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the Gekko Files: Previewing Oregon Ducks Football in 2016

The tarnish hasn't yet come off of their glossy uniforms, but many think that the prospects for Mark Helfrich's program are dulling as Oregon gets further away from the Kelly/Mariota era.

Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich finds himself an unlikely hot seat candidate as the Ducks try to rebound in 2016.
Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich finds himself an unlikely hot seat candidate as the Ducks try to rebound in 2016.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We've seen this movie before., 2001

USC, 2009.

Lance Armstrong, 2014

Bill Cosby and Oscar Pistorius, 2015

Chip Kelly, Philadelphia, 2015.

You catch my drift. Falls from grace happen all the time. Sometimes it happens in the form of a grand ball of fire. Sometimes it is a more a gradual state of decay. But it happens with remarkable regularity in all facets of normal life.

The question facing the University of Oregon in 2016 is whether or not they are facing such a decline. The evidence is mounting that this Oregon team is becoming less of what it once was. The recruiting rankings are down. The defense has gone from great to good to bad in a span of just a few years. Coaching turnover has accelerated on what was once the most stable coaching staff in the nation. The roster has evolved to become an all-star team of the best that the graduate and FCS waiver wires have to offer in any given year.

The results on the field are starting to show it. Over the past few years, Oregon has suffered the indignities of dropping their last two post-season games, getting crushed by Utah, getting lit up by an FCS offense (and Oregon State, which is almost an FCS offense), losing two straight regular season games to Arizona, and having their eight-game winning streak over Washington State snapped. Oh, did I forget to mention that their loss to TCU in the Alamo Bowl tied an NCAA record as the Horned Frogs overcame a 31-point deficit?

Oregon fans like to point that their win streak over Washington continues. Touché. But that accomplishment alone isn't enough to convince a skeptical nation that there remains substance behind Oregon's flashy uniforms and pristine facilities. The only thing that will answer critics is a bounce back to form from a team whose coach is starting to get a little warm under the tail feathers.

Does Oregon have what it will take to return to prominence and answer the challenge being presented to them by PAC-12 upstarts such as USC, UCLA, Stanford, and, dare we say, Washington?

The Gekko knows.

Oregon's Offense:

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Matt Lubick Rushing Attack
WR Playmaking
Speed and Speed
OL Inconsistency
OL Depth
QB Play
RB Royce Freeman
WR Darren Carrington
OL Tyrell Crosby
QB Dakota Prokup (txfr)
WR Dillon Mitchell (TFr)

Feast your eyes on the baddest tailback in the PAC. RB Royce Freeman leads an all-star cast of playmakers in Eugene.

Much has changed on this Oregon offense since last we saw it. Offensive coordinator and known Chip Kelly whisperer Scott Frost has taken his talents somewhere south of the Mason/Dixon line (Central Florida, to be exact). QB and known Husky killer Vernon Adams has taken his talents to somewhere north of the Boundary Waters. WR Bralon Addison took his talents to the NFL Draft...and then to the free agent wire. Ditto the great but embattled slash star Byron Marshall.

But don't let any of that fool you. This is still a loaded unit. The question isn't so much whether or not they are going to score. It is really about whether or not they can score enough.

If it were just the running backs and the receivers that mattered, this would be a no-brainer. While USC may boast the best running back tandem in the conference, there can be no doubt that Oregon carries the mantle for the best depth top to bottom. The standard bearer is junior Royce Freeman (yup, he's just a junior). He's unlike the typical Oregon runner in that he doesn't have the radical top-end speed. But he is a true workhorse and probably the guy I'd go with as the best RB in the PAC (with all apologies to Christian McCaffrey).

When he gets his breaks, backup reps will go to both sophomore Taj Griffin and junior Kani Benoit. Griffin is the home run hitter of the pair while Benoit brings a little more size to the equation. Sophomore Tony Brooks-James, who along with Griffin has been dabbling as a receiver, will be a factor as a rusher. So will uber-athlete Charles Nelson. It's an embarrassment of riches.

