Ducks embrace their underdog role
EUGENE — Brady Breeze stood on the sideline, dressed in his University of Oregon uniform and holding his helmet, as the Ducks played Washington last season at Autzen Stadium.
It was a long day. It ended 70-21, Huskies, and it could have been worse. Breeze, a redshirting player, stood and watched the whole thing.
"It was tough to watch," he says. "It also made me more hungry, going into spring ball and now fall. I'll see what I can do, see if I can make an impact."
Breeze talks about wanting to help lead the Ducks back to the top of Pac-12 ranks. He'll get his chance, as the former Central Catholic player will compete for playing time at safety.
Likewise, sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr., also an ex-Ram who played on mostly special teams during last year's 4-8 season, says it's time for Oregon to start taking steps back to the top.
"As an Oregon native and growing up in Oregon, I've watched the University of Oregon and the consistent years of success," says Winston, a candidate for playing time at outside linebacker. "I really want to contribute to that. With this new coaching staff, and everything we've been doing, it could be the year we make a difference. If not this year, then for sure the next year. We've got to make progress, some type of progress."
The Ducks brought in coach Willie Taggart and staff, seeking progress and a return to winning ways. The offense should be decent, although a big concern is depth at quarterback behind starter Justin Herbert and another concern is still a defense ranked among the country's worst for two years running.
The Ducks' band of local, Portland-area players will be there to help out. Grant High's Aidan Schneider returns as the fourth-year kicker. Three offensive linemen — Jesuit's Doug Brenner and West Linn's Evan Voeller and Alex Forsyth — should contribute depth. Tigard's A.J. Hotchkins joins Winston in the linebacker ranks. And Henry Mondeaux returns as a fourth-year player on the defensive line — old enough to remember playing Ohio State in the January 2015 national championship game and wise enough to know the Ducks fell down hard last season.
It's time to get back up, Mondeaux says. The Pac-12's voting media picked the Ducks fourth in the Pac-12 North Division; it's a long way from being maybe No. 4 in the country.
"I don't really pay attention to that," Mondeaux says. "I don't think it matters. We're just excited to get out there and do the best we can do."
Twelve calendar months ago, most people wouldn't have pegged the Ducks as a team that had something to prove. They were the Oregon Ducks, perennial Pac-12 contenders. But it's now a team with something to prove — that it can be tough, play as an underdog, face adversity and persevere, and regain its mojo. There'll be no more resting on laurels — at least in theory — for players or team.
"Definitely with the new coaching staff, for every single person on the roster, you've got to show up," says Schneider, who faces some competition with true freshman Adam Stack, although Schneider is likely going to remain the kicker and Stack is going to compete with Blake Maimone to be the punter. "I'm sure (coaches) are aware of what some people have done in the past, but ... it's like your job interview. You've got to do well. There's always going to be somebody coming from behind pushing you."
Of the Portland-area players, one would think Schneider has the most security entering the season. He has made 42 of 48 career field goals. Schneider has been working on "little things," trying to improve his range and consistency. He has been pretty efficient, so far.
"You have to find a good balance between power and speed with your leg. That's where you get the pop from," says Schneider, who'll graduate after fall term with a general social science (with business/economics emphasis) degree and minor in journalism. "I've been doing kicker specific workouts and movements in the weight room that translate to what I'm doing on the football field."
Brenner, Voeller and true freshman Forsyth might be backups, given the return of four sophomore starters on the offensive line and return of Tyrell Crosby from injury. The same won't be said of maybe the most prominent Oregonian on the team: It's Herbert's job at quarterback, and his play and health could be the most important aspect of the 2017 Ducks. He burst on the scene last season, taking over as starter against Washington, only months removed from Sheldon High.
Taggart says Herbert is bigger and stronger and more confident in his leadership abilities and command of the offense.
Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the defense, where some fifth-year seniors will be playing for their fourth defensive coordinator — Nick Aliotti, Don Pellum, Brady Hoke and now Jim Leavitt. The ex-South Florida coach and Colorado coordinator, Leavitt has brought a lot of energy and leadership to the program, players say, and he switched the defense back to the familiar 3-4 scheme (three down linemen, four linebackers).
Mondeaux is pegged to start up front again, perhaps with stout true freshman nose guard Jordon Scott and senior end Jalen Jelks.
"We just have to focus on being a cohesive unit," says Mondeaux, a psychology major who'll graduate after fall term. "Having that communication, everybody being on the same page. We need to get everybody bought in; the big difference will be our attitude on defense and how we respond to adversity and playing together.
"We want to be a good defense at Oregon. We have a chip on our shoulders. We always have great offenses, and we want to be a force on defense. It's something motivating us to be better this year."
Standout sophomore Troy Dye returns at linebacker, but other starting spots remain undecided. Hotckins and Winston are in the mix, along with immie Swain, Justin Hollins, Kaulana Apelu, Jonah Moi, Keith Simms, Bryson Young and Fotu Leiato.
The secondary is deep, with Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi at cornerback and Brenden Schooler and Tyree Robinson at safety. Schooler and Robinson will compete with Khalil Oliver and Breeze for playing time. Some true freshmen could vie for playing time in the secondary as well.
Both Winston and Breeze talked about the team-wide emphasis to get bigger and stronger. Each has gained weight — Breeze is 6-1, 205 pounds, and Winston is 6-3, 215 — and each professes to being stronger, with better measurables in the weight room.
Says Breeze, who hurt his knee late in 2016 training camp, preventing him from playing right away: "I feel like I'm a lot more physically ready."
In the end, it's about playing better and winning more games. The Ducks embrace the underdog role.
"I feel like we have a chip on our shoulder. We've got to prove these people wrong, show what we can do," Breeze says. "We got nothing to lose. We've got to try to get a Pac-12 championship. It won't be easy."
And, then, for seniors such as Mondeaux and Schneider, it'll be over.
"It's gone by really fast, but it's been really fun," Mondeaux says. "I'm thankful for each day I have, especially this last year, it's really exciting for me and all the seniors because it's our last go-round for college football. I'm appreciative of all the opportunities I've had so far."