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By Maverick Pallack/Portland Tribune/Offense returns almost intact, but defense undergoing changes

FILE PHOTO - CRISTOBALEUGENE — The Oregon Ducks, led by second-year coach Mario Cristobal, senior linebacker Troy Dye and senior quarterback Justin Herbert, have an interesting season ahead of them.

The Ducks return 10 starters on offense and some key pieces on defense, and they have added a top 10-ranked recruiting class — all of which makes them the Pac-12 conference favorite.

The Ducks will open Aug. 31 against Auburn at Arlington, Texas, focused for now on improving their skills and perfecting their chemistry.

"Camp really determines what type of start you have to your season," Cristobal said Friday as practice officially began.

This camp, he added, "is going to be challenging, it's going to be difficult, but it's also going to be very productive. We have to elevate our culture and establish our identity."

Although the team has an identity that revolves around physicality, its success most likely will depend largely on Herbert, who passed up an opportunity to be a top NFL draft pick this year. For the Ducks to win their first conference championship since 2014, Herbert must go from good to great.

"There's going to be times this year where a guy like that is going to have to take over a football game," Cristobal said. "He's already done that a number of times. It's the next natural part of his growth."

If Herbert can make that jump and carry the team when others are struggling, a bowl game on the better side of Jan. 1 could be in the cards.

Oregon's offensive line, one of the most experienced in the country, will be in charge of keeping Herbert upright. Penei Sewell, Shane Lemiuex, Jake Hanson, Calvin Throckmorton, Dallas Warmack and Brady Aiello return up front. With six players vying for five starting spots, competition should only strengthen the team's best unit.

In Oregon's three 2018 road losses, the offense scored a total of 15 first-half points. Those were also the only conference games in which a Duck didn't reach at least 90 rushing yards.

The Ducks return their top two rushers in sophomores CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. After combining for 1,757 rushing yards last season as first-year college competitors, they hope to take advantage of the stacked offensive line and open up the passing game.

Oregon and Herbert will need to rely on a multitude of pass-catchers to pick up the slack that Dillon Mitchell (Minnesota Vikings) and his 1,184 receiving yards left behind.

Tight end Cam McCormick, whose season-ending injury occurred in the first game last year, leads an experienced group alongside Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay. Patrick Herbert, Justin's younger brother, also figures to play some snaps this season.

The wide receiver group is wide open. Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson is projected to start on one side, and Jaylon Redd will fill the significant role he had last season.

Younger receivers such as redshirt freshmen Bryan Addison and Tevin Jeannis and freshman Mycah Pittman will battle senior Brenden Schooler and junior Johnny Johnson III for snaps.

Addison is one who gives Oregon a dynamic threat. The 6-5 wideout, paired with 6-4 Juwan Johnson, could create a similar advantage that Oregon saw when they were bested by Stanford's tall receivers last year.

Addison "is explosive and fast. He has a lot of size, catch radius and range to the passing game, as does Juwan," Cristobal said. "Those are two different body types than we've had."

On defense, the Ducks lost linebackers Justin Hollins (Denver Broncos) and Kaulana Apelu, defensive back Ugochukwu Amadi (Seattle Seahawks) and defensive lineman Jalen Jelks (Dallas Cowboys). And they now face a defensive scheme change, with Andy Avalos replacing Jim Leavitt as coordinator.

"We did lose a couple key players, so we're just looking for guys to step up and play in those roles and play to the best of their abilities," Troy Dye said. "We're not asking them to play outside their box or framework. We just want them to play their best game."

Defensive back Verone McKinley III, lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebackers DJ Johnson, Bryson Young and Ge'Mon Eaford are among those who could get early action.

Thibodeaux, the nation's top recruit, according to ESPN, leads a No. 6-ranked recruiting class that includes 14 four-star recruits and 10 three-stars.

"All of these freshmen are just ridiculous," Troy Dye said. "I don't even know where they find these kids anymore. What are they eating? ... Everybody is just super talented, and we're really excited to see what everybody can bring to the table."

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