It’s been 30 years since Nebraska last played Oregon in football, and a lot has changed in those years. Back then, Oregon was one of those schools that would play in Lincoln to collect a fat paycheck; BIll Byrne, Oregon’s athletic director at that time, didn’t even require Nebraska to return the trip. In fact, Nebraska has never played football in Eugene; after playing in 1952 in Portland, the last six games have been played in Lincoln. The Ducks didn’t even go to a bowl game from 1963 to 1989.
That was then, this is now. Oregon looks completely different now; even the mascot looks different from his days where he looked like an identical twin of Donald, of Disney and Mickey Mouse fame. An influx of resources from Nike rebranded Oregon as the school and football program that caught everybody’s attention...and when Chip Kelly brought his spread offense to Eugene in 2007, Oregon made the leap to the elite level in college football. In 2010 and 2014, Oregon played for (but came up short) in the national championship games. Chip Kelly would head to the NFL in 2013, replaced by Mark Helfrich.
Since Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota left after the 2014 season, quarterback has been an issue for the Ducks. In 2015, Oregon secured the services of Vernon Adams, Jr. as a graduate transfer just days before fall practice began. For 2016, Oregon is trying that approach yet again, with senior Dakota Prukop (6’2” 194 lbs.) arriving from Montana State in time for spring practice. Last season as a 1-AA all-American at Montana State, Prukop completed 63% of his passes for 3,025 yards and 28 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 797 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the job isn’t being handed to him, as both redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen (6’3” 194 lbs.) and true freshman Terry Wilson (6’3” 195 lbs.) both pushed Prukop this spring. If Wilson’s name sounds familiar, you remember his decommitment from Nebraska last September. Prukop had the better spring game, completing 20 of 29 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns, while Jonsen completed 15 of 24 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown with an interception. But Jonsen has the edge of having an extra year of experience with the Ducks’ offense, and according to quarterbacks coach David Yost, it showed. Don’t automatically assume that Prukop will start this season.
The best help an inexperienced quarterback can receive is a solid running game, and it’s hard to ask for more than junior Royce Freeman (5’11” 230 lbs.), an all Pac-12 and second team all-American running back last season. Freeman set a school record last season, rushing for 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns. For his career, he’s rushed for 3,201 yards and 35 touchdowns in just two seasons. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey will probably grab all of the headlines out west this season, which is going to keep Freeman from getting all of the accolades he’s earned. He’s more of a battering ram (about one of every five runs goes for at least ten yards) than a game breaker (his career long run is 64 yards). He’ll be backed up by junior Kani Benoit (6’0” 210 lbs.), who rushed for 364 yards and three touchdowns last season, averaging 7.0 yards per carry.
It also won’t hurt that six out of last season’s top seven receivers return in 2016, though they’ll miss Bralon Addison, a second team all-Pac-12 honoree who declared for the NFL draft. (Addison went undrafted and signed a free-agent contract with Denver.) Junior Darren Carrington (6’2” 195 lbs.) caught 32 passes for 609 yards and six touchdowns in the second half of the season; he was suspended by the NCAA for the first six games of 2015 after failing a drug test prior to the national championship game the season before. What kind of numbers could he put up if he plays the entire 2016 season? Senior Dwayne Stanford (6’5” 205 lbs.) caught 30 passes for 463 yards and five touchdowns last season after catching 43 in 2015. Sophomore Taj Griffin (5’10” 175 lbs.) experimented with a move into the slot from running back; he rushed for 570 yards and three touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 162 yards and another touchdown. It’s not a question of if Griffin will play, but rather where...and it may be as a slash player. And I can’t forget about junior Charles Nelson (5’8” 170) who played both ways last season. He caught 17 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for 115 yards on six carries, returned 33 kickoffs for 876 yards and a touchdown, intercepted two passes, broke up six others, and contributed 47 tackles as a wide receiver/cornerback. This spring, it appeared that the Ducks were going to focus him on offense...but that could change, should the defense need help again.
There are a few questions on the offensive line, starting at center where redshirt freshman Jake Hanson (6’5” 288 lbs.) looks to be the opening day starter. Junior left tackle Tyrell Crosby (6’5” 310 lbs.) started all but one game last season after being a part-time starter in 2014. This could be his last season in Eugene, as ESPN’s Mel Kiper mentioned him as he was putting together his first Big Board for the 2017 NFL Draft. Senior Zac Morgan (6’7” 280 lbs.) left Dayton as a graduate transfer and should fit in somewhere on the line.
WIth such an impressive offense, it might be hard to understand how Oregon lost four games last season...and then you look at the defense. How bad was it? 1-AA Eastern Washington scored 42 points in the season opener. The Ducks ranked 116th in total defense (485.3 yards/game) and 115th in scoring defense (37.5 points/game). Defensive coordinator Don Pellum was demoted to linebackers coach to make room for former Michigan coach Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator. Hoke’s never been a coordinator at the college level, though. He was the defensive line coach at Michigan when he got the head coaching job at Ball State. For what it’s worth, Michigan’s defense improved dramatically when Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez, though much of that credit probably goes to Greg Mattison.
Hoke will be switching the Ducks from a 3-4 two-gap scheme to an “attacking” 4-3 one-gap. (Doesn’t every new defensive coordinator promise an “attacking” scheme?) But who will be attacking, considering that only one starter returns on the defensive line? Junior defensive tackle Henry Mondeaux (6’5” 280 lbs.) ranked third on the Ducks roster last season with 4 sacks.
The lack of experience gets worse at linebacker where all four of last year’s starters need to be replaced. The most experienced returning linebacker is senior Johnny Ragin III (6’3” 225 lbs.) with twenty tackles in reserve duty. Junior college transfer A.J. Hotchkins (6’0” 240 lbs.) was in for the spring after earning JuCo all-American honors at Riverside Community College in California.
There is some experience in the secondary, but considering how badly the defensive backfield was torched in 2015, that might not be such a good thing. The most experienced defender is junior free safety Tyree Robinson (6’4” 205 lbs.), who probably could play anywhere in the secondary. Last season, Robinson led the Ducks with three interceptions and eight passes defended along with 64 tackles. Junior cornerback Arrion Springs (5’11” 205 lbs.) showed a lot of promise last season with 53 tackles. I suspect the secondary will be better, but it may not matter if the front seven regress even further with all of the attrition.
Looking at this game, it has all the makings of an old-style WAC shootout as both teams should be able to put points on the scoreboard. That might mean that it’s a good thing this is a 2:30 pm kickoff, because it might take four hours to play. That might not be a bad thing if it’s an entertaining back-and-forth game, which it looks like it could be.