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College Football Preview 2022: 16. Oregon Ducks

Kris Hutson, Oregon

16. Oregon Ducks

A new era will bring growing pains, but there's too much talent for a major step-back in Eugene

2021 Review
Oregon quickly asserted themselves as a Pac-12 favorite within the first several weeks of the 2021 season, going into Columbus and upsetting the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. However, the lack of offensive consistency quickly caught up to the Ducks, as they were shocked by Stanford just two weeks later, a team that would finish 3-9 on the year. Over the next month-and-a-half, Oregon managed to survive the meat of their Pac-12 schedule before the offensive struggles once again caught with them, as they were blown out by eventual conference champion, Utah, 38-7. They had a chance for vengeance against the Utes in the Pac-12 Championship Game but were again no match, costing them a shot at a Rose Bowl appearance. The bowl game wasn't much better, as the Ducks were shredded by Oklahoma, dropping them to 10-4 on the season. It's hard to be too disappointed about double-digit victories and a Pac-12 North Title, but considering the start, it was slightly underwhelming. With a new coaching staff in place after head coach Mario Cristobal took over at his alma mater Miami, a fresh approach could be just what the program needs to return to Pac-12 supremacy. 

2022 Outlook
Offense: Even before Cristobal's departure to Miami, Oregon was likely looking at re-shuffling the offense. It wasn't necessarily a bad unit in 2021 but was simply average across the board, with the exception being a lethargic pass offense that ranked 76th nationally.

New offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham was brought in to reinvigorate the offense. He'll do so without many of the core pieces from the last several years, including QB Anthony Brown, who graduated. Instead, Dillingham and first-year head coach Dan Lanning are overseeing a quarterback competition between Auburn transfer Bo Nix and unproven holdovers Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield.

Nix is going to have a good shot to be the Day One starter after spending three years on The Plains. He never was quite able to live up to the massive expectations that surrounded him when he arrived on campus, but he did show real growth in 2021. He had his highest completion percentage (61%) and highest passer rating (130.0) since arriving in college, even if the numbers don't jump out at you. Nix will reunite with Dillingham, who was his offensive coordinator in 2019 when Nix won SEC Rookie of the Year. 

If Nix is unable to acclimate to the Pacific Northwest, the Ducks won't wait long in turning to Ty Thompson, a former high-profile recruit who played sparingly in 2021. Thompson is a tremendous athlete with a huge arm, but it wouldn't be surprising if the new coaching staff was cautious in utilizing the youngster.

The running back situation will look a bit different this fall, as last year's leading rusher Travis Dye, transferred to USC, and C.J. Verdell went pro. That leaves sophomore Byron Cardwell as the top returnee, a playmaker who was a pleasant surprise a season ago. He played in all 14 games and added 417 yards, while averaging nearly seven yards per rush. He's not the workhorse Dye was, but is an explosive runner that may remind observers of the days when LaMichael James was running wild in the Oregon backfield. 

In addition to Cardwell, the Ducks boast an incredibly deep running back room. Sean Dollars saw some action in both 2019 and 2020 before missing all of 2021 and should feature into the rotation, but it's a pair of newcomers that have fans excited. Noah Whittington comes to the Pacific Northwest after rushing for over 600 yards for Western Kentucky a year ago, while Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving arrives from Minnesota. Irving took advantage of an injury-plagued Gopher running back room and ended up leading the team in all-purpose yards as a true freshman; he was a big get for the Ducks.

The aerial attack will need more from an unproven, but talented, receiver corps. A trio of sophomores are projected to spearhead the unit: Kris Hutson, Troy Franklin, and Dont'e Thornton. Hutson in particular impressed as a true freshman and appears ready for the moment; he's a good bet to be the offense's breakout star. In addition, the Ducks will lean on UCLA transfer Chase Cota and converted tailback Seven McGee. Cota, an Oregon native, spent four years with the Bruins and totaled over 800 receiving yards, while McGee played sparingly in 2021.

