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College Football Preview 2021: 6. Oregon Ducks

C.J. Verdell, Oregon

 6. Oregon Ducks

There is elite talent throughout the roster, but will the QB situation keep them from realizing their full potential?

2020 Review
Even before Oregon's shortened 2020 season got rolling, the Ducks were hit by a host of opt-outs, including All-American tackle Penei Sewell and several key defenders. The result was an Oregon team that was very inconsistent throughout a seven-game season, beginning 3-0 but fading down the stretch. With Washington unable to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game due to COVID, the Ducks then took their spot and proceeded to overcome USC for a second consecutive Pac-12 Title. Winning a third straight is a tough task as things shift back to normal, but the program has been elevated under head coach Mario Cristobal, and there's enough talent to do so.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Much like their entire team, Oregon's offense had a hot start to 2020, but were less effective as the season moved on. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will enjoy his first full season running the show, but figuring out the quarterback situation will be his top priority.

Tyler Shough took hold of the QB spot following the abbreviated fall camp and had a productive campaign. He finished with 1,559 yards and 13 touchdowns, while completing nearly 64% of his passes. However, his struggles over the final few weeks of the fall forced the Ducks to essentially platoon the position, with former Boston College transfer Anthony Brown seeing an increase in action. This off-season, Shough transferred to Texas Tech, meaning that Brown will get the first crack at running the show in 2021.

Brown has proven to be a capable Power Five quarterback who has made 28 starts over his college career, but there are many around the program that think incoming freshman Ty Thompson is good enough to push him. Thompson has a huge arm that would be a great fit in this Moorhead offense, but forcing in a true freshman at the game's most important position is always worrisome. How both Moorhead and Cristobal handle the situation may determine just how high their ceiling is this year.

No matter what happens at QB, Oregon has plenty of other weapons at the skill positions. They have a two-headed monster in the backfield, with both C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye returning. Dye finished as the team's top rusher in 2020 with 443 yards, but Verdell is fully healthy and was a 1,000-yard back in 2019. The Ducks also have a rising star in redshirt freshman Sean Dollars, who saw plenty of action in the Pac-12 Championship Game but was otherwise limited. Dollars won't seriously push either Verdell or Dye for snaps but as the team's most explosive option, he will be a nice change-of-pace.

Oregon returns just about every receiver from last year's group, giving this team one of the best receiver corps in the Pac-12. After just one reception in 2019, Devon Williams emerged as a serious big-play threat who averaged 19.1 yards per reception and finished as their top receiver in terms of yardage. Steady veterans Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson finished with similar numbers, as Redd went for 25-281 and Johnson 19-267. While Williams is a well-built, 6'5" wide out who can make incredible contested catches, Redd and Johnson are smaller, but more effective in heavy traffic. Redd in particular is useful in screens and extremely versatile, giving Moorhead and this staff plenty of options. One more name to watch is sophomore Mycah Pittman, who is a breakout candidate. The younger brother of former USC star and current Indianapolis Colt Michael Pittman, Mycah has displayed serious potential over the last two years, but is still working to put it altogether. He may be the most purely talented receiver on the entire roster.

The tight end spot will have to break in a new starter now that Hunter Kampmoyer has moved on, but it has rarely been a heavily featured position in Moorhead offenses. Junior D.J. Johnson originally began his career as a defensive linemen but has been very capable as a pass-catcher, while sophomore Spencer Webb offers loads of upside.

Penei Sewell's decision to opt-out further crippled an Oregon offensive line that was already rebuilding in 2020. After some understandable struggles a season ago, this unit now appears to be a strength, as Cristobal and this staff have focused heavily at recruiting this position group. Junior center Alex Forsyth is the headliner, earning All-Conference honors in 2020. He'll anchor the unit, but names like T.J. Bass, George Moore, and Steven Jones are sure to be key contributors. There's a bunch of depth throughout the O-Line, as six players returning made at least one start last fall and there are numerous freshmen who could play right away.

While the quarterback competition will dominate the headlines throughout fall camp and into the regular season, the rest of this Duck offense should be really strong. It's rare for an offense to return this much talent and depth at both the skill positions and offensive line, not to mention the wide variety of highly touted newcomers coming in. This should be one of the best groups in the Pac-12.

Defense: Coordinator Andy Avalos was a Broyles Award finalist back in 2019 but had ups-and-downs leading the Duck offense last fall. He was still able to parlay his success into the Boise State head coaching job, where he once was a star linebacker.

As a result, Cristobal turned to former Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter to run this defense. DeRuyter has spent the last four seasons as California DC, helping turn the Golden Bears into one of the conference's stingiest groups. 

