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the Gekko Files: previewing Oregon Ducks football in 2017

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A duck came to a fork in the road. Which way did it go?

Florida State v South Florida
Just 18 months ago, Willie Taggart was a struggling young coach. Now he is running the Oregon Ducks.
Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images

Forgive the length of the story that follows. If you are not interested in a little Gekko family history, skip ahead to the section that says “Previewing Oregon Football.” You’ll never know what you have missed.

Seventy years ago, my grandfather emigrated to the Pacific Northwest. He had nothing to his name save two quarters, two dimes, and a suitcase filled with handblown glassware. There were seventy pieces in all.

His intent was to sell all seventy of those pieces for a dollar apiece. Once his task was complete, he would take his seventy dollars and use it to buy a blow tube, a punty rod, and the sundry other items he required to craft more glassware. At least, that was the plan.

He was fortunate in that he landed a room in the home of a fellow Nord with whom his local pastor connected him. The man’s name was Sven Jorgenson.

Sven, who my grandfather insisted on calling Dr. Jorgenson (though there is no evidence that Sven Jorgenson was anything of the sort) was very impressed with my grandfather’s craftsmanship and the fact that he was able to cart all of his pieces across the ocean. He wondered how my grandfather had been able to do it without breaking a single one.

My grandfather explained to him that the trip had been long and difficult. Seventy days in all. There had been many setbacks and hardships. Bad people, bad weather, and bad luck all conspired at different times to make his journey almost untenable. In one particularly forgettable stretch, a rainstorm assailed him for seventy straight hours. He had no shelter at the time. It destroyed almost everything that he had. His family back home, he explained, had given up hope that he would ever realize his dream. At times, so did he.

But he had now finally made it to the Northwest. Times were tough, but anything seemed possible. Dr. Jorgenson wondered how my grandfather was going to complete his plan to sell his wares. My grandfather responded that he was going to do it the old-fashioned way. He was going to wash his shirt, have a shave, shine up his shoes, and take his suitcase door to door all around the neighborhood. He thought he’d have no problem covering at least seventy city blocks over the first couple of days.

Dr. Jorgenson, who happened to be a University of Washington alum (which was probably why my grandfather insisted on calling him “doctor”) was impressed with my grandfather’s spirit and grit. I recall him telling me at one of my grandfather’s birthday parties that he hadn’t ever met a man who had endured such hardship and yet saw the world in such optimistic terms. “All he ever sees is purple, the color of prosperity,” he said.

To help him along, Dr. Jorgenson came up with the idea of introducing my grandfather to his friend and fraternity brother, Werner. Werner was a partner in a restaurant, a small little cafe at the corner of 70th and University, whose founder was particularly famous for her homemade bleu cheese salad dressing. People traveled from all around the city just to taste this dressing. Most would order extra so that they could take some home to share with friends. I know it sounds cheesy, but these were different times. And this was particularly excellent salad dressing.

As it turns out, Werner had told Dr. Jorgenson about an idea that he had to jar the dressing and distribute it through various retail in the area. Perhaps, he reasoned, Werner would be interested in handcrafted glass jars to market his dressings.

My grandfather loved the idea.

The next morning, Dr. Jorgenson and my grandfather paid a visit to the cafe in order to meet with Werner and the matriarch of the establishment. He took extra care to check his suitcase and his wares. He made sure that the best pieces were within reach.

The cafe was tidy but not remarkably appointed. Nevertheless, the Sunday morning crowd occupied every table and every bar stool along the front counter. A small line had formed outside the door under a sign that said “Maximum Occupancy 70.” Many frowned as Dr. Jorgenson and my grandfather cut past them and made their way past the front door and into the office just beside the kitchen. Introductions were made. Werner and my grandfather clicked instantly.

Within a few minutes, Dr. Jorgenson prompted my grandfather to demonstrate his goods. My grandfather beamed as he unzipped his parcel and loosened the wraps protecting his glass. His life’s work was about to be taken into the hands of another person and he could not be more proud.

Werner was very pleased with the detail and the quality of my grandfather’s work. He called it precise and substantive. Two more perfect words were never used to describe my grandfather. Werner even joked that it was amazing that my grandfather had not attended UW because, “this was the work of a Husky.” He immediately invited my grandfather to the kitchen to meet the matriarch of the cafe. If she were agreeable, they would take the whole lot.

