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College Football Preview 2019: 11. Oregon Ducks

11. Oregon Ducks

A Heisman candidate at QB and a superb recruiting class should help set the stage for a return to the national spotlight

Justin Herbert
Offense: Head coach Mario Cristobal got quite the Christmas present in late December when starting quarterback Justin Herbert announced he would return for his senior season. Herbert was likely a first-round NFL Draft selection, but felt he had unfinished business in Eugene. Coming off a season where he had 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns, it isn't unreasonable to think the veteran will get serious Heisman hype. In order to really garner that type of attention, he'll need his receivers to drop less passes (52 total drops in 2018) and play well in big games, most notably their opener against Auburn on August 31st.

Despite all the drops this receiver corps suffered through in '18, it was still a unit that showed potential, and they add in Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson. Johnson has dealt with drops himself, but he is a physical wide out that should help ease the loss of Dillon Mitchell, who finished the year with 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior Jaylon Redd is the leading candidate to take over the No. 1 role after a statline of 38 receptions for 433 yards and five scores. He isn't the crisp route runner Mitchell was, but is an explosive weapon in the open field. Senior Brenden Schooler and newcomer Mycah Pittman are also going to be factors, especially Pittman, who enrolled in the spring and has flash. At tight end, rock-solid vet Jacob Breeland is also back, giving Hebert numerous options to work with.

Oregon has long been a school that produces elite running back talent, and they'll have a two-headed monster at tailback in 2019, thanks to the return of sophomores C.J. Verdell & Travis Dye. Verdell ran for over 1,000 yards last fall and is a powerful bruiser between the tackles, while Dye is a speedster in the LaMichael James mold. That 1-2 punch gives this backfield versatility and upside, allowing this Ducks offense to be balanced.

Even more exciting for Herbert (and likely a major reason for his return) is one of the nation's premier offensive lines. Every single starter from a season ago returns to Eugene, including guys who have a ton of Pac-12 action under their belt. Both tackles are legit All-Conference talents, with sophomore Penei Sewell on the left and senior Calvin Throckmorton on the right. Sewell wasn't fully healthy down the stretch in 2018 and it really started to show in this offense's inconsistency over the season's second half. Senior Jake Hanson is a real anchor in the middle of the unit that really sets the agenda for this entire group.

At the height of the Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich days, Oregon had a blazing quick offense that was always a sight to behold. That could be much the same for this particular team, as the skill position talent is the best it has been in years, and the O-Line may legitimately be the best in school history. It wouldn't be shocking if the Ducks smash their 34.8 PPG from '18, especially if these receivers can hang on to the ball more.

Defense: Coordinator Jim Leavitt left the program over the off-season, which could be seen as both a positive and negative. Leavitt is an established defensive mind who did a good job here, but he was a holdover from the Willie Taggart era and an odd fit with Cristobal. Instead, the Ducks will role with two co-DCs, in Andy Avalos and Keith Heyward.

Leavitt ran a very basic three-man front during his time with Oregon, but the new defensive staff will change things up and move pieces around more often. Junior defensive tackle Jordan Scott is a good starting point on the D-Line, but the real excitement centers around five-star Kayvon Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux is one of the highest rated recruits in school history, and has the talent to start from Day One at defensive end. Senior Gus Cumberlander & junior Austin Faoliu are also going to push for more snaps, but may be overshadowed by the allure of the fresh new pass rusher.

Senior linebacker Troy Dye was everywhere for Oregon in 2018, posting 115 tackles, which were 50 more than anybody else on this entire defense. Dye is an intelligent, heady inside linebacker that possesses a lot of versatility, so he can be moved around a bit. There is no question he'll be the leader of the defense, and vie for All-American honors. Fellow vet La'Mar Winston is also back to the front seven, likely seeing an increased role with the departure of Justin Hollins. An energetic piece and decent coverage guy, Winston is an important returnee. The "Stud" linebacker position will be worth watching through fall camp and early on in the regular season. A position that is crucial in Avalos' defense, the "Stud" is a pass-rushing hybrid end/'backer that will race after the quarterback early and often. Sophomore D.J. Johnson has serious potential and could start, while senior Bryson Young looked like a natural at the position during the spring.

Oregon didn't defend the pass as well as they could have a year ago, as they were eighth in the conference in yardage allowed. The good news is that nearly every key cog is back, including both cornerbacks. Safety seems to be a real strength too, with hard-hitting junior Nick Pickett ready to do damage and sophomore Jevon Holland also in the fold. Holland is an absolute ball hawk who had five interceptions in more of a reserve role, numbers that could take a big leap with more snaps. Junior Thomas Graham is the No. 1 guy at corner, but don't be surprised if we see true freshman Mykael Wright make a real impact. Wright is just one of a number of California guys this staff was able to lure north, and he was rated the top cornerback in the class by ESPN.

This new defensive coaching staff will be extremely aggressive in getting after the QB and forcing turnovers, and the personnel fits that scheme very well. If Thibodeaux and some of the other young guys can come in and play meaningful snaps alongside some of these proven veterans, it has the chance to be one of the top units in the Pac-12.

Special Teams: Placekicking has been a problem for Oregon for a number of years, but the hope is that freshman Camden Lewis can provide some stability at the position. He is battling returnee Adam Stack, who was six for ten on field goals last season. The return game has serious upside, with Jaylon Redd likely set to handle kicks.

Bottom Line: Since Marcus Mariota's Heisman-winning season and National Championship berth in 2014, Oregon has struggled to maintain a footing on the national stage. That seems to be changing, as a terrific recruiting class adds elite talent to a team that already has great experience and proven weapons. Can Herbert and Cristobal really take the next step together? Cristobal has cemented himself as an elite recruiter, but is still trying to show he can win big. This team is the one to do it with, and they'll get a chance to show what they can do right away against Auburn. A win there, and the schedule sets up favorably for this team to legitimately challenge for a Playoff spot. How does Oregon handle being the hunted once again in the Pac-12? It may be a slight transition, but the North Division seems like it theirs to lose.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (8-1 Pac-12, Lose in Pac-12 Championship)
Offensive MVP: QB Justin Herbert
Defensive MVP: LB Troy Dye
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Jaylon Redd
Impact Freshman: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux

Five Year Trend
2014: 13-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
2015: 9-4 (7-2 Pac-12)
2016: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12)
2017: 7-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
2018: 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12)

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