and-go type of back, perfectly built for zone read offenses. He doesn’t have the size of Freeman, but he’s decisive, has some wiggle, and can generate explosive runs, evidenced by his 21, 33, and 50-yard scampers this year.
Kani Benoit chipped in with 149 yards and 2 TDs as well in Freeman’s absence. He won the team’s 2015 Most Improved award, and was the leading rusher in the spring game. He’s more in the bigger mold of Royce Freeman, though he doesn’t possess the same quickness and speed. You can do a lot worse than Benoit as your #3 RB.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Jacob Breeland (TE): 2 catches, 70 yards
Charles Nelson: 24 catches, 240 yards
Dwayne Stanford: 13 catches, 175 yards, 1 TD
Pharaoh Brown (TE): 9 catches, 103 yards, 1 TD
Darren Carrington: 21 catches, 304 yards, 3 TDs
Along with the running backs, the pass catchers for Oregon represent a significant strength with their versatility and overall athleticism. The star here is Carrington, who last year lit up the Dawgs with a 5-catch, 125-yard and 2-TD performance. He’s got great size at 6’2” and nearly 200 pounds, and has had at least two catches in every game this season.
Pharaoh Brown is a unique talent at tight end. Similar to how we Husky fans salivate over Darrell Daniels’ immense speed for a tight end, Duck fans point to Brown’s 66-yard catch-and-run in 2014 as evidence of his talent. He missed the 2015 season due to injury but has come back strong this year. Oregon loves to put TEs in the backfield on running plays for blocking, and you’ll see Brown there quite a bit.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Breeland got his first action against Colorado but did not record a catch. He came back the next week with 2 catches for 70 yards against WSU, including a 63-yard catch from Justin Herbert when the game was winding down. The development of the Herbert-Breeland connection will be something to watch this Saturday.
Charles Nelson rounds out the group and showcases amazing versatility as a receiver, returner, and safety. He started 2015 as a receiver before moving to safety for the final 8 games of the year. This year he’s back on offense and averaging 10 yards a catch, and has a kick return TD to his name. He’s small at 5’8”, but explosive, as he averaged 19 yards per rush last year. He gets targeted a lot in their screen game and will routinely finish a game with 4-5 or more catches, similar to former Husky Jaydon Mickens. Dwayne Stanford is huge at 6’5” and will need to be accounted for. He has 9 catches for 128 yards in his last 2 games.
This is where it gets dicey for the Ducks, with youth and injuries. The OL has been a big letdown this year, but they’re still the #11 rushing offense in the country, churning out 260 yards per game. A lot of that can be attributed to their deep and talented running back corps, but the OL is only allowing 2 sacks and 5.2 TFLs per game; good numbers, but not great. No doubt losing starting LT Tyrell Crosby hurt, as he is the team’s best OL, leaving them starting 4 redshirt freshmen. In steps Brady Aiello, who has two starts to his name this season. The one experienced player on the line is RG Cameron Hunt, who entered the season with a team-high 32 starts. It’s been an up-and-down year for the young Ducks on the OL.
At a high level, the Ducks are the same old Ducks when it comes to the skill positions. Their wide receivers and running backs are legit, with stars at the top and depth throughout. Non-injury-related changes at QB are never a sign of a stable offense, no less an entire team. It doesn’t matter what type of backs and receivers you have, you still need a QB to deliver the ball. Can Herbert do that? His one drive against WSU says “yes” but it’s a small sample size. What about the OL? There’s definitely been a dropoff since Crosby’s injury and they allowed 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage against WSU.
Washington’s defense matches up better against the Stanfords of the world than the Oregons, but you still have to like the idea of Washington’s DL against a young Oregon OL. They’ve routinely gotten pressure just rushing 4, and are leading the conference in sacks while blitzing less than anyone. Against a true freshman QB and an inexperienced OL, you have to expect the Huskies will play the classic strategy of daring a young QB to beat them with his arm.