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Can Willie Taggart fix Oregon football as quickly as it fell apart?

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The new head coach’s style is patient, but the Ducks are all about speed.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 26 and has since been updated.

Life moves pretty quickly sometimes.

On Nov. 28, 2014, USF finished a dismal 4-8 with a 16-0 loss to UCF. The next day, Oregon wrapped up an 11-1 regular season with a 47-19 pasting of rival Oregon State. A week later, the Ducks won the Pac-12 title game and clinched a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. They destroyed defending national champ Florida State before succumbing to Ohio State in the title game.

Oregon’s 2014 quarterback, Marcus Mariota, threw for nearly 4,500 yards, rushed for nearly 800, and produced an otherworldly 181.7 passer rating in a Heisman campaign. USF quarterback Mike White’s passer rating that year: 112.4. Backup Steven Bench: 106.2. Both transferred.

To date, Taggart was 6-18 in Tampa-St. Pete, and he would move to 7-21 with a three-game losing streak the following September.

A mere 15 months later, Taggart was named Oregon head coach. I’ll pause for the record scratch sound effect.

  • Taggart shifted toward a more spread-out, fast-moving offensive approach, which catered to the talent on hand and sparked an offensive renaissance. After averaging 14.5 points per game in his first 25 contests against FBS opponents, Taggart’s Bulls averaged 40.5 per game in their last 21. In 2016, quarterback Quinton Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and rushed for 1,609, excluding sacks.
  • Meanwhile, Oregon’s defense fell apart. The Ducks went from allowing 23.6 points per game in 2014 to 37.5 in 2015 to 41.4. Their Def. S&P+ ranking plummeted from 39th to 94th to 119th. Following 2015 regression, head coach Mark Helfrich hired former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke as coordinator to stem the bleeding. He could not.
  • After the 1-3 start in 2015, USF won seven of eight to finish the regular season, then went 11-2 in 2016. Oregon fell by four wins in 2015 and another five in 2016. After going from 13-2 to 4-8 in two years, Helfrich was fired. Despite Taggart’s minimal Pac-12 experience — he was Stanford’s running backs coach for two years and has otherwise spent his other 16 coaching years east of the Mississippi River — he was offered the job.

Granted, Taggart didn’t start perfectly; three Ducks players were hospitalized following conditioning workouts in January. But it doesn’t appear there will be any lingering repercussions from that. Meanwhile, Taggart brought in big-name assistant coaches like Jim Leavitt (former Colorado defensive coordinator) and Mario Cristobal (former FIU head coach and Alabama assistant), signed a top-20 recruiting class, and, most importantly for 2017, inherited a squad that returns more of last year’s production than almost any in FBS.

On offense, quarterback Justin Herbert, the top three rushers (who combined to average 6.3 yards per carry last year), the top two receivers, and five linemen who have combined for 69 career starts — including all-conference guys Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton — all return.

Though we can wonder about talent and play-making ability, experience won’t be an issue on a defense that returns five of its top seven linemen, five of six linebackers, and its top five defensive backs.

Because this is Oregon, much was made about the offense’s regression, but that was drastically overblown. The Ducks ranked third in Off. S&P+ in 2015, post-Mariota, and with a freshman quarterback, they fell all the way to 20th last year. With this level of experience, they’re projected quite high.

The defense, though, was truly miserable, and Leavitt’s ability will determine whether this is a methodical rebuild or a speedy one. He was an incredible get, on paper. The former USF head coach generated three consecutive finishes in the Def. S&P+ at USF — 13th in 2005, 20th in 2006, sixth in 2007 — and needed only two years to transform Colorado’s No. 109 defense into one that ranked 12th.

Taggart proved at both WKU (2-10 in his first year) and USF (2-10 again) that he doesn’t mind taking his time putting the pieces in the right places. But Oregon is built on speed. The Ducks made two national title games by pressing tempo as far as it will go, and more recently they collapsed in record time as well. Expectations and culture likely won’t allow for too methodical a rebuild.


2016 in review

2016 Oregon statistical profile.

Last year’s Oregon preview was built on a flawed premise: that the Ducks’ defense probably couldn’t get any worse. After producing a top-40 Def. S&P+ for five of six years between 2009-14, they had plummeted in 2015, and while there was nothing to love about the Hoke hire, that drastic a single-year change is typically followed by a return to the mean.

If Oregon’s defense was likely to rebound, and if the offense still had enough pieces for a top-10 or top-20 finish, then I surmised that Helfrich had a good shot at rebounding. Not so! Instead, the defense was hopeless from nearly the opening kickoff. Looking at single-game percentile performances, the defense didn’t once play at a 50th-percentile level. They combined decent big-play prevention with the worst efficiency in the country, and they were subjected to slow death on a weekly basis.

