Everybody loves a good comeback story. Whether we are talking about Rocky, Dodgeball, Ice Castles, Bohemian Rhapsody or Toy Story (1, 2, 3, or 4), comeback stories cross genres. People from all walks recognize the charm that accompanies a player, band or team that once had it all, lost it, and is working hard to get it back.
2019 seems to be the year that Oregon is the comeback du jour for the college football world at large. And why not? It has the makings of a great story. An underdog coach who earned his role picking up the slack for a castoff holdover from another era picks up the pieces and guides his team to a sublime recruiting class, a raucous upset over a hated rival and a “hard fought” win over a Big Ten rival in the post season. Layer in the fact that the Ducks return 17 starters from that team and it’s easy to see why the media is so enthralled.
But somewhere deep in the minds of everyone who follows it closely, questions still linger. The Ducks for all their hype still only won 5 games in conference last year. In fact, they needed both a botched snap/fumble and a missed 37 yard field goal by UW’s Peyton Henry to even have a winning record in Pac 12 play at all.
For all the bluster being bandied about over the decision by Justin Herbert to return and the luxury of bringing back three four-year starters on the o-line, we are still talking about an offense that was just sixth in the conference in total offense (5.86 yards per play). Sure, they were 2nd in the conference in scoring. But 42 combined points in three games against WSU, Arizona and Michigan State are indicative of how up and then down this Ducks team was a year ago.
Are we therefore to believe that the returns of all those starters will yield different results? Is there reason to believe that Mario Cristobal is a master of development? Or that the blue-chip laden recruiting class is ready to yield a couple of instant impact All-Americans?
Maybe. It is certainly within the realm of possibility. But so is the notion that the Oregon Express is more more hype than form.
Confused yet? Don’t worry, it’s time for the Gekko Files to leave the station.
Despite being second in the conference in scoring last season, it would be a big jump to assume that Mario Cristobal has the Oregon offense humming at Chip Kelly-esque levels. In fact, when you take away the opening three week romp through the PAC 12’s easiest non-con schedule (Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State), Oregon’s offense was down right pedestrian. Average quarterback play, a lack of big plays in the rushing attack and spotty pocket protection were the primary culprits that dragged on the offense as the season went on.
It wasn’t all bad. Oregon last year did a great job in generating big plays through the air, converting third downs and protecting the football. As they work to build on that and become the kind of offense that can do better than 7 points in a bowl game, they will be looking to add more efficiency into the mix.
The return of Justin Herbert - a near certain top 5 draft pick had he gone into the NFL draft - is being hailed as the key factor in driving Oregon to the top of everyone’s PAC 12 ballots in preseason polls. Herbert is a prototype NFL QB. He has height (6’5”), a big arm, smarts and a cool demeanor. His super power is the long ball. He led the nation in pass completions over 50 yards (7) and opens the season with a 28 straight games with a TD pass streak still alive.
Despite those stats, Herbert is a surprisingly inefficient QB. Per Bill Connelly, Herbert’s 2018 completion percentage in PAC 12 play plus his bowl game was just 57%. His passer rating over that same period of time was just 126.7. To put that in perspective, he would have finished 9th in the PAC with that kind of rating if it had been over a whole season. That overall lack of inefficiency is a big reason that Oregon finished just 44th in the nation in Passing S&P+.
In fairness, much of the lack of the efficiency should be pinned on Oregon’s receiving corps. The now-departed Dillon Mitchell was essentially the entirety of that unit’s accomplishment. What remains is a collection of complementary pieces and incoming blue-chippers who will all be vying for time.
Slot receiver Jaylen Redd is probably the most sure thing that Herbert welcomes back. Incoming Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson - who was among the most notorious pass-droppers in all the NCAA the past two years - provides size (6’4”) and ridiculous athleticism on the outside. Veterans Johnny Johnson and Brendan Schooler - both of whom struggled with drops last year - also return.
The biggest driver of Oregon’s recruiting class rankings was the haul of blue-chippers among the receivers group. The key for this offense will be if Johnson, one of the redshirts and/or a couple of those blue-chippers breaks through to take on Mitchell’s deep ball contributions. It really could be any of them, but I’ll be watching closely redshirt Bryan Addison and true frosh Mycah Pittman.
Oregon’s rushing attack is probably not something to worry too much about. CJ Verdell is by now a well-established every-down kind of guy. He is more of a violent runner than a breakaway threat. He’ll win a lot of 1:1’s in the hole, but he won’t break off too many long ones. Backups Travis Dye, Darrian Felix and blue-chipper Sean Dollars provide the Ducks with depth, youth and talent.
Of course, none of this works without the offensive line and Oregon boasts a good one. Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemeuix, and Jake Hanson provide the Ducks with three four-year starters. While this trio isn’t exactly the most athletic in the conference, they are all smart and capable. Big Dallas Warmack gives them a ton of extra muscle on the inside even as he is prone to mental mistakes. Penei Sewell is one of the more talented young linemen in the league. Add in Brady Aiello for depth and Oregon has five linemen with starting experience. This unit ought to be one of if not the best offensive lines in the conference.
There is no doubt that Oregon has a depth of talent and capability on offense. But what they don’t have are any players with a track record of consistent, high-level play among the skill positions. Herbert is a “peaks and valleys” kind of guy who will have to somewhat normalize his play in order to take this unit to the next level.
