BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/UO aims for strong game plan with Burmeister or Shough

COURTESY: ANDY NELSON/THE REGISTER-GUARD - Running back Travis Dye is stopped by Kaulana Apelu, Troy Dye, Thomas Graham Jr. and Keith Simms during the Oregon Spring Game at Autzen Stadium on Saturday.EUGENE — Justin Herbert could be the best quarterback in the Pac-12. The offensive line should be a strength. Skill players probably will step up; they usually do. The defense has the makings of an upper echelon unit in Jim Leavitt's second year as coordinator.

But the burning question at Oregon is, what to make of the two backup quarterbacks?

The Ducks have fallen off in the past three years partly because of assorted quarterback issues, including last season, when Herbert went down for five games with an injury, forcing true freshman Braxton Burmeister to play rather than take his redshirt season. The Ducks went 1-4 as part of their 7-6 season.

Burmeister returns for his second season. And the Ducks welcomed touted true freshman Tyler Shough from Chandler, Arizona, to the team for recently concluded spring football. Both are drawing good reviews from coach Mario Cristobal, and the competition sounds even heading into the offseason and summer workouts.

Cristobal isn't indicating it's Shough's job, or that Burmeister is going to retain it. That'll be decided in training camp. Herbert will be the starter, and the Ducks know they have to be better should something happen to their star quarterback.

"Interesting competition," Cristobal says of Burmeister versus Shough. "They showed (in spring game) that they both could be really good football players for us.

"They can hit the deep ball, are good with their feet, have great escapability, pocket presence. They not only know how to manage the offense, they know how to run the offense. They can make explosive plays, can both make about every throw in our offense right now; by the end of summer we expect them to be able to make every throw in the offense. They are working their way to mastering the protection side of it, which is critical, as you've got to know who your blockers are and who they're blocking and when you don't have one."

And, maybe most important, "they've got the right mentality, they're competing, they know (the job) cannot be handed to them. And the best part of their approach is they haven't just sat back and said Justin's the guy and let's go compete for No. 2. They have to be the best player they can possibly be."

Maybe Herbert stays healthy, enjoys a great season and then leaves school early to be a first-round NFL draft pick. Or maybe he suffers another injury and either Shough or Burmeister takes over. Cristobal says he wants his coaches and teammates to be better prepared, should something happen to Herbert.

"Injuries are going to happen, and we can never enter a panic mode when a guy goes down, no matter who that player is," Cristobal says. "It was tough when Justin went down last year. We've got to do a better job as coaches. You have what you have. We have to do a better job of having a plan when things don't go exactly that way."

The 6-5, 200-pound Shough went 5 of 8 for 103 yards with two touchdowns in last weekend's spring game. Burmeister was 7 of 12 for 64 yards and a score.

Herbert was 12 of 21 for 126 yards and a TD, and threw an interception — a ball bounced off a receiver and into the hands of linebacker Kaulana Apelu, who returned it 100 yards for a score.

Daewood Davis, a redshirt freshman who had two TD receptions (from Shough and Herbert) in the spring game, says the backup QB position appears to be up for grabs.

"That was a very close battle," he says. "Two good quarterbacks. Tyler is young, but he can sling the rock. He's not scared to throw it up. Braxton, throwing under pressure, that's his strength. They had good days and bad days. But it's equal."

Elsewhere offensively, the Ducks are watching some players step up.

A running back returnee is Tony Brooks-James, but redshirt freshman CJ Verdell capped a good spring with two TD runs. Darrian Felix also should be a contributor.

"CJ continues to show why he was so highly recruited," Cristobal says of the 5-9, 200 Verdell, from Chula Vista, California. "Gets downhill. Great vision."

The receiver position will be vital. Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson III and Brenden Schooler return with some experience. Jaylon Redd and Taj Griffin figure into the mix, either carrying the ball or receiving. A 6-1, 180 redshirt freshman from Hollywood, Florida, Davis rose up with two TD receptions in the spring game.

"Always knew he had that track speed," Cristobal says, of Davis.

Tight end appears solid with Jacob Breeland and Cam McCormick, and the Ducks have a touted prep (Spencer Webb) arriving in the summer.

The offensive line should be a strength, with returning starters complemented by the likes of George Moore, Alex Forsyth (from West Linn) and incoming 6-4, 330 freshman Penei Sewell from St. George, Utah.

On defense, the line features returnees such as Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu and Jalen Jelks. The linebacker position appears loaded with Troy Dye, La'Mar Winston, Justin Hollins, Apelu and others (including Keith Simms and Isaac Slade-Matautia). The secondary has talent with the likes of Brady Breeze, Ugo Amadi and Thomas Graham Jr.

The Ducks improved markedly under Leavitt last season, giving up 29 points and 369.2 yards per game, while containing the run and third-down conversions well. In 2016, the Ducks allowed 41.4 points and 518.4 yards.

"I feel we're getting more competitive, guys are taking practice more serious," says Breeze, a Central Catholic product.

"We know how good we can be, but we need to make sure we work hard in practice and do the little things ... so we can be the defense that people are afraid of. Two years ago, our defense wasn't respected and people thought we were soft and stuff. We're starting to gain a little more respect. Our goal is to keep competing and gain that respect from teams we play."

Says Winston, another Central Catholic grad: "Coach Leavitt is the key reason to our success. We're playing in the same defense for the second year, I can't imagine us not being better. It's in our control. He's come in and made an immediate change in this culture. That's part of the reason my teammates and I pushed for him to come back (rather than go with former UO head coach Willie Taggart to Florida State). We realized the change that had occurred. It's a whole different mentality. With Coach Leavitt, love him and need him."

Adds Scott, the 6-1, 340 sophomore who'll man the middle of the D-line: "We're for sure going to be better than last season. and we should be No. 1 in the Pac, that's my plans and hopes and I know Leavitt believes we can do that. He has high expectations."

Of note about the special teams, sophomore Adam Stack, who only punted last year, could be the Ducks' place-kicker and punter in 2018.

Cristobal has preached culture, physical strength, line of scrimmage play and more. He liked what the Ducks showed in spring ball.

"I love this team, and I love the approach and mentality," he says.

"The locker room has taken ownership of the team, and that's good to see."

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