When the offense — which was handed over to Herbert in early October — showed up, the Ducks were competitive. They lost by three at Nebraska and California and at home to Colorado, beat Utah, and destroyed Arizona State. But if the Duck attack wasn’t rolling right out of the gates, things got out of hand. At halftime, they trailed USC 24-6 and trailed Stanford 38-13 and lost each game by 25.

Heading into 2017, the defense almost literally can’t get worse! I’m pretty sure of it this time! And not just because going from Hoke to Leavitt at coordinator is ... a bit of an upgrade.


Offense

Oregon offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Rarely do you see offensive tweaks bear as much fruit as what Taggart and company pulled off at USF.

“At first it was, well, let’s just run West Coast, but see how it looks in the ’gun,” Taggart said. “And then it got intriguing, because we started seeing all the options available that we didn’t have under center. And then we started running all the practice reps, Quinton in the ’gun, spread out, but with the shifts and motions. And it was like … wow.” [...]

“That’s probably the biggest thing to take away. What I’ve seen is a coach who’s been adaptable, who’s been willing to change. Because we did change. A whole lot,” [former USF associate head coach David] Reaves said. “We were 12 personnel [one running back and two tight ends], running the ball, motion and shift, two and three tight ends and fullbacks, and then we’re taking meetings all over the country with spread teams who do the exact opposite so we could better understand them.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Taggart didn’t change to his version of a spread with the thought that he’d be making a run at the Oregon job, but it worked that way. USF was run-heavy and fast and combined power principles with an ability to force solo tackles. Taggart should find Oregon personnel to his liking.

Even with turnover at quarterback — FCS transfer Dakota Prukop began as starter and was fine, but with a youth movement underway, Herbert took over five games in — Oregon’s offense was one of the most balanced and steady in the Pac-12.

Oregon offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Including sacks as pass attempts, Herbert averaged 7 passes to every rush as opposed to Prukop’s 3.3, but he proved some of his rumored upside. He was up and down but produced a passer rating over 150 in four of seven starts and threw just four interceptions in 255 passes. Meanwhile, Tony Brooks-James thrived next to Herbert, averaging 8.1 yards per carry in Herbert’s starts.

With Brooks-James and senior Royce Freeman (945 yards, 5.6 per carry) returning, and with Herbert getting to lean on senior receivers Charles Nelson and Darren Carrington II for another year [update: Carrington has since been dismissed], there’s plenty to like about the skill corps.

Granted, there’s less to like if Nelson gets hurt. The top three tight ends are gone, and the leading returning wideout outside of these two is sophomore Dillon Mitchell. He caught two passes for nine yards.

Griffin is a former four-star, as are fellow sophomores Alex Ofodile and Malik Lovette and incoming freshman receiver Jaylon Redd. At running back, it’s not too late for former blue-chipper Taj Griffin to begin exploring his upside. Still, you go from seniors to freshmen on the depth chart quickly.

The line should be fine, though. Oregon ranked 38th in Rushing S&P+ and 36th in Adj. Line Yards despite giving an incredible 46 of 60 possible starts to freshmen. Hanson and Throckmorton were each named honorable mention all-conference despite first-year status, and the left side of the line — guard Shane Lemieux and tackle Brady Aiello — is back as well. Throw in another four-star sophomore (backup center Zach Okun) and a 6’7 JUCO transfer (sophomore George Moore), and you’ve got what you need for the next couple of years.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Game
Tony Brooks-James
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Your hires often reveal your intentions. Taggart didn’t bring his USF assistants over wholesale, instead combining Marcus Arroyo (a former Tampa Bay Bucs offensive coordinator who spent 2016 drastically upgrading Oklahoma State’s running back corps) and Cristobal (most recently Alabama’s offensive line coach) at the co-coordinator spots and adding former UCLA offensive coordinator Michael Johnson as receivers coach and former USF assistant Donte Pimpleton to coach RBs.

There’s a lot of spread experience and a lot of pro influence. And the personnel should match the intentions.

Defense

Oregon defensive radar

If you’re going to collapse, you might as well do it with youth. That’s the best thing I can say about the 2016 defense.