On the perimeter, the Ducks will have little trouble replacing the big plays of Bralon Addison. Junior Darren Carrington, when he's got his head on right, is already a superior player and is clearly Oregon's top playmaker. Big Dwayne Stanford had a disappointing season a year ago, but still generates huge yards/reception and is a mismatch waiting to happen. Nelson will definitely see time as a receiver and you can bet to see heavy doses of TEs Evan Baylis and Pharaoh Brown (assuming he is fully recovered from his gruesome injury). And, if you worry about Oregon's receiving depth, don't. There is a bushel of young talent ready to step into place including young names to learn such as sophomore Jalen Brown and true freshman Dillon Mitchell. The cupboards are stocked in this position group.

If you want to worry about something, worry about that Duck offensive line. It wasn't good a year ago - particularly in protecting the pass (though Vernon Adams wasn't exactly a dream to block for). This year it is contending with a significant amount of attrition including the losses of tackle Tyler Johnstone and grad transfer Matt Hegarty. LT Tyrell Crosby is back and that is good news. He's a draftable left tackle who will anchor the unit. Beyond that, things get iffy. Senior Cameron Hunt is a reliable fixture. FCS transfer Zac Morgan is already a penciled in as a starter, if he ever makes it to campus. After that we begin to get into the names of freshmen that many UW fans will recognize, such as Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux. Given Oregon's injury history on the O-Line, it is a good bet you'll see these guys get some playing time at some point.

QB is also a major question. Last year, Oregon lived and died on whether or not Vernon Adams could connect on a big play. While he led the nation in YPA at 10.2, he was only 20th in the nation in accuracy and his 168 completed passes were nearly 300 less than Luke Falk's despite playing in just two fewer games. So, yeah, it was feast or famine with VA.

There isn't a QB on Oregon's roster that has the kind of air-it-out capabilities that allowed Adams to be so effective. Dakota Prukop is another FCS transfer who is more of a dink-and-dunk passer. His game is more head than heart, but he has the wheels to fit in fairly well with the Oregon offense. If he's the guy, its fair to assume that there will be fewer explosive plays in the passing game than what Duck fans are used to seeing. On the flip side, I'd imagine that Prukop would bring fewer turnovers and fewer sacks to the offense than did Adams.

Redshirt Travis Jonsen is the second player in the QB battle. He's an explosive athlete who has a little more juice in his arm and a little more gunslinger in his genes. He does have a bit of a funky motion and I'm guessing that accuracy might be a factor for him (not unusual for a young QB). But he surely has more upside than Prukop and might well take the job this fall.

Oregon's Defense:

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Brady Hoke Cool Uniforms Most Everything Else DT Henry Mondeaux
DB Charles Nelson
DT Canton Kaumatule (kinda)
LB Lamar Winston (TFr)

Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke looks to reinvent the depressed Oregon defense with his own version of an "attacking" 4-3 scheme.

I'm not going to engage in a gratuitous lamenting of just how bad Oregon's defense was in 2015. You've all seen the stats. It was bad when an FCS team scored 42 in the first game, all the way to when Oregon State--which had only scored more than 30 points once all season--racked up 42 of their own. I know the die-hard Duck fans argue that Oregon's defense went from "bad" to "slightly bad" as the season wore on. All I have to say is that the last two games were the Civil War and the meltdown against TCU - not exactly stellar examples of a defense on the rise. The truth remains that now-former DC Don Pellum put on the field one of the worst defenses the PAC has ever seen. Period. End of story.

The question now is whether or not former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke can turn the tide. Though Hoke has retained Pellum as LB coach, he is switching Oregon from a two-gap D to more of a Big Ten style 4-3 attack. This might be a difficult switch given how Oregon has recruited over the last few years.

Nowhere will this be more evident than on the defensive line. Oregon literally has two experienced bodies capable of manning the two inside positions: Junior Austin Maloata and sophomore Rex Manu. Senior DE/DT Henry Mondeaux can flex in and out, but will likely play the role of the big end. Tall and lanky Torrodney Prevot is back to try to generate a pass rush, which may or may not happen with the talented but streaky DE. In all honesty, it's a serviceable starting unit for Hoke to work with, but the depth gets very young really quickly. One name to watch, however, is that of sophomore Canton Kaumatule. The former blue-chipper has struggled with injuries, but has the tools to be a major force if he can find his way on the field. Even if he breaks out, the lack of a quality rotation makes this look like a bottom-third unit in the PAC.