It was only a few years ago that the Oregon defense was literally the laughing stock of the entire conference. Pure comedy gave way to pure mediocrity last season as the Ducks continued their long climb back to respectability on defense. With a bunch of returning starters and a some excellent young recruits, there is definitely an opportunity for this unit to further improve. With former Boise State DC Andy Avalos replacing Jim Leavitt, Ducks fans are very hopeful.
The two keys to build on their upward trajectory are improvement in the pass rush and big play prevention out of the passing D. Of course, the common thread in those two observations will be the play of Avalos’ defensive line.
The prowess of the line will depend on two primary contributors: Junior Jordon Scott and true freshman Keyvon Thibodeaux. NT Scott had a good followup to his breakout campaign as a freshman in 2017. He is a strong man who can break down pockets and get to ball carriers, but he still struggles with conditioning and has to rotate out quite a bit. Uber-recruit Thibodeaux is a completely unknown quantity but will be counted on to take many snaps for Avalos and to provide an edge pass rush. Backups DT Austin Fauloi and DE Gus Cumberlander are key role players who provide depth for this unit.
The secondary has to step up in 2019. While strong in the red zone, this unit struggled both in defending the deep pass and in supporting run defense last season. CB Thomas Graham Jr is the best player in the group. Along with fellow CB Deommodore Lenoir and S Javon Holland, this group does have the ability to make plays. With each of them having another year of experience, I would expect many of their youthful mistakes to fade away. Of course, the introduction of yet another blue-chipper sure to get significant playing time, CB Mykael Wright, might just put some of those mistakes back on the field. Safeties Brady Breeze and Nick Pickett are a couple of more physical guys who should help out particularly in run support.
Linebacking has been the strength of the Ducks under Jim Leavitt and should be again under Avalos even after accounting for a change in scheme. Troy Dye made the successful transition from OLB to ILB last year and had another great season. The senior had 115 tackles last year - 50 more than anyone else on the team - and is clearly the defense’s most valuable player. OLB Lamar Winston is the other star of the group. A converted safety, Winston is a very athletic and very versatile. I’d expect him to be a featured havoc creator for Avalos this season.
The rest of the linebacking unit will be made up of players looking to solidify their standings. ILB Isaac Slade-Matauita is a good player who has struggled with injuries. OLB Bryson Young, a senior, might finally breakout in Avalos’s “STUD” position. OLB DJ Johnson is also another factor as a pass rusher. There are bodies here for sure, but it will take some time this fall to sort out the positions and the rotations.
As you can see, there is no shortage of talent on this defense. In fact, if I had to bet, I’d say that this defense has a better chance of taking the proverbial next step than does the offense. Some of the signals from last year - including red zone defense and turnover production - are promising ones. The sheer number of athletes that Oregon can throw at the problem of the pass rush seems destined to yield some results. I could easily see the Ducks producing a top 3 in the PAC kind of D in 2019.
One Breakout Player
OLB / DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
Normally, I’m loathe to project much production from true freshman defensive ends. No matter how physically talented one might be - and Thibodeaux is an absolute beast - the position is extremely difficult to learn from a technical standpoint. Whereas great high school edge rushers can rely completely on physical skills, college players have to learn to deal with faster tempos, complicated schemes and offensive tackles who are bigger and far more athletic than the typical high school player.
That said, Thibodeaux is going to get reps. I suspect, in fact, that he’ll get most of them at the edge rusher position once Oregon starts the season. That kind of volume of plays is sure to yield some results even if Thibodeaux takes longer than normal to refine his skill sets. If you further consider that he is training every day against a very experienced Oregon offensive line, there is plenty of reason to suspect his learning curve may get shortened.
This is not a Jaelan Philips kind of situation assuming he stays healthy. I can see Thibodeaux generating six or seven sacks on twice the number of pressures this year. If he can do that while holding his own against the run, he’ll be a huge breakout star for the Ducks.
Projecting the Ducks
Oregon is a clear contender for the PAC 12 title and a legit top 15 team right now. If you use traditional stats and look at the roster on paper, it’s hard to not see Oregon as a top 10 team and a national title contender.
And why not? They have the proverbial “Heisman candidate” quarterback who looks like a top 5 NFL draft pick. They have a great offensive line. They have returning starters in the rushing attack, in the secondary and at linebacker. They also have a great haul of incoming recruits to bolster their perimeter playmaking, their pass rush and their defensive backfield.
The only thing holding Oregon back, at this point, is the task of turning all of that potential into results. We’ve seen this story play out in college football before. Getting all of that talent to gel at the same time and to turn that cohesiveness into a functioning team can be tricky business. And, as of right now, we have no way of knowing whether or not Mario Cristobal can do that after last year’s very inconsistent season.
Oregon’s schedule is going to be a bit trickier this year than it was last year. Their opening weekend game against Auburn will be an interesting test. And while they get five home games this season, important toss up games against division rivals Stanford and Washington will both happen on the road. In fact, they will have a difficult road game against USC as well. The only real thing to like about the Oregon in-conference schedule is that they will miss both Utah and an up-and-coming UCLA.
It is because of the road games against Washington, Stanford and USC that my enthusiasm is a bit tempered about Oregon. I think what we’ve seen out of Herbert is what he is. At the same time, I think Oregon is bound to have some learning curve difficulties integrating all of these young players into their rotation. Because of that, I think the Ducks are looking at an 8 to 9 win season but just behind Stanford in the race for the PAC 12 North.