  • The leading tackler on the line was sophomore Jalen Jelks, who combined 26 tackles with four TFLs and two sacks while missing four games.
  • The leading tackler at linebacker was freshman Troy Dye, by far Oregon’s most disruptive defender, with 13 TFLs and 6.5 sacks.
  • Among the four leading tacklers in the secondary were a freshman (safety Brenden Schooler) and two sophomores (corner Ugo Amadi and safety Khalil Oliver). They combined for 3.5 TFLs and 12 passes defensed.
NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon
Troy Dye
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Youth and attrition are almost always a disastrous combination, and for Oregon, they were apocalyptic. Only one lineman played in all 12 games, and only one of the top eight tacklers at linebacker did. There was more stability at defensive back, but contributors Ty Griffin and Reggie Daniels still combined to play in just 10 of 24 possible games.

We don’t know what Hoke wanted to do; what we do know is that depth issues forced Hoke into extreme bend-don’t-break mode.

Oregon defensive efficiency & explosiveness

We also know that bend-don’t-break isn’t really Leavitt’s thing. Granted, it had to be in 2015, when his first Colorado defense didn’t have the depth or injuries luck it needed to attack successfully. But in 2016, with both experience and health on his side, his Buffs soared.

CU ranked 12th in Def. S&P+, combining efficiency (24th in success rate) with strong red zone execution. They were a bit passive against the run (in fact, they had the nation’s worst stuff rate) but obliterated opponents’ respective passing games. Nine of 14 CU opponents produced a passer rating under 110, and five were under 80. CU ranked 17th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 10th in Passing Downs S&P+, a relentless defense that was balanced enough to find massive success.

(Taggart’s hire of Arroyo was delightfully, if also indirectly, petty — Arroyo and OSU torched Leavitt’s CU defense to the tune of 7.1 yards per play, most all year allowed by the Buffs.)

USC v Oregon
Arrion Springs
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

It could take Leavitt a year in Eugene, too. Despite six to seven seniors starting, the players with the highest upside are still young. Dye is still a sophomore, and junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins (9.5 TFLs last year) could thrive in the new system if healthy.

While the upperclassmen are well-known, for better or worse, a large crop of youngsters — freshman tackle Jordon Scott, redshirt freshman end Hunter Kampmoyer, sophomore linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr., redshirt freshman safety Brady Breeze, true freshmen safeties Billy Gibson and Deommodore Lenoir, true freshman corner Thomas Graham Jr. — could steal upperclassmen’s spots.


Special Teams

Taggart’s USF defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie will serve as special teams coordinator. And Oregon could use some special teams coordination. The Ducks were great in some aspects (eighth in kickoff success rate) and terrible in others (121st in punt success rate) on their way to a No. 78 ranking in Special Teams S&P+.

Charles Nelson is still terrifying, if rather all-or-nothing, in returns, and place-kicker Aidan Schneider is mostly solid. But Oregon is starting over both in punting (not a bad thing) and kickoffs (maybe a bad thing).


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Southern Utah NR 33.8 97%
9-Sep Nebraska 42 8.6 69%
16-Sep at Wyoming 80 13.2 78%
23-Sep at Arizona State 58 5.9 63%
30-Sep California 55 10.7 73%
7-Oct Washington State 40 8.0 68%
14-Oct at Stanford 12 -9.3 29%
21-Oct at UCLA 34 1.7 54%
28-Oct Utah 45 9.2 70%
4-Nov at Washington 13 -8.9 30%
18-Nov Arizona 68 12.6 77%
24-Nov Oregon State 54 10.6 73%
Projected S&P+ Rk 23
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 2 / 77
Projected wins 7.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 13.2 (17)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 23 / 22
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -6.1
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 84% (76%, 91%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-1.2)

Because of returning production, recent recruiting success and Oregon’s not-so-distant past as an elite team, S&P+ is giving Taggart and the Ducks the benefit of the doubt. They are projected second on offense, 77th on defense, and 23rd overall, which puts them in position to be favored in as many as 10 games.

It’s not hard to see that, is it? The Ducks boast some high-ceiling holdovers from the previous era, and Brooks-James could be ready for a massive star turn. The defense just got a coaching upgrade and is infinitely more experienced.

It’s not hard to see the opposite, though. The massive turnover on the staff, a potential culture change, and some tactical tweaks might take a while to pay dividends on offense, and ... when your defense is as bad as Oregon’s was a year ago, the Ducks might need a couple years.

Taggart is a patient guy and ended up in Year Zero situation (in which the first-year reset is significant enough that progress isn’t possible until a coach’s second year) in each of his first two head coaching gigs. Hell, at USF he basically had two Year Zeroes. Still, I like what he inherits.

I’m not sure I can co-sign on the idea of the Ducks surging back into the top 25 in 2017, but ... top 40? I could see that. That likely puts them around 7-5 or so — not good enough long-term but solid out of the gates. We’ll set the bar there.

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