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Oregon is only a couple of breaks away from a “We’re back!” year

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Keep Justin Herbert healthy, and the Ducks could re-enter the land of double-digit wins.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Boise State vs Oregon
Justin Herbert
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Honestly? Oregon was due a bumpy succession. The Ducks were accustomed to things going too smoothly for too long.

  • In 1995, head coach Rich Brooks left to take over the St. Louis Rams after 18 seasons in Eugene. He was replaced by offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti, who had livened up the attack and helped break through with a Rose Bowl bid in 1994. After averaging 6.5 wins per year over Brooks’ final six seasons, they would average 8.3 under Bellotti.
  • In 2008, following Bellotti’s third top-10 finish in nine seasons, he handed the reins to offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who had likewise livened up the attack. Kelly would win 46 games in four seasons and would take them to the national title game in his second year.
  • In 2013, Kelly left to take over the Philadelphia Eagles. Once again, Oregon simply looked to the offensive coordinator’s office, promoting Mark Helfrich. Helfrich also had the Ducks in the title game in year two.

This was basically two decades of perfect succession. Kelly left the bar awfully high for Helfrich, and while he couldn’t surpass Kelly’s accomplishments, he matched them early on.

Oregon’s ascent to near-blue blood status showed what good hires and smooth transitions (and, yes, Nike money) can accomplish. Every change is an opportunity to drift, but that didn’t happen. Brooks was a good hire, Bellotti was a great hire, Kelly was an otherworldly hire, and Helfrich was holding his own.

But then Helfrich stopped. Oregon fell from 13 wins in 2014 to nine in 2015, and following a rash of offensive injuries and bad defensive coordinator hires, the Ducks plummeted to 4-8 in 2016. His ace coordinator and natural-born successor, Scott Frost, had left for UCF. For the first time since the 1970s, Oregon had to look outside of its own complex for a new head coach, and it found a good one.

Taggart guided UO back to 7-6 last fall. He made a great defensive coordinator hire, plucking Jim Leavitt from Colorado, and when his starting quarterback was healthy, the Oregon offense looked as dominant as ever.

The Ducks went 6-1 in the regular season and averaged 52 points per game when Justin Herbert was in the lineup. With Herbert returning for 2018, the future was setting up nicely.

But then Florida State called, and Taggart went home. Now it’s up to another Florida native to maintain the new ascent.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Game
Mario Cristobal
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Cristobal was Taggart’s offensive co-coordinator in 2017 (naturally) and spent four years on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama before that.

The former FIU head coach — who took the Golden Panthers from 0-12 to back-to-back bowls before FIU foolishly fired him after a single bad season — hadn’t coached west of Tuscaloosa before, but he brings recruiting charisma and six years of head coaching experience. And in 2018, he’ll have one of the best defensive coordinators (Leavitt) and one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Because of his ill-timed injury, Herbert might be one of the most underrated players in America. He completed 68 percent of his passes with a 167.5 passer rating, which would have ranked fourth in the country (and second among 2018 returnees) had he thrown enough passes to qualify. He averaged 7.2 yards per (non-sack) carry, and if healthy for a full 13 games, he’d have thrown for 3,000 yards. His supporting cast is seasoned and familiar, and his QBs coach from his second-year leap (Marcus Arroyo) is now his coordinator.

If Cristobal is worth his salt and Herbert stays upright, this could be a big year. The Ducks play only two projected top-20 teams (Washington and Stanford), and both have to come to Eugene. Per S&P+, they are the projected favorite in 10 games and the slightest of underdogs in an 11th (at Utah).

Washington’s presence as a projected top-five team might take a dark-horse division title run off the table, but the Ducks’ ceiling is higher than it’s been since at least 2015.

Offense

2017 Oregon offensive radar

At this point, the term “pro-style” has lost most of its usefulness (whatever usefulness it ever had, anyway). More NFL offenses are incorporating the spread principles we’ve seen in college over the last 20 years, so all “pro-style” means by now is “more reads for the quarterback” and/or “a more complicated route tree.”