Every once in awhile, Oregon has a tight end that is simply too good not to be featured heavily in this offense. That may be the case this year, as the Ducks feature several players who could contribute at the position, namely Terrance Ferguson and talented youngster Moliki Matavao. Ferguson will be an asset over the middle-of-the-field, while Matavao flashed last year. This position took an unfortunate turn this offseason, with the tragic passing of Spencer Webb, a talented pass-catcher who seemed primed for big things. 

Cristobal and his staff's work upgrading and developing the offensive line should pay dividends for this new group in 2022. All five starters are back and there's plenty of depth and experience at every position. The left side of the unit is particularly strong, with tackle Steven Jones and guard T.J. Bass in place, while center Alex Forsyth is an All-Conference talent who struggled through back problems last fall. 

Dillingham has been considered a rising name in the coaching ranks the last several years and now is the time for him to earn that billing. The Ducks have no shortage of talent, but the lack of experience and questions at quarterback likely mean growing pains are on the horizon. Even so, I like this group enough to believe it can finish among the top half of the league.

Defense: There is less questions defensively, but this is a group that should be better than what we saw in 2021. They were near the bottom of the Pac-12 in both scoring and total defense and if not for a turnover-creating secondary, would have likely finished even lower. Former Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi will be tasked with creating a more consistent group at every level.

Losing a superstar pass rusher like Kayvon Thibodeaux is a challenge for any program, but Oregon returns enough up front to feel good about their D-Line entering 2022. Junior Brandon Dorlus had a breakout season in 2021 and should have no issues acclimating to a leadership role, although he was limited in the spring due to injury. Sophomore Keyon Ware-Hudson and Popo Aumavae are projected to be the pair of starting defensive tackles, while Bradyn Swinson will also rotate in at end. Aumavae is a proven run stopper ready for even more, while Swinson notched three sacks last year despite limited playing time.

Linebacker may be the greatest strength on Oregon's roster. Noah Sewell, the brother of former Oregon great and current Detroit Lion Penei, was a five-star prospect who has lived up to all the hype surrounding him coming out of high school. He did it all for this defense a season ago, leading the way with 114 tackles, four sacks, five pass deflections, and even two forced fumbles. Now in his third year with the program, Sewell is a Butkus Award frontrunner and future first-round NFL Draft selection.

In addition to Sewell, Oregon has two capable linebackers in Mase Funa and Jeffrey Bassa, but all eyes are on Justin Flowe. Flowe arrived on campus with Sewell as the other piece of a five-star linebacker duo, but injuries have killed his first two seasons on campus. If he can stay healthy, the Ducks have a potential superstar on their hands; he was the top linebacker in his class coming out of high school and notched 14 tackles in last year's season-opening win over Fresno State, before being lost for the year. Again, health is the key, but it's fair for Duck fans to be excited about what him and Sewell can do in 2022.

The pass defense was bad last season, despite having one of the best defensive backs in the nation in Verone McKinley II, who totaled six interceptions. To be fair, this was an incredibly young group in 2021 and it didn't help they lost one of their top contributors, Bennett Williams, early on in the season. However, rebuilding this group will be the top priority for Lupoi, especially with some of the quarterbacks Oregon faces on the year.

Sophomore Dontae Manning is another former high-profile recruit who could be ready to take the next step and be the team's top corner, but a better bet may be Colorado transfer Christian Gonzalez. Gonzalez had a huge year during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, while Manning is hoping to work himself back from a knee injury suffered during the spring. Expect Avante Dickerson, an incredibly talented sophomore, to also feature in the corner rotation. He played both ways as a star high-schooler from the state of Nebraska, but didn't play very much as a true freshman in 2021.

The rest of the secondary is in good hands, as nickelback Jamal Hill, junior Steve Stephens IV, and a healthy Williams are back in the fold. Hill is the perfect type of defender to play nickel; massive, athletic, and rangy, but Williams' versatility will be an even more important asset. In just four games in 2021, Williams recorded three interceptions and was well on his way to Jim Thorpe Award consideration before the untimely injury.'

Oregon's defensive struggles last year and be somewhat forgiven; they were ravaged by injuries that crippled their chances down the stretch. With improved health and a defensive-minded head coach in Dan Lanning, who just happened to coach one of the greatest defenses in the sport's history last fall, I suspect massive improvements across the board. With names like Dorlus, Sewell, Flowe, and Williams, the Duck defense should keep NFL scouts busy this fall.

