When Oregon hired Willie Taggart, I have to admit that my first thought was that Oregon was going to stop being, well, Oregon. I wasn’t thinking about the 250 random uniform combinations that Nike provides the Ducks equipment staff; I was thinking about the breakage from the Chip Kelly offensive philosophy that turned Oregon into one of the most lethal offenses in college football.
Turns out that my first impression was a little dated. Sure, Taggart’s offensive philosophy originally was rather traditional with a lot of pro-style, West Coast concepts, as it was in his days at Stanford. But then he decided to modernize things, first with the shotgun formation. Once he got his quarterback out from under center, he quickly realized how that opened up his offense to do so much more. Out went the fullbacks and tight end-heavy formations; in came more spread concepts. Taggart went out and studied the best in modern offenses: Baylor, Clemson and, yes, Oregon.
The transition from Helfrich to Taggart on offense should be more evolutionary than revolutionary; they have the pieces to do what Taggart has been doing recently on offense. Sophomore Justin Herbert (6’6" 215 lbs.) took over for graduate transfer Dakota Prukop in October last season and despite the Ducks struggles, never relinquished the job back. Herbert is more of a pass-first, run-second quarterback; he rushed 58 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns last season. Through the air, he completed over 63% of his passes for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions; in three of his seven starts, Herbert hit the 70% completion percentage. After the spring game, Taggart refused to name Herbert the starting quarterback despite the sophomore clearly outplaying the competition that day. For what it’s worth, leading receiver Darren Carrington didn’t hesitate to name Herbert the starter over sophomore Travis Jonsen (6’3" 200 lbs.) or early enrollee Braxton Burmeister (6’1" 205 lbs.). Reportedly, Jonsen has now decided to transfer to a junior college in California, following former Nebraska commit Terry Wilson’s choice to transfer to Garden City (KS) Community College in May.
Running back Royce Freeman’s junior season seemed to crash in the second quarter against the Huskers with a leg injury. Going into week three, Freeman was ranked seventh in the nation in rushing, but Freeman limped through the season, rushing only for 945 yards and nine touchdowns, half of the results of his sophomore season. The 5’11" 230 pound back flirted with declaring for the NFL draft, but decided to return for his senior season. While Freeman was nursing his injuries, junior Tony Brooks-James (5’9" 185 lbs.) rushed for 771 yards on just 101 carries with nine touchdowns and senior Kani Benoit (6’0" 201 lbs.) added 300 yards and three touchdowns. This very well could be the best running back corps in the Pac-12 this season; some think that any of these guys could start at most other conference schools.
The good news for Herbert and Taggart is that leading receivers seniors Darren Carrington (6’2" 195 lbs.) and Charles Nelson (5’8" 170 lbs.) both return. Carrington caught 43 passes for 606 yards while Nelson caught 52 passes for 554 yards. After that, it’s a rebuilding project as just about everybody else is gone, save for sophomore Mitchell Dillon (6’1" 195 lbs.) two catches last season. Even Taggart’s first hires to coach receivers and tight ends are gone: Jimmie Dougherty left after two months for UCLA while tight ends coach David Reaves resigned in February after a DUI arrest. Michael Johnson Sr. now coaches receivers, with the added benefit of encouraging his five-star 2019 quarterback son to become a Duck.
Last year’s youth movement on the offensive line should pay dividends this season with four returning starters, including two sophomores who earned honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors last season. Sophomore center Jake Hanson (6’5" 295 lbs.) is on the Rimington Award watchlist while sophomore right tackle Calvin Throckmorton (6’6" 300 lbs.) is sure to be on preseason all-conference lists as well. But the best lineman might be senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby (6’5" 310 lbs.); his 2016 season ended in Lincoln with a foot injury. Prior to the injury, he was projected as a first or second round draft pick this past spring, but chose to return to the Ducks and erase any doubts about his ability.
But it wasn’t really the offense that doomed Mark Helfrich at Oregon - it was the defense. Helfrich gambled that new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke’s defense couldn’t possibly get any worse than it was in 2015, and lost. Big time. So Helfrich and Hoke were summarily dismissed after the season.
Wow. The Oregon president is out here taking shots, says the only advice he can give is to "Go out and find a great defensive coordinator."— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) December 8, 2016
And by all accounts, Willie Taggart did just that by hiring Jim Leavitt from Colorado. Leavitt has a long standing track record as an excellent defensive coordinator dating back to Kansas State and as the founding head coach of South Florida. (It’s worth noting that Leavitt was fired by South Florida for reportedly striking one of his players, not for results on the field.) But what does Leavitt have to work with this season?
Up front, Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano (6’3" 295 lbs.) should be able to help right away. A backup last season on the Tigers’ national championship squad, Pagano sifted through 37 offers from schools like Texas, Notre Dame and Nebraska before choosing Oregon. He shared the defense’s "12th Man Award" as one of Clemson’s top backups last year; in 12 games with four starts, Pagano totaled 31 tackles with 4.5 for a loss. In 2015, Pagano started nine games with 51 tackles.
At linebacker, sophomore Troy Dye (6’4" 225 lbs.) led the Ducks last season with 91 tackles (13.5 for a loss). earning him freshman all-American honors. After that, it’s very much a work in progress as Leavitt migrates back to a 3-4 from Brady Hoke’s failed 4-3 experiment last season.
In the secondary, it sounds like a youth movement could be underway as touted newcomers (such as Nebraska target Deommodore Lenoir) push underwelming upperclassmen for playing time. The best of the bunch is probably sophomore safety Brendan Schooler (6’2" 190 lbs.) who had 74 tackles and four interceptions last season. Senior cornerback Arrion Springs (5’11" 205 lbs.) who broke up 12 passes last year should get the first look this fall as well.
Leavitt’s track record strongly suggests that he’ll get the Ducks defense squared away eventually, but probably not by the second week of the season. With Nebraska in their own transitions, that makes this week two game pretty tough to prognosticate. I suspect that with the game at Autzen, the Ducks will initially be the favorite. I suspect most people will wait and see how week one plays out before making any solid predictions. And with Oregon opening with Southern Utah, it still might still be a poorly educated guess as to who wins between the Huskers and Ducks.