Ducks offense might not look that much different
New Oregon football coach Willie Taggart says he's doing things to make the players more accountable. He posts a daily depth chart and gives players grades. The idea is that they will know where they stand from one day to the next.
Here's a quick tour of the Ducks and some story lines:
The Ducks won't look much different on offense — they'll run the spread and try to get the ball to returning running back Royce Freeman and other playmakers.
"We're trying to pick back up the speed," Freeman says. "We kind of got away from that last year.'
One quarterback, Terry Wilson, has opted to leave the program — "I wish him nothing but the best," Taggart says — and the QB competition boils down to returning starter Justin Herbert, reclamation project Travis Jonsen and true freshman Braxton Burmeister.
Last spring, Wilson practiced alongside Jonsen and Dakota Prukop. Then, during the season, Herbert ended up beating them all out. Jonsen, after dropping from potential starter to fourth-string, appears to be competing well again.
"Competition is good for everyone," says Herbert, a sophomore from Sheldon High who has been encouraged to come out of his shell and be more vocal. "It's best for the team. ... We're all trying to prove who we are and what we can do."
Taggart wants a quarterback who can lead the team, not just the offense — somebody other players can rally around.
Freeman and Kani Benoit have been taking a lot of reps in practice, as the Ducks lack scout-team running backs and have had Taj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James sidelined by injuries. That can be scary, but the 5-11, 230-pound Freeman seems capable of handling the load; in a figurative sense, the Ducks could be riding their big back again.
Taggart wants Freeman to be the player delivering blows to opponents.
"He's running the ball really good, getting a feel for what we're doing on the offensive side," the coach says. "I love the way he's patient, allows blocks to get out in front of him. Royce, he's learning to run behind his shoulder pads. He's a big guy who most people don't want to hit. He has to use that to his advantage."
Freeman already has accomplished some things: While last year he fell short of 1,000 yards (945) because of some injuries and UO's offensive ineffectiveness, he had three consecutive 100-yard games to finish the season and has 4,146 yards and 48 total TDs entering his senior year.
Freeman wanted to finish his Crime, Law and Society degree, and says "it's not my time, yet" to try to make the NFL. He says he has no regrets. "Free education, I'm blessed to have that," he says.
Carrington and Charles Nelson lead the receiving corps, and Dillon Mitchell appears to be another starter in the making. Jacob Breeland excels at tight end, but the Ducks lack quality depth behind him.
Mario Cristobal, Nick Saban's offensive line coach at Alabama, took over as O-line coach and co-offensive coordinator. The Ducks hope he can make the O-line more formidable, a la the Crimson Tide. He's preaching power, and straight-ahead attack. The Ducks have decent experience.
"So knowledgable," Doug Brenner says of Cristobal. "He relates really well to our players. Can't speak enough of how good of a line coach he is."
Taggart plucked Jim Leavitt from Colorado to rebuild the defense, which has been among the country's worst two years running. He brings a lot of enthusiam for a veteran of the college and NFL ranks — "hust a really focused intensity, and he has a very high football IQ, that shows a lot," defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux says. "He's very good at motivating guys, getting guys to work up to their potential."
Linebacker Troy Dye says the Ducks are working on their intensity, as well. "Everybody's at the same level of my intensity or even better," he says. "We try to push each other, for the level of intensity or the 'juice' that we call it. We keep energy and tempo up during practice, show that Oregon is a defense school — it's not just about offense."
Mondeaux says the Ducks have the players to compete — including Scott Pagano, a D-line transfer from Clemson, who'll show up later. "It could have happened last year, but we didn't have guys stepping up. We weren't on the same page," Mondeaux says. "... (Leavitt) is focusing on camaraderie and communication among defensive guys."
When the UO offense got the best of the defense in last weekend's scrimmage at Jesuit High, defensive coaches had to get after players to run off the field. When their hustle didn't suffice, they had to do it again; at one point, junior defensive lineman Jalen Jelks had to run back out on the field and run back to the sideline. The UO coaches are trying to send a message.
The defensive line should be better with Pagano and Mondeaux and other returnees. Pagano's pedigree as a national championship player adds to the mix; remember, there are some Ducks remaining who played in the January 2015 national championship game.
The Ducks want to be more stout up front — meaning bigger and tougher. A curious player is true freshman Juston Scott from Largo, Florida, who is 6-1 and 335 pounds and presumably still dropping in weight. He's unlike what the Ducks have sported before in the middle of the defensive line.
"He's so low to the ground, it's hard for guys to get underneath. And, he's very powerful," Taggart says. "He can change the line of scrimmage with his power. As Jordon loses weight, he's going to be a phenomenal player for us. If he can get to 310-315, he's going to be a heck of a football player."
Sophomore Dye, 6-4 and 225, has been asked to lead the rebuilding linebacker corps and be the stout presence. He welcomes it.
"Physicality is a big part of being on defense. That's what we need to do," he says. "I've got to bring more of a physical and punch to my game. ... Everybody's working toward that goal."
In addition, "we have to be a really in-shape defense to play in the Pac-12 and (against) all these up-tempo and spread offenses," Dye says. "If you're not in shape, you're going to give up a lot of points, and that's what we did last year. I'm looking forward to this year and being in better shape (as a team) and having guys go longer."
The secondary has some returnees, such as Tyree Robinson, but the likes of redshirt freshman Brady Breeze from Central Catholic High and true freshman Thomas Graham have made an impact in spring ball.
"Those guys are big-time competitors," Taggart says. "They've literally taken what we've said and run with it.
"But, they also understand they've got to play that way every day in order to keep their jobs."