Special Teams: Placekicker Camden Lewis is among the best returning specialists in the Pac-12, coming off a 2021 in which he went 13-16 on field goals. Punter Tom Snee was set to return, but wasn't with the team during the spring. It's unclear what his future looks like, but Oregon doesn't have much beyond them, making an eventual return imperative. The return game should be fine, as Kris Hutson led the team in kick returns last year, while Seven McGee should take over for Mycah Pittman as punt returner.

Bottom Line: Oregon fans and their views on Mario Cristobal seem to be pretty split after he ditched the program for Miami this past offseason, but there shouldn't be any denying that he restored the program to national relevance and brought in a bunch of talent. Cristobal wasn't able to get them back to the CFB Playoff, which has alluded them since playing in the first CFB Playoff National Championship, which now becomes the goal for Dan Lanning and the new staff. That might be a bit lofty for Year One with all the fresh faces on the staff and on this offense, but Pac-12 Title contention seems a realistic one. With that being said, there are some circumstances not working in Oregon's favor in 2022. While they don't have to go on the road and play Ohio State this fall, the schedule may actually be trickier, as they open with the defending National Champion Georgia Bulldogs and also play BYU. The Pac-12 eliminating divisions may also end up hurting their chances at contending for a conference title. While the Ducks would be my clear favorite in the North Division, they'll have a tough securing a spot over the former South Division schools, Utah, USC, and UCLA. Even so, hovering around double-digit wins and playing in a respectable bowl would mark a solid debut campaign for Lanning and company.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
36-year old Dan Lanning gets his first head coaching job of his career with the Ducks, fresh off three seasons leading a dominant Georgia defense. It's not shocking Oregon went with a young, rising name in the coaching ranks, but first-time head coaches are always in for a bit of a learning curve and Lanning will have to learn the Pacific Northwest. To help him out, the new head man brought in two big-name coordinators in Kenny Dillingham and Tosh Lupoi. Dillingham has had an amazing ascent through the coaching ranks; a decade ago, he was QB coach at a high school in Arizona, now he's on his way third big-time OC stop. Lupoi is a California native with prior experience coaching in the Pac-12. He earned his recognition as DC for Alabama back in 2018 before several years in the NFL. Returning to college, he should benefit from having so much talent on his side of the ball.

Recruiting Breakdown
Cristobal and the former staff were doing an elite job on the recruiting trail before departing, and the new staff managed to hold it together for the most part. Oregon finished 13th in the 247Sports composite and top in the Pac-12, just edging out David Shaw and Stanford. The lone five-star prospect is Josh Conerly Jr., a late addition to the Class of 2022 who Oregon managed to keep away from USC. The powerful offensive tackle showed Oregon is still a recruiting power in the PNW, as he hails from the Seattle area. While Conerly is the biggest name, the best bets to play right away? Look no further than corner Jahlil Florence or wide out Kyler Kasper. Florence was one of Lanning's first major gets as Oregon head man and offers help at a need position, while Kasper isn't your typical freshman wide out; at 6'5", he should be a real load for opposing defensive backs. The Ducks also brought in a tremendous pair of linebackers who may not see much action this year, but should be important assets in the near future in four-stars Devon Jackson and Harrison Taggart.

2022 X-Factor: Justin Flowe, LB
Although the Ducks are in a good spot at linebacker regardless of the health of Justin Flowe, can you imagine this defense with him healthy? Flowe is the real deal, a skilled physical specimen with incredible instincts, but his body has betrayed him the last two seasons. Even so, we saw enough in the opener last year to be excited about what he can bring to the table; he was the Ducks best defender, recording 14 tackles, five of them of the solo variety. Duck fans have been waiting to see Flowe and Noah Sewell on the same field together; finally, this will be the year, giving Oregon one of the top 1-2 combos at linebacker in the entire country.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: RB Byron Cardwell
Defensive MVP: LB Noah Sewell
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Kris Hutson
Impact Freshman: CB Jahlil Florence

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