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How Mario Cristobal is supersizing Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense

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Throw out that image of the Ducks being a bunch of slender spread guys.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Cristobal has Oregon fully competitive again in the Pac-12, roughly a year before most people thought he’d get there.

Oregon’s still fast and explosive. But now Oregon’s big and nasty, too.

In his first year, Cristobal has leaned heavily on principles the program used to rely on under Chip Kelly. But he’s added his own touches — and a lot of size — to do things Kelly never even attempted.

On a few levels, this good Oregon team is a lot like the last few good Oregon teams under Kelly and (briefly) Mark Helfrich.

Offense is their better half. They operate out of a spread scheme. They have a thrilling passing game and a great quarterback. Justin Herbert’s passer rating through seven weeks is within 10 points of Marcus Mariota’s when he was a junior and won the Walter Camp Award.

The Ducks do go about their passing game a little differently than before. There’s less throwing to guys coming out of the backfield. (The overwhelming top target now is Dillon Mitchell, a wideout. The far-and-away top target in 2014, for the last great Oregon team, was RB Byron Marshall.)

Herbert’s not a Mariota-like running threat, and no one’s emerged as a Royce Freeman-level featured back. Instead three running backs, including two freshmen, are toting the mail.

On the surface, Oregon looks something like what we think of when we think of Oregon: 12th in Offensive S&P+, 91st in Defensive S&P+, explosive with the ball, and led by a really good quarterback.

But this is a much different offense, even though the Ducks are still focused on the zone running they used so much under Kelly.

Kelly’s Oregon made it a priority to recruit slender offensive linemen who specialized in moving horizontally — and that came into play with how the team attempted to build on their foundational play. In Kelly’s mind, Oregon was built to run inside first.

The inside zone run is a bedrock for any rushing attack. At a clinic in 2009, Kelly said this about inside zone:

The inside zone play is our “go to work” play. It has become our signature play. We want to get off the ball and be a physical, downhill-running football team. This is not a finesse play. We teach our offensive linemen a block we call the bust block. The idea is to bust their sternums up against their spines on ever play. We want to come off the ball, create a double-team, knock the crap out of a defender and deposit him in the linebacker’s lap.

Oregon still runs plenty of inside and outside zone, the old Kelly staples:

All of this emphasis on zone means Cristobal didn’t have to completely remake Oregon’s running game. He just had to tweak.

So, if the foundational plays are the same, what’s different about these Ducks? Start by looking at the size of the line.

  • In the 2012 season’s Rose Bowl — ending Kelly’s second to last year in Eugene — Oregon’s five starting offensive linemen averaged 6’5 and 302.2 pounds.
  • At the end of 2016, Helfrich’s last year, the line averaged 6’6 and 299.
  • In 2018, their linemen average 6’4 and 321 pounds.

The Kelly-era size is a byproduct of the emphasis on speed. As Kelly put it, the Ducks would sacrifice some beef if they could get quickness instead:

We’re a team based on speed. [Kelly’s director of sports nutrition, Adam Korzun, said] We train speed, we practice speed, we work speed, and we’re fast and we recover. You tend not get speed with size. We can make anyone big no problem. The balancing act or the fine line is how do we make them big and keep them fast. So that we really try to find an ideal. I can put 30 pounds on an individual, but what 30 pounds is it going to be is the issue.

Getting bigger is a worthwhile tradeoff for Cristobal’s Ducks, given that defenses, particularly in the Pac-12, have been getting smaller. That was due to the shift in personnel caused by offenses like ... Kelly’s.

Defenses needed to take out linebackers in favor of lighter defensive backs. Instead of seven beefy run defenders, defenses suddenly had six on many plays. So offensive lines downsized to counter the counteraction.

Cristobal’s only been around for two years, the first of which he spent as co-coordinator and line coach. But he’s clearly seeking stout, bulldozing linemen. He’s seen it work elsewhere, having won a national title at Alabama. He wants to smack your defensive line right in its face with more force than Oregon’s ever had. His enthusiasm for line play even shows through in pregame warmups.

Cristobal’s Ducks fully deploy one scheme Kelly’s weren’t into: the pistol.

The pistol is a hybrid formation.

The entire premise of Ault’s pistol attack is to combine the best of the shotgun spread offenses, like Chip Kelly’s attack at Oregon, with the traditional, north-south power attack Ault had coached for more than 20 years. The Pistol alignment is merely the means by which to do it; the “Pistol Offense” is this blend of old and new.

It looks like something between the I-formation and the shotgun, and it makes it a little easier to be multiple in the run game (hitting to either side of the line) than a shotgun run with the back offset to one side.

Back when Kelly was at Oregon, he was not about the pistol.

There’s a lot of ways to play football. Pistol, don’t know that very well. We’re more of a spread run team.

They ran it here and there, but the overwhelming majority of Oregon’s offense in the Kelly days was from the shotgun. By the time Kelly was with the Eagles, he had incorporated the pistol quite a bit. Meanwhile, at the Oregon program he left, so was Helfrich.

Cristobal was part of the 2014 Alabama staff that used the pistol to great effect. Oregon also used it under Willie Taggart in 2017. It gets running backs started directly upfield immediately. There’s less lateral movement than when a back is offset in the shotgun.

Against Cal in 2018, in the 28 plays directly involving Herbert either running or passing, the Ducks ran 18 true pistol plays against 10 out of the regular shotgun.

Against Stanford, the Ducks’ six-play opening scoring drive featured four true pistol plays and almost a fifth, but the Ducks motioned from pistol to shotgun at the snap before Herbert took off.

Two plays later, Oregon scored out of the pistol — with inside zone.

Oregon’s had these principles for years. Cristobal’s iterated on them, all while following the “hit you in the mouth” theme.

This is all a work in progress. Oregon’s not all the way there yet.

This ability to destroy people only shows up somewhat in Oregon’s statistical profile so far, but you can see what they’re trying to do. The Ducks have been good in short yardage, converting 86 percent of their third-and-shorts (a top-30 rate) and getting stuffed at the line or behind it on just 13 percent of their runs (a top-10 rate). When it’s clearly mashing time, Oregon can mash.

The running game still hasn’t unlocked consistency, though. Oregon’s in the 50s in Rushing Marginal Efficiency and the 80s in Rushing Marginal Explosiveness. The Ducks miss left tackle Tyrell Crosby and running back Freeman, both in the NFL now. It will sting that Crosby’s replacement, freshman blue-chip Penei Sewell, is out for a while.

Oregon’s 12th in the AP Poll but 34th in S&P+. That’s not on the offense:

So why is S&P+ lukewarm on the Ducks? Defense, mostly. After inching up to 65th in Def. S&P+ after the 3-0 start, they have fallen back to 91st after giving up 8 yards per play to Stanford (season average: 6) and 5.9 to Cal (5.2) and needing two late Washington miscues (a muffed snap on a fourth-and-1, then a missed 37-yard field goal) to keep the Huskies under 30 points despite 437 total yards.

But Cristobal has proof of concept. The next Oregon team to win big will follow the script he’s writing.

The Ducks’ next Pac-12 title will come behind a line of destroyers, making beefier use of zone run concepts that have been popular in Eugene for a decade.