They proceeded single file into the kitchen. There was not room to enter any other way. First Werner, then Dr. Jorgenson, and finally my grandfather. When they reached the small prep table where the matriarch was working, they took positions all around it. My grandfather was introduced just as he saw what the matriarch was preparing.

In a moment, everything changed. A stumble, an expletive, and a deafening smashing sound stunned the staff and brought silence to the bustling dining room.

“What happened?” Dr. Jorgenson exclaimed as the adrenaline coursed through his body.

My grandfather, steady with the composure of a man who had seen hard times, simply replied, “I saw the duck and I dropped seventy.”

Previewing Oregon Football

That fable, rooted in the truth of my family history, was a story that I wondered if I would ever feel compelled to write. Forgive me for taking 900 words to tell it, but what better audience to share it with? When the fifth-ranked Washington Huskies went into Eugene and took out twelve years of ill will with a 49-point beatdown of the Oregon Ducks, they did not only end a streak. They changed the trajectory of the Oregon Ducks football program.

We now arrive on the doorstep of 2017 with Oregon facing a crossroad. They have a new leader, a whiz-bang coaching staff, and a lot of recruiting buzz. But they also face new competitive dynamics in the PAC 12, where a slumbering Washington program has awakened and a surging USC is finally out of their Pete Carroll coaching tree shackles.

Are the Ducks ready for a revival? Or was their 4-8 season a year ago the first act in a dramatic reversal of fortune for the program that put the “hurry” in college football hurry-up offense?

Time to open the Gekko Files. Please turn to page 70.

Oregon’s Offense

Oregon Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
RB play and depth receiving depth QB Justin Herbert QB Braxton Burmeister (TFr)
offensive line depth inexperience in new offense RB Royce Freeman TE Cam McCormick (RSFr)
team speed OL Tyrell Crosby

Offense has always been the name of the game in Eugene. Before last season, you had to go all the way back to 2006 to find a year when someone other than Oregon (in this case, Cal) led the PAC in scoring. During that stretch, they became the only PAC 12 team to ever post 600+ points in a season. In fact, they did it four different times.

Stanford v Oregon
Has the tread worn thin on the PAC 12’s leading active rusher? Only Royce Freeman knows the answer to that question.
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Ironically, the biggest scoring season in Oregon history was the 681 points that the Ducks scored with Mark Helfrich at the helm in Marcus Mariota’s last season (2014). But it’s been all downhill from there as the football world has seemingly caught up with Oregon’s brand of no-huddle, spread offense. It’s probably not surprising that declines along the offensive line and at the quarterback position correlate with a sudden drop that saw Oregon finish sixth in the conference in scoring.

Is this the end of Oregon’s spectacular run as an offensive juggernaut?

Maybe, but I’m not quite ready to jump on that bus just yet. The reason is because new head coach Willie Taggart still has a lot of talent to work with in Eugene, much of which is just starting to come into its own from an experience standpoint.

I’m most bullish about the Ducks offensive line. A unit that was too young and too clumsy a year ago is all of a sudden experienced and will be immediately reinforced by the return of senior Tyrell Crosby. Whether at guard or tackle, Crosby is an NFL-caliber talent. His complements - Jake Hanson, Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux, and Brady Aiello - all were starters a year ago and should be again. The cupboards are not bare for former Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal as he seeks to reshape this Oregon line. The bigger question is how long it will take to implement the new program.

The running back corps figures to benefit greatly. Royce Freeman is back for his final season at Oregon. He has been dinged up a bit, but is still a force even at 90%. He has a very deep unit to support him with guys like Kani Benoit, Taj Griffin, and Tony Brooks-James. Even with Freeman injured for parts of last year, this group finished second in the PAC in total rushing. It’s a balanced and deep unit.

Unfortunately, that is where the depth ends on the Oregon offense. Justin Herbert, the sophomore QB with reclusive tendencies, is probably the most important QB to his team in the entire PAC after driving both #2 QB Travis Jonsen and #3 QB Terry Wilson to transfer out of Oregon following a strong spring. So humble is Herbert’s approach to the game that Taggart had to implement a rule requiring the young star to actually speak to at least one other player between every play. Regardless, Herbert has “star” written all over him. He demonstrates good fundamentals and strong instincts as a pocket passer. He is mobile and he has good arm strength. His only challenge is the same as we saw with Jake Browning after his first year - getting the timing and willingness to deliver the deep ball. One would presume that this will become more comfortable this year, especially if his protection is better.