If you’ve got a good quarterback and an experienced receiving corps, then, moving from “spread” to “pro-style” — as we’ve loosely heard Cristobal wants to do — shouldn’t be too difficult and shouldn’t result in much visible change.

When Taggart, Cristobal, and company came out west, they were tasked with integrating some of their own ideas for power offense and “pro-style” concepts (sorry, I am incapable of saying that without air quotes) with the tempo-and-space offense that defined Oregon’s brand.

They mostly succeeded. Oregon ranked eighth in adjusted pace and 76th in solo tackles created (a good way to look at how much you’re spreading out a defense) in 2017; those numbers are close to those the Ducks posted in 2015 (18th and 80th, respectively), the last year Helfrich and Frost worked together.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Oregon
Tony Brooks-James
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Herbert’s dominant passing, this was a run-first, run-second attack. Oregon ran 11 percentage points more than the national average on both standard downs and passing downs, sticking the ball into the stomach of Royce Freeman, Tony Brooks-James, and Kani Benoit a combined 33 times per game at 6 yards per carry. The quarterbacks — Herbert and his injury replacement, Braxton Burmeister — added another 6.5 non-sack carries per game.

Oregon was masterful at finishing drives, averaging 5.4 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40), third in the country. Still, even though the Ducks’ run game continued to do well in Herbert’s absence (the above trio actually increased its per-carry average to 6.2 with Herbert out), the scoring average plummeted. Oregon went 1-4 without him, scoring 14 or fewer points in each loss.

Now Freeman and Benoit are gone. Brooks-James, the least efficient and least explosive of the trio, is the only returnee, and while he’s still solid, it will be interesting to see the effect.

The Ducks do still have sophomore Darrian Felix (30 carries for 182 yards in 2017) and interesting youngsters like redshirt freshmen CJ Verdell and Cyrus Habbibi-Likio, and the line returns basically three and a half starters from last year (including honorable mention all-conference performers in center Jake Hanson and tackle Calvin Throckmorton) after blocking pretty well last year. They also add Alabama grad transfer Dallas Warmack up front.

Still, the urge to throw more might be overpowering. How much are they willing to give a young running back corps time to figure things out, when Herbert’s receiving corps features the following?

  • Five of last year’s top six wideouts, including junior and leading receiver Dillon Mitchell, sophomore Johnny Johnson III (who led the WRs with 14.2 yards per catch), junior Brenden Schooler (13.7 per catch and 10.1 per target after moving from DB), and senior mystery man Taj Griffin, a former blue-chipper who averaged 8.4 yards per touch as a freshman but has battled knee injuries.
  • Wake Forest grad transfer Tabari Hines, another possession option who led the Demon Deacons with 53 receptions.
  • Junior tight end Jacob Breeland, who averaged 17.8 yards per catch and scored five touchdowns among his mere 18 receptions.
  • Two to three incoming four-stars: receivers Jalen Hall (whose status with the team is uncertain at the moment) and Isaah Crocker and tight end Spencer Webb.
NCAA Football: Duke at Wake Forest
Tabari Hines
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t the most proven receiving corps in the league, especially at explosiveness, but if the idea is to pass efficiently and stretch the defense from side to side to help out the run game, it should be more than capable.

Defense

2017 Oregon defensive radar

Brady Hoke’s 2016 Oregon defense was a bend-don’t-break unit that didn’t bend so much as snap in half. The Ducks ranked a healthy 26th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays) but an absurd 128th in success rate. It doesn’t matter that you’re not giving up 30-yard gashes if you’re giving up seven yards on every snap.

In 2017, the Ducks’ identity flipped. Leavitt’s intense defense was suddenly excellent at forcing opponents behind schedule and racking up three-and-outs, but when they allowed a big play, it was a big play.

