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Oregon Ducks 2018 Spring Football Preview

Justin Herbert

Justin Herbert

Mario Cristobal is the third different Oregon football head coach in as many spring practices, but 2018 offseason workouts in Eugene should not be tumultuous.

Oregon Ducks RB Tony Brooks-James

The Ducks lost the first game of Cristobal's tenure — a Las Vegas Bowl showdown with perennial Pac-12 postseason slayer Boise State — but the transition from the abbreviated Willie Taggart era appears to be going smoothly initially.

The new staff landed an impressive recruiting class, adding exciting new talent to a roster that features enough proven playmakers to make Oregon a dark-horse contender in the fall's Pac-12 North race.

5 Storylines to Watch During Oregon's Spring Practice

1. Justin Herbert ready for superstardom?

The 2016 campaign may have been a lost season for Oregon football as a whole, but then-freshman Justin Herbert's ascent to starting quarterback launched a promising outlook for the immediate future; a future perhaps including a Heisman Trophy.

A shoulder injury dampened Herbert's sophomore season, but the talented quarterback showed signs of that lofty potential when healthy, leading the Ducks to a 6-2 mark with him in the lineup. Herbert's size (6-6, 225 and still adding muscle) suggests an NFL future. Before then, however, he has the tools to leave Oregon a local legend on par with Dan Fouts, Joey Harrington or Marcus Mariota.

2. Backup quarterback

The backup quarterback spot has been of utmost importance for Oregon football in recent seasons. The 2015 Ducks were markedly worse when Vernon Adams was on the sidelines. Justin Herbert rose from backup to cornerstone of the program's future in 2016, and his injury in '17 demonstrated the significance of having a reserve ready to run the offense at a moment's notice.

Oregon's record with Herbert sidelined last season dipped to 1-4, but that only tells a portion of the story. The look of the Ducks' offense swung wildly when Herbert, an adept pocket-passer, was replaced by then-freshman Braxton Burmeister. Burmeister's inability to throw with much consistency, or downfield at all — he averaged just 4.3 yards per attempt — rendered Oregon one-dimensional.

Burmeister needs to demonstrate marked improvement in the offseason to remain second on the depth chart. Incoming signee Tyler Shough brings intrigue to the competition, but Burmeister has an opportunity to get a leg up with an impressive spring.

3. Replacing Royce

Excellent running backs are commonplace in the Oregon football program, but it's not often UO — or any program — has to replace its career yardage leader. Even rarer is replacing the Pac-12 career rushing touchdowns leader.

The Ducks are tasked with doing both this offseason, saying farewell to the outstanding Royce Freeman. Compounding the challenge, 2017 breakout star Kani Benoit is also gone.

The electrifying Tony Brooks-James (above, right) is back, but his transition from change-of-pace back to potential every-down ball carrier headlines an offseason with a variety of questions for what will be a new-look backfield.

4. Year 2 of Jim Leavitt

When Leavitt arrived at Colorado ahead of the 2015 season, the Buffaloes had one of the worst defenses in the nation. Colorado was especially bad at turnover generation. Leavitt's first season as defensive coordinator brought immediate improvement, but the fruit of his labor sprouted in year two.

Colorado boasted one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, including one of the nation's most elite turnover-generating units, en route to a surprise Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. Oregon will try to produce similar results in Leavitt's second season with the Ducks.

Oregon's defenses under longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti flourished in creating takeaways. Likewise, the engine of Leavitt's defense will be forcing turnovers. The spring should provide insight into the 2018 Ducks' progress in that phase.

5. Uncertainty on special teams

Oregon undergoes some considerable changes on special teams in 2018. Gone is placekicker Aidan Schneider, who won the job in 2014 and never relinquished it.

Also gone is Charles Nelson, the outstanding athlete who, at different times in his career, was a difference-maker in the return game. Nelson shared kickoff return duties in 2017 with Brooks-James, but the running back's potential transition to every-down back might limit his use on special teams.

Nelson also helped on punt returns, though wide receiver Dillon Mitchell handled the bulk of the work.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.