Luckily for DeRuyter, he just happens to have one of college football's premier stars playing on the defensive line in sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux was considered by many to be the nation's top recruit when he came out of high school, and he has not disappointed in his Duck career. He had nine sacks in five starts as a true freshman and then three in 2020, earning him Second Team All-American honors. He's likely to face double teams all season long but don't be surprised if he continues to dominate, and possibly line himself up as the No. 1 selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. All the attention paid to Thibodeaux should open up opportunities for other linemen on this team, including sophomore Brandon Dorlus and freshman Bradyn Swinson. Oregon is thinner at defensive tackle than in year's past, but Dorlus is a breakout candidate after making one start a season ago.

There's plenty of star power at the linebacker position as well, with former five-star recruits Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe leading the way. Sewell came in and played key snaps right away, as he made five starts at the MLB spot. He finished second on the team with 45 tackles, but could be in store for much greater things this fall. Flowe missed all of last season with injury but he was so impressive in the spring that returning linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia transferred to SMU. Slade-Matautia is actually a fairly notable loss, as he was the Ducks top returning tackler, but Flowe is good enough that he may actually upgrade the position. Rounding out the starting linebackers is Mase Funa, who plays the "Stud" position as a hybrid end/outside linebacker. Funa will get after opposing quarterbacks all game long, but he was to hold off a challenge for the starting job from rising sophomore Adrian Jackson.

The secondary was the position group hit the hardest by opt-outs, as Brady Breeze, Thomas Graham, and Deommodore Lenoir decided not to play in 2020. Lenoir ended up changing his mind and coming back, but Oregon still had growing pains, as young pieces were forced into larger roles. One of those names was sophomore Mykael Wright, who was picked on all last season. Wright did have some struggles but handled things well, finishing with 25 tackles and nine pass deflections. Wright becomes the top corner on the roster, but it's unclear who will start alongside him. Boundary corner D.J. James and nickelback Jamal Hill were recently arrested, plunging their 2021 seasons into doubt. Instead, highly touted Dontae Manning, who arrived as part of the 2020 Class, could be in line for an opportunity. 

Sophomore Verone McKinley has quickly become one of the top defenders on this roster, and he will once again handle free safety duties. The starter at the other safety spot is probably going to end up being senior Jordan Happle, a former Boise State transfer. Happle made three starts for the Ducks last season and proved to be serviceable. Sophomore Steve Stephens is the other likely contender for the starting gig.

Even as Avalos moves on, Oregon has more than enough to be an elite defense. Every position group has several players who will soon be NFL defenders, and there are a few that should have breakout campaigns. Expect better numbers in 2021, with a stabilized roster and loads of experience.

Special Teams: Oregon has to get better production from their special teams if they want to win another Pac-12 Title. The kicking game was horrible in 2020, with the original starter, Camden Lewis, losing his job to Henry Katleman, who also struggled. Punter Tom Snee is at least solid, and Mykael Wright offers dazzling playmaking potential in the return game.

Bottom Line: Mario Cristobal and his staff have done a tremendous job in Eugene. They're recruiting at an elite level, have won a pair of Pac-12 Titles, and came extremely close to a Playoff berth back in 2019. Is 2021 the year they take the proverbial "next step" and compete not just for a Playoff appearance, but a National Championship? There's a bunch of stability throughout the coaching staff and the entire roster, with proven pieces on both sides of the ball. The schedule may be difficult, but it does give the Ducks an opportunity to build a strong enough resume for the Selection Committee. In addition to a road test in early September, the Ducks also face off with UCLA, Washington, and Utah all away from Autzen Stadium. On paper, this Oregon team is not only good enough to win the league, they're good enough to challenge for even more. It's just a matter of going out and proving it on the gridiron.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-2 (9-1 Pac-12, Win Pac-12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB C.J. Verdell
Defensive MVP: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Mycah Pittman
Impact Freshman: QB Ty Thompson

Recruiting Breakdown
With a bunch of Nike money flowing through the program and unlimited resources, Oregon should always be a school recruiting at a high level. Cristobal and staff have taken that to another level, landing the No. 6 group in the Class of 2021, including 19 four-star prospects. There are future contributors in just about every position group including O-Line, receiver, quarterback, linebacker, and defensive back. QB Ty Thompson has gotten the most attention given his possible chance to start this fall, but he's far from the only name to watch. Offensive linemen Kingsley Suamataia and Bram Walden should compete for snaps in 2021, even with how loaded Oregon is in the trenches. Suamataia is best at tackle, while Walden can slide along and play on the interior. On defense, linebacker Keith Brown and corner Jaylin Davies were both in during the spring and will see chances. Brown is a top candidate to backup Justin Flowe at outside linebacker. One more name to watch is defensive back Avante Dickerson, a one-time Minnesota commit who played both ways at Westside in Omaha. With the upheaval occurring at corner right now, he may force his way into a larger role.

Five-Year Trend

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