If anything happens to Herbert, look out. There are only three scholarship QBs on the roster and one of them, senior Taylor Alie, had been playing WR to help with depth problems there. Most likely, true freshman Braxton Burmeister will serve as the backup.

Even before news that star WR Darren Carrington had been suspended indefinitely due to yet another indiscretion, I had mixed emotions about Oregon’s receiving situation. Their front-line guys are all nice complements to Herbert. Senior Charles Nelson is a proven playmaker whose pinball-like quickness allows him the ability to make plays in space, even being a bit undersized. Sophomore Dillon Mitchell looks primed for a breakout as an outside receiver after a freshman year struggling with injuries and integration. 235-lb sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland looks like a star in the making and is a clear-cut starter.

But Carrington is the obvious pacesetter for the group. Husky fans need only go back to the 2015 game against the Ducks in Seattle, Carrington’s first game back after a drug-related suspension. The 3-3 Ducks were slipping and many thought UW had a chance to end “the streak” right there. Carrington, however, had other plans. He was all over the field and ended up catching five balls for 125 yards (25 ypc) and two TDs en route to Oregon’s 26-20 win. His presence kicked off a six-game winning streak for Oregon.

Clearly, Carrington’s presence matters. In fact, Taggart himself said in the spring that “if we can have a team full of Carringtons, we’ll be one hell of a football team.” Without him, there is no clear #1 receiver on this team. Furthermore, the backups are all people with talent but whom you’ve never heard of. Darrian McNeal, Daewood Davis and Johnny Johnson are all true freshman while Malik Lovette is a converted DB. There is simply no experienced depth here. This situation could be a real disaster for Oregon if Taggart sticks to his culture guns and keeps Carrington away from the team for an extended period. Given the depth issues, I’m guessing that we’ll see Carrington back sooner than later.

Oregon’s Defense

Oregon Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
emerging secondary DL depth LB Troy Dye DL Scott Pagano (Txfr)
overall experience no clear pass rush CB Arrion Springs DL Jordan Scott (TFr)
DL Henry Mondeaux DB Thomas Graham (TFr)

And now we get to the fun part. Former Colorado DC and USF head coach Jim Leavitt made news this offseason by joining Taggart as the conference’s highest-paid defensive coordinator. If he can do anything to restore respectability to this rebuild job, he will clearly have earned it.

Last year was a defensive disaster for an Oregon team that has favored speed over size for much of the last decade. Class asymmetry, depth challenges, and team health all conspired to make Oregon’s 2016 defense one of the worst in the nation (126th out of 128 in total defense and 119th in defensive S&P). At one point in the season, following that ridiculous Cal game, Oregon’s D was surrendering nearly 540 yards on average per game to go along with 44 points. On average. They bounced back to finish 11th in the conference in scoring and total D, but their 41.6 ppg surrendered was their worst of all time coming just two seasons after Oregon had finished second in the conference in the same stat (at 23.6 ppg), just ahead of UW.

The rebuild job will start with Leavitt’s specialty: the defensive secondary. Junior CB Arrion Springs finally appears ready to emerge as a playmaker after making the art of picking off Justin Herbert passes in spring ball an almost daily affair. The other side will likely be manned by the talented Ugo Amadi. Senior Tyree Robinson gives Oregon flexibility given that he can shift easily between covering the slot and safety. A group of talented incoming freshmen including Thomas Graham (a possible starter), Jaylon Redd (who might now shift to WR), and redshirt safety Brady Breeze provide tantalizing depth for Leavitt (who is supported by former UW assistant Keith Heyward) to build around.

Oregon v Utah
Troy Dye “looks great standing there in a helmet” per DC Jim Leavitt. But is he ready to be an inside linebacker?
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the front seven remains a work in progress. Linebacker Troy Dye, who broke out as a freshman with 91 tackles a year ago, is being moved from outside to inside and will provide leadership for the front half of the defense. He doesn’t have much of a supporting cast to draw upon. Linebackers A.J. Hotchkins and Johnny Swain both played substantially a year ago, but generally at a replacement level. Jonah Moi is a clear starter as an outside linebacker and Fotu Leitao will start in the “DUCK” position - a hybrid linebacker/safety role that Leavitt is fond of deploying in a 3-3-5 look.

