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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Spring game shows promise of UO's season ahead

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux heads onto the field for the Oregon Ducks' spring game at Autzen Stadium.EUGENE — Coach Mario Cristobal was talking about new players after Oregon's spring football game on Saturday, and about how each of them fared in practice and how they could factor into the Ducks' plans for the 2019 season.

Whether by design or mistake, he left one player out.

"What about Kayvon?" somebody asked. To wit the coach responded, "Who? ... Oh, No. 5."

Indeed, it was Kayvon Thibodeaux, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound true freshman defensive end from Westlake Village, California — ESPN's No. 1 prospect from the 2019 recruiting class. Cristobal smiled sheepishly. "You saw him. You all saw him."

Thibodeaux, an all-around player but a pass rusher and disruptor extraordinaire, drew rave reviews during spring ball, and it's likely he'll end up starting or at least playing an important role for the 2019 Ducks. He hasn't disappointed, Cristobal says.

"The best part about it is his expectation for himself is as big or bigger than what we have for him," Cristobal said. "We've said it, and don't want it to sound like a cliche, but (he has) a five-star heart. Five-star talent — whatever tag you got — and the hunger, drive and determination to do it."

For his part, Thibodeaux's introduction to Oregon fans — 35,110 at the spring game at Autzen Stadium — had to do more with fundamentals, as in learning to play at game tempo and focusing on calls and plays and then the offensive lineman across from him. But Thibodeaux offered a succinct summation of his day:

"I feel like I performed at the beginning of my legacy," he said. "I couldn't think about my bag of tricks today. There was a lot going on."

It was a busy spring for Thibodeaux and the other newcomers: QB Cale Millen, who dealt with an injury; offensive lineman Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, "Big Sala" by nickname, who sat out the spring game with injury; receivers Mycah Pittman, Josh Delgado and Juwan Johnson, the latter a Penn State graduate transfer; tight end Patrick Herbert, QB Justin Herbert's brother; linebackers Dru Mathis and Ge'Mon Eaford; cornerback Mykael Wright; and kicker Camden Lewis.

It also was a big day for backup QB Tyler Shough, who showed his abilities and should give the Ducks and their fans hope, should something happen with their prized Herbert. Shough went 18 of 31 for 178 yards.

And backup running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio, a goal-line back last year, showed he could do more than just plunge in for touchdowns, rushing 12 times for 45 yards and catching three passes for 24 yards. He should provide depth behind CJ Verdell and Travis Dye.

The Ducks have a solid team returning in 2019, with 17 returning starters, led by QB Herbert, all five offensive linemen, some receivers, defensive tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, linebackers Troy Dye (who sat out the spring game) and La'Mar Winston, and defensive backs Jevon Holland, Deommodore Lenoir and Thomas Graham Jr.

The returnees alone give Oregon a great chance to contend for the Pac-12 North Division championship and possibly play in the title game — or maybe even earn a national playoff berth? The optimism is even stronger because of the arrival of Thibodeaux, new receivers and other players. There is talented depth now, the Ducks believe.

The only thing is the Ducks, likely to be nationally ranked, open against Auburn on Aug. 31 at Arlington, Texas, and then, arguably, will have their four toughest Pac-12 games on the road: Stanford (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 2), Arizona State (Nov. 23). Then again, Washington State has beaten Oregon four consecutive years, and the Cougars visit Autzen Stadium on Oct. 26 in perhaps the biggest home game.

QB Herbert said the Ducks haven't worried, yet, about the stack of tough road tests.

"One thing Coach Cristobal emphasizes is we're not going to let the outside pressure affect us," Herbert said. "Don't worry about what anyone else is saying. We're going to focus in-house and worry about what we have to say."

The Ducks hired a new defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos from Boise State, who inherited a lot of talent and experience. He'll also work with Thibodeaux, who could team with Gus Cumberlander to be a good 1-2 rushing punch.

The linebacking corps has been bolstered by Eaford and Mathis, Cristobal said. Mathis is a junior college transfer.

"They were excellent. Those two guys are going to be excellent players for us," he said.

In addition, Miami transfer D.J. Johnson, all 6-5, 270 of him, could be a beast for teams in the front seven. And, the most touted prep linebacker in UO history arrives in the summer, Mase Funa.

As if the Ducks didn't feel good enough about their secondary, Wright, 5-11 and 180 and from Valencia, California, showed up and really impressed. He made an interception in the spring game.

"We felt he was the best at this position in the country when we recruited him," Cristobal said.

On paper, the receiving position could be the biggest concern, especially with the loss of leading receiver Dillon Mitchell, who opted to leave after his junior year to pursue the NFL. (Just think if he had chosen to stay.)

The Ducks have returnees, including Johnny Johnson III, Brenden Schooler and Jaylon Redd, but they bolstered competition with the addition of Pittman, Delgado and Juwan Johnson. (And two more arrive in summer, Lance Wilhoite and JR Waters.)

Pittman had seven catches for 48 yards in the spring game, and Delgado had two for 30. Juwan Johnson, who offers a needed value with his size (6-4, 230), had three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown.

"Coach (Jovon Bouknight) came in with a purpose and mission to get our guys to become more disciplined football players, more fundamentally sound," Cristobal said, of the new receivers coach. "That showed in the play of Johnny Johnson and Brenden Schooler, first and foremost; they became better route runners and better at releases at the second level. They were able to be swifter and get away. Jaylon Redd was another guy (who improved). And, they caught a lot better, and were better at putting it away — ball security.

"The new guys arrived, and right away increased the amount of competition in that room."

Shough, the 6-5, 210 redshirt freshman from Chandler, Arizona, has shown improvement — although he threw several non-spiral balls in the spring game — and great pride in his work, Cristobal said.

"When a guy has that kind of pride and dives into that kind of work ... he's grown and matured," the coach said. "We're confident in him going into the season. We're confident in Cale as well. He certainly didn't get the amount of reps we would have liked for him to get. But we've seen what he can do."

"I feel comfortable out there and I'm having fun," Shough said. "I have great guys around me, all I can do is feed them."

Juwan Johnson doesn't see much dropoff from Herbert to Shough. Herbert says Shough has more "command" of the offense and "now takes charge."

Says Habibi-Likio: "(Shough) is adding his own flavor the offense," through audibles and leadership and such. "He seems confident out there and ripping it. Interesting and fascinating to see."

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