When Justin Herbert played quarterback for Oregon in 2017, the Ducks went 6-2, with one of those losses coming to Boise State in a bowl game right after head coach Willie Taggart had left for Florida State. When Herbert was out with a broken collarbone, Oregon went 1-4.
Herbert is back for his junior season, and in addition to getting NFL draft hype, he’s generated light Heisman buzz for 2018. A lot of the intrigue around the Pac-12 North these days fairly centers on Stanford and Washington, after the Ducks posted losing conference records two years in a row. But with Herbert at the helm and Mario Cristobal newly installed as head coach, there’s reason to be optimistic about their league chances.
As they try to make their comeback, the Ducks are likely to lean on the some of the same ideas that were popular at Cristobal’s last employer, Alabama. He was the offensive line coach there from 2013-16, before he joined Taggart’s staff for 2017.
First, the new-look Oregon offense will include plenty of pistol runs, similar to the type Alabama has been running for years.
Taggart’s challenge when taking over at Oregon in 2017 was that the run/pass option, spread-based “Gulf Coast offense” he’d developed at USF was an awkward fit with the leftover components from the Ducks’ Chip Kelly days. In particular, the downhill run schemes Taggart got into during his days with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford weren’t a natural match with the lighter, quicker offensive linemen Mark Helfrich had brought to Eugene.
As offensive line coach and co-coordinator, Cristobal helped ease that transition. He maintained an emphasis on outside-zone and pin-and-pull run schemes while encouraging his linemen to bulk up. Now, the Ducks are poised to head to a different end of the “spread to run” spectrum than the one they occupied in the Kelly days. In particular, they’re moving away from regular shotgun sets with horizontal runs and going toward downhill schemes from the pistol. When Cristobal coached the Las Vegas Bowl, they showed some of that:
This play was probably a preview of the Herbert-led offense in 2018 and how the Ducks will play into the future. They used a receiver to sweep across the set and hold the edge defenders, preventing them from crashing into the backfield. That way, Herbert didn’t have to make an option read and risk getting hit by an unblocked player.
Up front, the Ducks ran power there and emphasized down blocks and a double team to move the pile. They also ran from a double-tight end formation in an effort to overpower Boise State, but future first-round linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had other ideas. The pistol alignment gives the back better running vision approaching the line, and if the offense attaches RPO reads, it can give the QB an extra tick to make them.
The pistol has been a preferred Bama formation for running over people for years, including during Derrick Henry’s Heisman season behind Cristobal’s line in 2015.
The Ducks’ system might remind you of the offenses Cristobal helped Lane Kiffin run at Alabama, particularly in 2015.
That’s when the Tide won the national title with Henry running, Jake Coker at quarterback, Kiffin as offensive coordinator, and Cristobal as line coach. The pistol isn’t just an Alabama thing, but the Tide have used it both to protect their QBs and give them options.
That 2015 offense emphasized downhill pistol runs and perimeter screens like this ...
... that Oregon later flashed in its bowl under Cristobal:
This offensive vision lends itself to making stars out of running backs and receivers. But, of course, the main man at Oregon right now is the QB.
Oregon will rely on Herbert’s unique talent to make this thing work.
Herbert is a really good man to have at the helm of a spread offense that’s oriented to be downhill. That’s because his best attributes are in executing play-action rollouts and pushing the ball outside the hash marks from the pocket.
In 2017, Oregon had a few mechanisms to use those skills. Some will likely play prominent roles throughout 2018. The rollout was a big part of Herbert’s success as a sophomore:
The righty was comfortable on the move and had the arm strength to hit targets while rolling left or right. He showed the quicks to scramble for yardage if defenses left him free. Those traits become more important in the pistol game, where the QB is more effective at attacking the backside of a formation with the rollout than with the keeper.
Alabama used similar rollouts, often out of the pistol, to give Coker options when Cristobal was there in 2015:
To push the ball outside with Herbert, the 2017 Ducks used the classic four-verticals concept quite a bit. Within that, they regularly tagged receivers to run comeback routes against softer coverages. That gave Herbert the chance to throw to slot receivers sitting in the seam ...
...or to receivers near the sidelines, who ran comeback routes when opponents tried to roll their coverages inside to deny easier passing windows:
These concepts require a QB who can stand tall in the pocket, hit every quadrant of the field, and also deliver the ball into tight windows. Herbert is the ideal fit.
The Ducks will probably expand their arsenal of play-action schemes and dropback route combos for 2018, but it’s also likely that RPOs from the pistol will comprise a fair chunk of Herbert’s passing attempts. The pistol makes the RPO life a bit easier, because the QB can make a read and pull the ball to throw before the mesh point with the RB, instead of having to master the art of pulling the ball from the RB’s belly before delivering a quick throw to the perimeter. The pistol makes the footwork on option plays trickier but it’s a fair guess that Oregon isn’t terribly interested in running Herbert often.
Around Herbert, Oregon’s offense has some certainty and some uncertainty. The QB will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Oregon returns four starting offensive linemen, including a pair of All-Pac 12 honorable mentions in juniors Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton. They have back an honorable-mention tight end in junior Jacob Breeland, plus some others at his position who can help Oregon get into bigger sets when it’s time to run straight ahead.
There are questions at the skill positions, where the Ducks need big talents to give Herbert outlets and keep defenses guessing on RPOs and play action. Junior Dillon Mitchell is an obvious answer at receiver. He had back to back 100-yard receiving games to close out last season, once Herbert got back under center.
There are fewer obvious solutions at running back, because Helfrich and Taggart left Oregon with a lot of speedsters who weren’t recruited to handle tough, inside running. However, Tony Brooks-James is experienced, and redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell is on the stouter side at a listed 5’8 and 192 pounds. With Herbert and a veteran line, the Ducks should find some way to run effectively even if they don’t have a star back.
Washington’s potential Playoff season and Bryce Love’s potential Heisman season are the North’s biggest storylines.
But if Herbert can be an all-conference quarterback, the Ducks could find their way back to the national map quickly with their new, Bama-like iteration of the spread offense.