  • Oregon success rate ranking: 128th in 2016, 26th in 2017 (102 spots better)
  • Oregon IsoPPP ranking: 26th in 2016, 104th in 2017 (78 spots worse)
2017 Oregon defensive efficiency and explosiveness

If you have to choose one or the other, you’re choosing efficiency over explosiveness; the ability to force three-and-outs and turnovers will help you win the field position battle enough that it’s worth the occasional gashing. Oregon’s overall Def. S&P+ ranking rose dramatically, from 119th to 61st.

This was impressive, considering how much class balance has been an issue. Among Hoke’s 12 leading tacklers in 2016 were seven freshmen/sophomores and only one senior, and Leavitt’s first defense was only slightly more seasoned: among the top 17 tacklers in 2017 were nine freshmen/sophomores and five seniors.

Havoc is generally not a problem for a Leavitt defense, and 2018 shouldn’t be an exception. Despite still lacking in real experience, Oregon ranked 19th in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) — 10th in linebacker havoc and 22nd in DB havoc.

The linebacking corps returns three proven havoc guys in juniors Troy Dye and La’Mar Winston Jr. and senior Justin Hollins. The trio combined for 33.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed, and they could look forward to getting more of a contribution from senior Kaulana Apelu, who had three TFLs in five games. Plus, newcomers like redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia and Miami transfer DJ Johnson could make a quick impact, though it really doesn’t seem like Johnson has much of a case for immediate eligibility.

The line has been thinned — four of last year’s top eight tacklers are gone, and an injury run could cause serious issues. But at least the best of the bunch returns: senior end Jalen Jelks led the team with 15 TFLs, a nearly unheard-of amount for a 3-4 lineman.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona State
Jordon Scott (34) and Troy Dye (35)
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Leavitt will know what buttons to push in the secondary. The linebacking corps is awesome, but an all-or-nothing back end could smooth out some glitches with more experience. Senior corner Ugo Amadi is experienced and semi-steady, but a loaded set of sophomore DBs could benefit from simply not being freshmen anymore.

Corners Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir each got tossed into the deep end last year as blue-chip freshmen and responded with a combined 13 passes defensed and 2.5 TFLs. Safeties and fellow sophs Brady Breeze, Nick Pickett, and Billy Gibson all got their feet wet, too. Plus, two more four-star freshmen — safeties Steve Stephens and Jevon Holland — are on the way.

Nebraska v Oregon
Ugochukwu Amadi (7)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Special Teams

Brooks-James was an explosive kick returner, and punt returner Dillon Mitchell was efficient. Their return should give opponents quite a bit to consider.

But Oregon must replace kicker Aidan Schneider, and while punter Adam Stack didn’t allow many returns, his kicks weren’t long enough either (average: 38.4). At least he was a freshman, though.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Bowling Green 97 20.2 88%
8-Sep Portland State NR 53.3 100%
15-Sep San Jose State 129 32.9 97%
22-Sep Stanford 20 1.9 54%
29-Sep at California 65 7.4 67%
13-Oct Washington 4 -10.1 28%
20-Oct at Washington State 41 3.4 58%
27-Oct at Arizona 33 1.1 53%
3-Nov UCLA 39 7.8 67%
10-Nov at Utah 28 -0.6 49%
17-Nov Arizona State 57 11.5 75%
23-Nov at Oregon State 110 18.6 86%
Projected S&P+ Rk 23
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 19 / 44
Projected wins 8.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.7 (24)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 18 / 19
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 8.2
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (72%, 63%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.7 (-0.7)

Sometimes in the process of writing a team preview, my sentiment will change. Before I started writing, I figured Oregon was good for eight wins or so and establishing Cristobal.

With stable injuries luck, though? With Herbert playing like the best QB in the west, the defense furthering its aggressive identity, and a schedule about as favorable as you can hope for in a tough devision? Tell me why this team couldn’t have a big year.

S&P+ projects Oregon 23rd overall, with five likely wins and only one likely loss (Washington). Oregon could threaten the double-digit win mark. For a team that has been to the national title game twice this decade, that’s not amazingly impressive, but for a team that’s averaged just seven wins per year since, that would be quite the step.

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