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College Football Preview 2018: 25. Oregon Ducks

25. Oregon Ducks

Despite being on their third head coach in as many years, Oregon has potential to be threats in Pac-12 North once more

Offense: Justin Herbert was thrust into the starting quarterback role in the middle of his true freshman season (2016) and performed admirably. Last year, Herbert was well on his way towards a big year before injury struck after seven games. He still had 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Oregon was 6-1 under his leadership. Now a junior, the signal-caller has the chance to be a dark horse Heisman candidate and impress NFL scouts, who view him as a first-round possibility.

At running back, Oregon must replace record-setting tailback Royce Freeman, but there is talent waiting in the wings. Senior Tony Brooks-James ran for 498 yards as a backup last year, and has flashed excellent vision and breakneck speed. Redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell is also sure to become a factor; he looked great in the spring and some have compared him to former Duck star LaMichael James. New head man Mario Cristobal won't run as much as his predecessor Willie Taggart, but expect him to still lean heavily on the ground attack.

At receiver, there are some serious question marks. There are some proven weapons, namely junior Dillon Mitchell and tight end Jacob Breeland, but the unit lacks depth and star power. Breeland is the name most likely to breakthrough; he already has great chemistry with Herbert and looked ready to shine towards the end of last season. Sophomore Johnny Johnson has the potential to become a dangerous deep threat for this offense, which they have sorely lacked for some time now. True freshman Jalen Hall, coming from Los Angeles, could be a youngster able to step up in a big way.

The offensive line has never been a huge weakness in Eugene, but Cristobal aims to make it even better, considering he was a former offensive tackle himself. There are three proven veterans set to return, which should keep the interior of the unit strong. Junior center Jake Hanson is the anchor of the group, and should compete for All-Pac-12 honors. Left tackle is a relative issue, but junior Brady Aiello left spring as the favorite, and should be able to adjust quickly.

This Ducks' offense won't quite be the same as the ones that were once so lethal under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. With that being said, it should still be able to put up points, considering many of the big pieces return from a group that averaged 36.0 PPG (3rd in the conference) and 441 YPG in '17. Expect more passing with a healthy Herbert, and Cristobal to make this team more physical, once the antithesis of Oregon football.

Defense: Former Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt did a fine job in his first season in Eugene in 2017. Once among the worst defenses in the nation, UO improved to allowing just 369.2 YPG, which was fourth in the Pac-12 and 46th nationally. It is a good start, but expect more improvement with more guys coming in built for his system.

The front seven is going to be very good, thanks in large part to the return of junior inside linebacker Troy Dye. Dye really took to Leavitt's defense last year, and finished with 107 tackles. He could get even better with the Ducks set to use him in more creative ways. On the D-Line, senior Jalen Jelks will lead a group with some serious upside. Jelks managed 6.5 sacks in '17, and bulked up over the off-season. Sophomore tackle Jordan Scott is a potential breakout candidate as the returning starter on the inside. Expect big things from outside linebackers Justin Hollins and La'Mar Winston, who could evolve into major factors as edge rushers.

While the Ducks improved tremendously stopping the run, their pass defense left something to be desired. They gave up too many big plays last year, and didn't force a lot of turnovers. Leavitt and Cristobal are hopeful that can change with two rock-solid defensive backs returning to the fold. Sophomore corner Thomas Graham had three interceptions last season and looks well on his way to becoming an impact defender for this team, while senior Ugochukwu Amadi will man one of the safety spots. Some young guys will have to step up, including sophomores Brady Breeze and Nick Pickett.

This is going to be a good, but not great, defensive team. Their is some real talent on every level of the D, and having veterans like Dye, Amadi and Jelks leading the charge will ensure success. Yet, there is also a lot of positions where guys will have to step up, and the defense as a whole lacks much depth. Even so, these Ducks should be more comfortable in Year 2 of Leavitt's system and that continuity could breed the best Oregon defense in some time.

Special Teams: Oregon will move on from consistent Aidan Schnieder at plackicker, opening the door for any number of players to take up that starting gig. Sophomore Adam Stack may be considered the favorite, and could do double-duty after handling punter duties in 2017. In the return game, Brooks-James could also handle kick and punt return duties.

Last year's Oregon team was better than their 7-6 record may indicate, and they have the potential to really grow in the debut season of Mario Cristobal. Herbert's play at quarterback will be huge; if he takes the steps necessary to become an elite quarterback, this is an offense that can compete with anybody. If not, it is going to be hard to overcome Washington or Stanford in a strong Pac-12 North. The good news is the defense should be the best it has been in some time, and the non-conference slate should be a breeze. This program may not yet be ready to compete for Pac-12 titles after a rough stretch, but they should still be a factor. Double-digit victories seem like a distinct possibility, and this is a team with the upside to be even better.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Pac-12 North Finish: 3
Offensive MVP: QB Justin Herbert
Defensive MVP: LB Troy Dye
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Johnny Johnson

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