Oregon’s streak of seven consecutive double-digit win seasons ended in 2015. However, the Ducks weren’t too far off their usual tally, as coach Mark Helfrich’s team finished 9-4 and suffered three of the four losses by a touchdown or less. As the focus shifts to 2016, Oregon has work to do in order to catch Stanford and Washington in the Pac-12 North this year. The Ducks are hoping a FCS graduate transfer (Dakota Prukop) is the right answer at quarterback, while the defense expects to take a step forward under new coordinator Brady Hoke. There’s plenty of talent in the program, and Oregon catches Stanford and Washington in Autzen Stadium this year. The development of Prukop and improvement on defense will determine just how high Helfrich’s Ducks fly in the North in 2016.
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Previewing Oregon’s Offense
For the second straight season, the Ducks will rely on an FCS graduate transfer at quarterback, this time Montana State All-American Dakota Prukop. He doesn’t have the same magic as a playmaker through the air as predecessor Vernon Adams, but at the FCS level Prukop rushed for 1,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, a dynamic Adams didn’t provide. Coaches also hope they’ve re-established a developmental pipeline that broke down the last two years. Both 2015 recruit Travis Jonsen and 2016 signee Terry Wilson showed promise in spring drills, getting reps ahead of returning veterans Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie.
Running back Royce Freeman deserves to be mentioned with the rest of college football’s outstanding junior running backs such as Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. Freeman has a shot at surpassing 5,000 yards for his career this season.
The receiving corps lost Bralon Addison to the draft, but junior Charles Nelson is probably even more dynamic, and the plan is for him to play offense full-time after starting at safety late in 2015. Darren Carrington is another big-time playmaker, and tight end Pharaoh Brown looks ready to return from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2014.
The offensive line will rebuild around senior guard Cameron Hunt and junior tackle Tyrell Crosby, who moved to the left side in the spring. The Ducks signed a graduate transfer, Zac Morgan of Dayton, to compete at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Jake Hanson is a promising young center.
Previewing Oregon’s Defense
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Gone is the 3-4, two-gap defense Oregon has played since 2009. New coordinator Brady Hoke installed a 4-3, one-gap package, and the predominant word in the spring was “aggressive.”
“We will attack,” senior defensive end T.J. Daniel says. “We’ve got one-gap responsibility, and we’re gonna go fast.”
The Ducks don’t appear to have another Arik Armstead or DeForest Buckner up front, but junior Henry Mondeaux has a relentless motor and can play tackle or end. Hoke was hired to replace Don Pellum, who was reassigned to his previous role focusing on linebackers. The unit slipped during his two years splitting time as coordinator, and he’ll try to get the linebackers on track with a boost from former junior college teammates A.J. Hotchkins and Jonah Moi.
The secondary returns essentially intact, a good news/bad news proposition after allowing more than 300 passing yards per game last season. Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson are looking to prove themselves as reliable veterans, and sophomore Fotu Leiato provides an intimidating presence at strong safety in Hoke’s new scheme.
Converted receiver Malik Lovette is a breakout candidate.
Previewing Oregon’s Specialists
A year after improbably winning the placekicking job as a walk-on true freshman, Aidan Schneider earned first-team all-Pac-12 honors in 2015 — and a scholarship. He doesn’t have a huge leg, but Schneider was 22-of-24 on field goals as a sophomore, and made all 67 of his extra-point attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler, another guy who joined the Ducks as a walk-on, hasn’t been as consistent the last two years. Among the returners, Nelson could be the top option on both kicks and punts.
The Ducks missed Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu last season more than they even imagined. They need Prukop to make as seamless a transition as Adams did, and for Hoke to quickly solidify a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst in 2015. “We just needed a new direction,” head coach Mark Helfrich said upon hiring Hoke. Entering 2016, just which direction Oregon’s program is headed was very much unclear.