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By Jason Vondersmith/Portland Tribune/Ducks see freshman D-lineman Thibodeaux having big impact; Auburn coach Malzahn says Tigers must win up front

COURTESY PHOTO: TODD VAN ERNST/AUBURN ATHLETICS - Defensive lineman Derrick Brown (right) pulls down a Washington Husky in Auburn's 21-16 victory last season.EUGENE —The Oregon receiving corps has some experience, but it's a hobbling unit entering Saturday's 4:30 p.m. PT Auburn game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Among three injured players, returning starter Brenden Schooler (foot) will be out for a while. Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson (muscle cramps) has been limited, and tight ends Cam McCormick and Jacob Breeland have missed some practices.

But, chances are Johnson and the TEs will suit up for the season opener.

Schooler, before his injury, talked up the receiving corps, which also features Jaylon Redd, Johnny Johnson III and talented freshmen.

Somebody has to step up to replace production of departed Dillon Mitchell, by far the Ducks' and Justin Herbert's best receiver last season.

"This year, it can be anybody," Schooler said. "We know what it takes. I trust those guys."

Ducks receivers have worked on ball security and curbing drops.

Johnny Johnson has an ability to dive after the football. It's one of his strengths. But, he's been one of the main drop culprits. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said he has impressed with the junior's approach to the game and improvement. Maybe Johnson can be the big-play guy?

"I'm fired up for him because of the type of camp he's had," Cristobal said. "He's said enough is enough, it's my time. He makes big plays in practice. He's been through a lot. We all have ups and downs. We like sticking by our guys."

Said Ducks defensive back Deommodore Lenoir of Johnny Johnson: "He's gotten a lot better. He's an acrobat. He makes crazy catches, diving catches, all sorts of catches."

A lot is expected of the 6-4, 230-pound Juwan Johnson. He had 25 catches for 352 yards and one touchdown at Penn State last season.

Redd, Schooler and Johnny Johnson combined for 76 catches, 851 yards and 10 touchdowns last season — about the same numbers as Mitchell (75 receptions for 1,184 yards and 10 TDs).

"People can doubt all they want. They can speculate all they want," Schooler said. "I trust all these guys to go up and make a play. Go ahead and doubt us, it only fuels the fire."

• Oregon linebacker Troy Dye had complimentary words for McCormick and Breeland as both tight ends nursed injuries.

"They're both really good tight ends, both All-Americans," Dye said. "It'd be big to get two All-Americans back for us."

McCormick and Breeland are nowhere near All-American status, at least in preseason talk. But, maybe they will be by season's end. We'll see.

Johnny Johnson added: "People are sleeping on Cam and Breeland."

• Said Schooler on Herbert's leadership: "It's awesome to see him get on young guys. The way he leads us is awesome."

• The Ducks and Cristobal can't say enough good things about Kayvon Thibodeaux, the ballyhooed defensive end recruit from Los Angeles. He's 6-5, 240 pounds and will wearing No. 5 on defense against Auburn.

He was ESPN's No. 1 recruit for 2019.

Although Thibodeaux has done nothing in camp to diminish the expectations, he does need some work on things. He's in competition with Gus Cumberlander as a rush D-end.

"He just has the speed. His pass-rush game is phenomenal," fellow D-lineman Austin Faoliu said. "The one thing he needs to work on to be a great player is the run game. Once he gets the run game, he'll be on top."

Said defensive tackle Jordon Scott: "He's a really versatile guy. Really looking forward to him making a big impact."

• Central Catholic High graduate Brady Breeze was battling Nick Pickett to start alongside Jevon Holland at safety.

"It's the development of a football player," Cristobal said of Breeze, a junior. "He knows his craft better, he makes calls better, he's more decisive. If guys are playing well, you have to promote them and give them the opportunity for playing time.

"He's really taken accountability and ownership of the position ... with his preparation and the way he practices."

The UO secondary has experienced defensive backs in Lenoir and Thomas Graham Jr., and backups include touted true freshman Mykael Wright.

• Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has high praise for Oregon.

"You look at Oregon and we're playing one of the top teams in the country — one of the most experienced teams, if not the most experienced team in the country," he said.

"You look at their offense, it starts with the quarterback (Herbert). He is well-deserved as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He can make all the throws and keep plays alive. Their two running backs (CJ Verdell, Travis Dye) — I'm very impressed with those guys. Their wide receivers come down with the 50-50 balls quite a bit and, of course, the offensive line is the most experienced offensive line in the country.

"When I look at their defense, of course they've got a new defensive coordinator (Andy Avalos) who came from Boise State and did a super job. They run a lot of multiple fronts, and that presents a lot of challenges. On their back end, they've got very experienced guys."

Malzahn said Auburn's big offensive and defensive lines have to win the line of scrimmage.

• The Tigers have an apparent big-play guy on the mend from an injury. Speedy receiver Anthony Schwartz may or may not play.

"We're hopeful," Malzahn said.

• Malzahn said it'll be imperative to put true freshman QB Bo Nix "in comfortable situations," but "we are going to have to be balanced to try and win against one of the top teams in the country. ... We need to be really good around him; that has been our message."

The Tigers have several running backs, led by JaTarvious "Boobie" Whitlow, and a veteran offensive line.

• Malzahn said it "is going to be a huge key" for the Tigers' vaunted defensive line and defense in general to get pressure on Herbert.

"You've got make him uncomfortable," he said.

Said Herbert: "They're really aggressive, big guys, they fly around and make plays — true of SEC (teams)."

• From the first UO depth chart: Bryson Young has earned the starting nod as the "Stud" defensive lineman, with Mase Funa as the backup. The Ducks have been trying many players at the position. ... The Ducks have three kickers listed: returnee Adam Stack, true freshman Camden Lewis and Zach Emerson. ... Verone McKinley III and Haki Woods Jr. appear to be the players for the nickel defensive back position, which is likely to be used a lot.

• Cristobal said the Ducks have built their culture through hard work and as they try to meet high expectations.

"There's no hocus-pocus to it," he said. "We feel that we've gone to a system, we've gone to a blueprint that's demanding but at the same time not demeaning. It's very encouraging, develops guys at a very high level and you see that. You build confidence and therefore you execute better."

• Said Herbert, of the matchup of nationally ranked teams on national TV at the humongous AT&T Stadium: "I wouldn't say it's bigger than any other game. They're all big to us. It's a great opportunity."

• Holland speaks highly of the defense, led by Avalos.

"On a scale of 1-10, our talent and potential is 10," he said. "We have a chance to be top-notch players. Last year, we had our ups and downs. This team is really bought in. I think we'll be a really good defense."

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