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By Jason Vondersmith/Portland Tribune/Road games may pose only hurdle to fully charged UO

EUGENE — And so it begins: Oregon seemingly has the talent, enthusiasm and experience, and the quarterback in Justin Herbert, to return to glory and conclude a whirlwind career for its seniors.

Practice started last week, the next three weeks will be about self-improvement, and the 10 days before the important season-opening game will be about getting ready for Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium at Arlington, Texas.

Does Oregon make a statement on the national stage, or flop? It's the first of, arguably, the Ducks' five toughest 2019 games away from Autzen Stadium.

Redshirt seniors, such as offensive linemen Jake Hanson, Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux, have seen the highs of the UO program, which used to be nationally recognized. Some would say with QB Vernon Adams healthy, the Ducks were the best team in the Pac-12 in 2015. Problem was, Adams wasn't healthy at times, and sans Adams, the Ducks coughed up a 31-0 lead and lost in overtime in the Alamo Bowl against TCU, a portend of things to come.

HERBERTHerbert and linebacker Troy Dye, now fourth-year seniors, were true freshmen when the program hit rock bottom, at least rock bottom since the mid-1990s, and when everything blew up on then-coach Mark Helfrich and the Ducks finished 4-8 in 2016.

"We weren't a great football team," an understated Herbert said. "A team of individuals."

Things could've been different with Herbert healthy all season in 2017, but he missed games and then-coach Willie Taggart's passing game suffered with a green true freshman backup QB. The Ducks salvaged that season after Hebert's return, even with an offensive clunker in the Las Vegas Bowl loss against Boise State that left Oregon at 7-6.

Then came a frustrating 2018, although the Ducks managed to finish 9-4 in coach Mario Cristobal's first full season. But along the way, there was a frustrating blown Stanford game, which featured a bad fumble by C.J. Verdell. And a frustrating tumble in road games after a home win against Washington that lifted the program, momementarily. And frustrating deficits in games at Washington State, Arizona and Utah.

Yet, in the Redbox Bowl at Santa Clara, California, the Ducks overcame many frustrations on offense — one drive and one TD (Herbert-to-Dillon Mitchell) — and outslugged Michigan State 7-6.

So, yeah, this will be a big season, and it's the first time since 2015 that pundits and fans expect Oregon to factor into the Pac-12 football race. Media members have picked the Ducks to win the North Division and face Utah in the title game. The feeling isn't lost on players such as Dye and Hanson: It's the Ducks' time to go for a championship. And to credit leaders, such as Dye, since they don't hype themselves perhaps as much as some Ducks of old did.

"We're trying to reestablish that (national status)," Dye said. "We have the coaches, players and facilities. We'll have a good season and surprise a lot of people. If we stay accountable ... we'll have a pretty good season."

Dye called it a "total flip" of everything at Oregon and "a lot more camaraderie" and "trust" of one another than was the scene his freshman season.

Cristobal and his assistants have done a great job in recruiting, highlighted by landing ESPN's No. 1-ranked recruit, defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who will factor into the 2019 defense. Now, it's a matter of getting things done consistently on the field.

On paper, it appears the Ducks just need to polish things.

Mitchell was the only offensive starter to depart, leaving the Ducks needing to establish a No. 1 receiver. Jaylon Redd, Brenden Schooler and Johnny Johnson return, Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson has been added and true freshmen have opened eyes. Schooler says let people doubt the receiver corps, it doesn't matter. The offense produced running backs with about 1,800 combined yards (Verdell, Travis Dye), but had its lowest output since 2005 (179.4 yards per game), and Herbert completed only 59.4 percent of his passes.

Defensively, new coordinator Andy Avalos inherits experienced players on the front line (including tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu), at linebacker (Dye, La'Mar Winston) and on the back end (Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham and others). Faoliu said Avalos will be more aggressive; he wants defensive linemen to make plays, a la all-pro Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. The program's last sight of Avalos had the Ducks not able to cross midfield until midway through the third quarter against his defense in the 2017 Vegas Bowl.

It's an optimistic time for the Ducks. But, again, it's not going to be an easy season for Oregon because of away games against Auburn, Stanford (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 2) and Arizona State (Nov. 23). The home schedule highlight could be Washington State (Oct. 26), which has beaten Oregon four consecutive years.

Cristobal said he won't shy from the North Divison favorite tag, and the expectations.

"We'll make it real and genuine," he said.

And, he doesn't express concerns about the Ducks.

"Any deficiences in personnel and catch-up in scheme ... the culture will trump," he said.

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