Ducks coach puts walk before talk
EUGENE — It's a new season of Oregon football, and from what was once the "Win The Day" under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich and then "Do Something" under Willie Taggart comes what kind of slogan under first-year coach Mario Cristobal?
Nothing, no words, just action for the Ducks, who earned a reputation in the college football world partly through hype and marketing, along with a whole lot of winning the past 20-plus years.
The Ducks have gone 11-15 in their past 26 games, though. They suffered some horrific losses in 2015, '16 and '17, failed to cross midfield until midway through the third quarter in last December's Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State and now sport their third head coach in three seasons.
The new guy is all about hard work and focusing on building the Ducks back into Pac-12 contenders and players on the national scene.
"We gotta get to work, man," says Cristobal, a former offensive lineman and longtime offensive line coach who has made playing physical football the Ducks' mission.
Scoring lots of points with QB Justin Herbert and the offense and stopping teams with linebacker Troy Dye and the improving defense also are in the equation. Just no slogans.
"It's time to put words away," Cristobal says. "The last place I was at (Alabama), the head coach (Nick Saban) kept saying your actions speak so loudly that I can't even hear what you're saying. Well, it's time for that. I was born and raised to be that way; always coached in systems that exuded that. And our guys know that.
"There's a cultural change going on, and that involves energy and enthusiasm. Just a lot of juice."
As safety Brady Breeze points out, the Ducks won games before "Win The Day" became en vogue under Kelly. (Taggart brought his simplistic "Do Something" with him, and took it back to Florida State).
"We're not going to sit here and tell everybody how good we are," Breeze says. "We're going to actually walk the walk, before we talk the talk."
Most prognosticators, including Pac-12 media, have picked the Ducks to finish third in the North Division, behind Washington and Stanford, and they rank in some top-25 polls. Optimism reigns among the Ducks, what with Herbert returning as a big-time, NFL-caliber quarterback ("He can fix ya," Cristobal says), an experienced offensive line, a defense that features Dye and coordinator Jim Leavitt and just an overall philosophy of being bigger, stronger and tougher.
And the Ducks will play the Huskies and Cardinal, along with Kelly's UCLA Bruins, at Autzen Stadium. (Then again, that didn't mean much in 2016, when Washington won 70-21 and Stanford won 52-27 at Autzen.)
"We're going to work really hard. We have a lot to prove this year," Dye says. "We fell off a little bit. We've had a lot of great fans stick with us through the downs, and we gotta go out there and give them a good season. We're on the right path. We have gaps to fill, like Coach Cristobal tells us."
Overall, "we're going to be a physical team, we're not just going to run around people and be afraid," Breeze says. "We're going to try to go at you and be a more physical team in the Pac-12."
Some early questions marks:
• Herbert has shown greatness, but who besides running back Tony Brooks-James, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell and tight end Jake Breeland can consistently produce at the skill positions? Running back CJ Verdell and receivers Johnny Johnson, Brenden Schooler and Jaylon Redd are expected to produce, Herbert says, and the Ducks feature graduate transfers at receiver and tight end.
Cristobal says the playbook is "wide open" for everybody.
• Brooks-James (192 pounds, up from 177) and Verdell (201 pounds) are likely the top two running backs — not exactly bonecrushers in an offense that seeks to incorporate power football with tempo and speed. And, the Ducks have featured at least one future NFL running back each season since 2005. We'll see what happens with Brooks-James in the future.
• Backup QB Braxton Burmeister was thrown into the fire last year when Herbert injured his collarbone, and he was scorched as losses piled up in Oregon's 7-6 season. Cristobal and Herbert both say Burmeister and true freshman Tyler Shough have stepped up.
"Those guys have pushed their completion percentage (in practice) up 8 to 10 percent," Cristobal says. "They've been really efficient with the ball, really good decision-makers."
• How does physical football mesh with up-tempo?
"We do not want to take away from our tempo," Cristobal says. "It has been a valuable asset to Oregon football."
Cristobal has often said the Ducks can't forsake athleticism for size, despite extraordinary efforts in the past 18 months to change bodies.
• Cristobal, a rare offensive line guru promoted to be a collegiate head coach, will continue to coach the O-line and be involved in the run game, leaving playcalling duties strictly to offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo. How good is he?
Adding intrigue, the Ducks could incorporate the "pistol" — a running back lined up directly behind Herbert in the shotgun formation.
• The defensive line depth took a hit with some ineligibilities, but talent does return in starters Jalen Jelks, Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott. Who else steps up to play?
• The Ducks were eighth in the Pac-12 in points allowed (29.0 per game), fourth in yardage allowed (369.2) and third in defensive third-down conversions (33.3 percent) — marked improvements from the woeful unit of 2016. Continued improvement would seem imperative as the offense nails down its identity.
"We're more optimistic," Dye says. "We have a defense going into Year 2 — same defense, terminology, language, guys around you. You can focus on little things rather than the grand scheme of things.
"And, the physicality — it's being able to impose your will on anybody anytime you want." Will it work?
• The Ducks finished 129th (last) in the country with 122 penalties (9.38 per game) last season. That was a big detriment.
"You have to face those head on," Cristobal says, through coaching, education and practice. "You can't be selfish and foolish, and we're learning that. We learned it the hard way last year."
• A handful of players are left from the great, Marcus Mariota-led UO team of 2014 that went to the national championship game. The list includes one Duck, linebacker Justin Hollins, who played in the game. In other words, only a handful of players remember what it's like being part of a nationally significant program.
• Do the Ducks need a slogan to really bond them?
Brooks-James says they have one, kind of.
"Brotherhood," he says.