BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/New era of UO football starts with Cristobal at helm

Coach Mario Cristobal, his retooled staff and new and returning players have hit the field for spring football practice at the University of Oregon.

For the first time in many years, if ever, the Ducks will split up their spring drills. Five practices will take place in March and then, after spring break, 10 more, starting April 3.

The spring game is slated for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at Autzen Stadium, a good two weeks earlier than what has become normal with the Ducks.

Cristobal has spent the offseason solidifying his staff, locking up Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator and Marcus Arroyo as offensive coordinator and key assistants such as Joe Salave'a on the offensive line.

Cristobal has added players, once just after the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State, and then more during the February signing day.

CRISTOBALSo, here we go with the official start of the on-field Cristobal era, which unofficially started with his hiring in December and subsequent 38-28 loss to Boise State. The offense languished well into the third quarter of a defeat that left the 2017 Ducks with a 7-6 record.

Quarterback Justin Herbert's job probably is safe, but it'll be an interesting battle for backup QB. Incoming, 6-5, 200-pound true freshman Tyler Shough goes against sophomore-to-be Braxton Burmeister, who struggled when pressed into action last season because of Herbert's broken collarbone.

"I see big things for Braxton after spending a year with baptism by fire," Cristobal says.

Tony Brooks-James leads the list of candidates to replace record-setting Royce Freeman as the starting running back.

"It's now his moment to shine, and I like how he's developing in the weight room," Cristobal says. Brooks-James has run for 1,557 yards (6.9 per carry) and 14 touchdowns in his first three years. Darrian Felix also will compete for playing time.

The Ducks have some work to do at receiver, too, with plenty of youth, but Dillon Mitchell's performance in the Civil War game and Vegas Bowl raised expectations. He had 42 receptions for 517 yards and four scores last season (15 catches for 262 yards and two TDs in final two games).

With tight end Jacob Breeland and four returning starters up front, including center Jake Hanson (who's injured), the Ducks should be more formidable on the line of scrimmage. The Ducks will need to replace standout tackle Tyrell Crosby. The competition is likely to last through August training camp, especially with the summer arrival of 6-5, 350 Penei Sewell and other incoming offensive linemen.

"The offense is going to remain relatively the same," Cristobal says.

Leavitt helped improve the 2017 Ducks defense from its woeful standing the previous season, and it should be an even better unit.

The Ducks have high hopes for a defensive line led by senior Jalen Jelks and sophomores-to-be Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu.

No one disputes that junior linebacker Troy Dye will be the leader of the defense, and senior Justin Hollins and La'Mar Winston, a junior from Central Catholic High, return as starters at linebacker.

The secondary has its share of returning players, including sophomore Brady Breeze from Central Catholic, senior Ugo Amadi and sophomore-to-be Thomas Graham.

Shough, running backs Travis Dye and Jamal Elliott and defensive backs Haki Woods, Steve Stephens and Verone McKinley III — all December signees — have enrolled and will participate in spring practices.

Among players who have changed positions, Hunter Kampmoyer has gone from defensive line to tight end.

Cristobal wants the Ducks to continue to get bigger and stronger at the line of scrimmage, basically following the blueprint from the great Alabama program, where he coached under Nick Saban. Cristobal hired Aaron Feld as strength and conditioning coach to push along the process and help Oregon play more power football.

Players are "part of a different development cycle now," Cristobal says. "Offseason will always dictate ... how you perform. It's fully determined by what you start doing in January and finish in August (training camp). I'm so fired up about that."

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