Who fills out the linebacker depth from there remains a question as the Ducks convert away from Brady Hoke’s one-year experiment in a 4-3. The Ducks would love to see guys like Danny Mattingly, La’mar Winston, and Keith Simms make big contributions. Incoming freshmen Isaac Slade-Matautia and Sampson Niu will both push incumbents for playing time. There is talent here, but it is young and getting it all to gel is the trick.

The story remains the same for the defensive line. The unit looks pretty good with its front line players, but not too great beyond those first four. Henry Mondeau and Elijah George are familiar names as seniors in the program. Both will play as big DEs in Leavitt’s scheme. The middle of the line will be anchored by a rotation of Clemson transfer Scott Pagano - a part-time starter for the national champs - and huge incoming freshman Jordon Scott. End Jalen Jelks, if he can stay healthy, is the pass rusher of the group. This unit, if they can stay healthy, ought to create some opportunities for linebackers to make plays and control the opponent’s rush. However, should injuries hit or the linebackers fail to step up, this unit doesn’t have the kind of depth to run out a lot of substitutes who can do the job.

In all, I do think Oregon’s D is better than what it showed a year ago. However, it is clearly in rebuild mode. If they can keep their front line players in on 60-65% of downs, they could be middle-of-the-PAC. If they have to dip far into their reserves, it could be another ugly season as Leavitt works to develop his depth.

One Breakout Player

Sophomore TE Jacob Breeland

Willie Taggart has opened up every position to competition, thus creating many opportunities for breakout players to emerge. This means that a guy like Winston, Graham, or true freshman safety Deommodore Lenoir might really breakout. To me, though, the opportunity for Breeland looks like the one most likely to pay out.

Breeland played a bit a year ago as a backup to Pharaoh Brown and Johnny Mundt, both of whom have moved on from the program. He finished the year with six catches for 123 total yards and no touchdowns. This past offseason, he went to work on adding more lean muscle to his 6-5” frame and developing more rapport with QB Justin Herbert.

Given that there is no real competition for his position and that the Ducks may be without a clear #1 receiver, one would have to presume that Breeland is going to get ample opportunity. At an athletic 240 lbs, he has the versatility to be deployed in many situations and I would expect him to be on the field most of the time. I like his work ethic and his skill set as a fit in Taggart’s offense and I could easily see Breeland finish the season with 500 yds and five TDs to complement the work he will do as a blocker.

Projecting Oregon

I hate to say it, Husky fans. This Ducks team is not as bad as the 4-8 train wreck that we saw a year ago. There is talent here and, if you happen to be a recruitnik, you know that Taggart is absolutely knocking the cover off of the ball when it comes to his 2018 recruiting class. That talent to go along with an all-star coaching staff should lend credence to the theory that this will not be a long rebuild in Eugene.

But, what about 2017?

Clearly, depth is an issue for the Ducks. This is true at every level of the defense and among the skill positions on offense. There is depth, however, where a rebuilding team usually wants to have it: in the rushing attack. Oregon’s O-line will certainly be good in 2017 and might be really good. The running back unit might be - probably is - the deepest in the PAC. If they can control the ball, keep the defense off the field, and protect the QB, they can win some games.

The problem will be when they fall behind. The Ducks do have home run hitters on offense, but run the risk of exposing their depth issues if they have to try to catch up. In addition, it isn’t yet clear that the defense can reliably protect a lead or give that offense a chance to catch back up against even an average PAC 12 offense.

The schedule will also provide a bit of a challenge. Their out-of-conference features a home game against Nebraska sandwiched between Southern Utah and a road trip to Wyoming. The conference schedule does feature five home games, but no bye week until the middle of November. The road games will be tough, including road trips to Seattle and to Palo Alto. There is a five-week stretch in the middle of the season that includes vs WSU, @ Stanford, @ UCLA, vs Utah and @ Washington. Oregon would do well simply to win their home games in that brutal stretch.

Still, I think Oregon is good for four conference wins at least in 2017. Add in a couple of non-conference games and you can see a very credible path for the Ducks to get back to the postseason even without having to beat any of the tougher teams on their schedule. That would be the perfect tonic for Willie Taggart as he seeks to get Duck fans back on the Oregon bus.