The linebacking corps isn't much better. They graduated their top four players off of a unit that was, well, really bad. The best returning player is MLB Danny Mattingly. While not the star many thought he'd be, he's turned himself into a heady, productive player and I expect he will now be the leader in the middle of the Duck defense. Senior Johnny Ragin is the other experienced player here. He's got better wheels and projects as a weakside backer in a 4-3 alignment. He misses a lot of tackles and struggles with shedding blocks, but might really benefit from Hoke's new scheme. Keep an eye on a couple of players: JUCO transfer A.J. Hotchkins and true freshman Eric Briscoe, Jr. Hotchkins could challenge Mattingly for the MIKE role while Briscoe has the element of speed that new/old LB coach Pellum might not be able to resist.

Some would argue that the secondary is the best chance that Oregon has at a respectable defense. It is true that their two best players - junior safety Tyree Robinson and part-time CB Charles Nelson - reside in this unit. Not unlike Washington's in 2014, this was a very young group last season and there is good reason to believe that things can improve for this very speedy unit. In particular, both CB Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi look like players who can take the next step, at least as far as pass coverage is concerned. I'm optimistic about this group. If we start to see improvement in Oregon's defense in 2016, it will most likely be led by the secondary.

One Breakout Star

DE/DT Canton Kaumatule

This might be more hope than expectation for an immensely talented player who has yet to find his sea legs in the PAC-12. Just a true sophomore, the 6'7" 295-lb Kaumatule came to Oregon via Honolulu as one of their most celebrated defensive recruits ever. Not surprisingly, he was thurst into a rotational role as a true frosh but was able to record only two tackles on the season, both of which came against Georgia State. Injuries, including dreaded concussion issues, have been a challenge for the big man.

If Kaumatule can get his health issues straightened out, there really isn't a ceiling for him. He's got the size to fit in a 3-tech role and the athleticism to shift outside. He could even be a factor dropping into coverage, where his length and speed allow him to be a disruptive force against some of these horizontal offenses that are popping up in the PAC.

The bottom line is that Oregon is going to have to give Kauamatule plenty of reps if it hopes to arrest its defensive decline. Opportunity plus physical skills go a long way in the "breakout candidate" formula. For those reasons, I'm going with Kaumatule as my breakout candidate out for Oregon in 2016.

Predicting 2016

Oregon is a tale of two teams. On one hand, the offense is as scary as ever. Sure, there are some unknowns. We don't know how different a game Matt Lubick is going to call relative to Scott Frost. It is also hard to project exactly how much of a step back in explosive plays Oregon is going to take without players with the intangibles that a Mariota or an Adams brings to the table. We did get a preview of what life could be like in that regard with those few games that Jeff Lockie started last season. But was that a case of Adams being great or Lockie just being bad?

Regardless, I advise you to not overthink this. There are a gazillion playmakers on Oregon's offense. Scoring won't be a problem. Stopping the other team from doing so might.

It is easy to say that Oregon's defense has to be better than last year. I might even agree with that sentiment. But that doesn't mean it will be good enough to keep from getting outscored much of the time. This is a unit that should be better against the pass, albeit with a questionable pass rush. But it is hard to see how they are going to improve on a horrible rush defense given the makeup of the secondary and all of the pieces that they are replacing along the front seven. In addition, a 4-3 alignment seems a poor fit for a roster that has recruited lighter/longer defensive linemen and "mix-and-match" kinds of linebackers. The speed is there, but size at the point of attack is not. There might be growing pains as Hoke tries to install his new defense.

The schedule eases some of those pains. While a road contest at Nebraska looms as a notable challenge, Oregon benefits from a manageable conference schedule. They miss UCLA and Arizona (a notable miss given how RichRod owns Mark Helfrich) and their BYE week is conveniently placed right in the middle of the season (right after the UW game). They do have a tough stretch at the end - @ USC, Stanford and @ Utah - which could be a real problem for them if they do suffer any attrition on either side of the line of scrimmage.

In the end, I see Oregon as a legit 5-win team (in-conference). If they can stay healthy and/or get a little more big-play production out of their QB than what I'm imagining, they could stretch that by at least one more win. Given the parity in the league, I don't see how they are not a factor in the race for the PAC-12 North when that showdown in Eugene with Stanford rolls around.