The Ducks rank No. 21 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
Oregon is in unchartered territory, as the Ducks are coming off a 4-8 record, their worst finish since 1991. Not surprisingly, head coach Mark Helfrich was fired and while many applauded the hire of Willie Taggart, his tenure in Eugene got off to a rocky start. But the hope is there will be more growing pains off the field than on it, as Oregon has the tough task of trying to compete in the Pac-12 North with defending champion Washington and Stanford, as well as a Washington State team that appears on the rise. Taggart may be able to get the Ducks’ offense back to its high-flying ways, but their success in 2017 will depend on what defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is able to do with a unit that finished near the bottom of the FBS ranks in total and scoring defense.
Previewing Oregon Football’s Offense for 2017
Coming off a 4–8 season that precipitated a coaching change, Oregon has plenty of question marks entering 2017. The ability to score points won’t be one of them.
The Ducks return quarterback Justin Herbert, who took over the starting job in the midst of his true freshman season and has all the tools to be a star. Senior running back Royce Freeman already is a star, though a 945-yard junior season and the hiring of enthusiastic young coach Willie Taggart convinced him to stay in school one more year. Backup tailback Tony Brooks-James is a track star who averaged 7.6 yards on his way to 771 yards as a sophomore.
The loss of the team’s top three tight ends is a problem, but an offensive line that started four redshirt freshmen in 2016 is a year older, and talented tackle Tyrell Crosby should be back from a foot injury and added to the mix. Charles Nelson provides talent and experience at receiver, but the Ducks will miss the game-breaking speed of Devon Allen, the Olympic hurdler who gave up football to concentrate on track after two knee injuries in the last two years, and Darren Carrington (dismissed from the team in July).
Previewing Oregon Football’s Defense for 2017
A defensive line that not long ago produced first-round draft picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner suddenly lacked star power in 2016. That changed this spring when Scott Pagano announced he would leave Clemson as a graduate transfer and enroll at Oregon. Other than convincing Freeman to remain in school, that was Taggart’s most important recruiting job of the year.
After a year in Brady Hoke’s 4-3, the Ducks moved back to a three-man front under new coordinator Jim Leavitt, who dramatically remade Colorado’s defense the past two seasons. Leavitt moved sophomore Troy Dye off the edge to the weak-side inside linebacker spot, where he’ll have even more room to roam. The lack of other impact veterans was reflected in a spring depth chart that often included three freshmen — cornerback Thomas Graham, nose tackle Jordon Scott and strong safety Brady Breeze — with the first unit.
Previewing Oregon Football’s Specialists for 2017
Aidan Schneider is an all-conference-caliber placekicker, although his range doesn’t extend much beyond 45 yards. Punter Ian Wheeler opted not to return for his senior season, although Oregon could stand to improve in that area anyway. The Ducks are never lacking for speedy candidates to return kicks and punts, and they added another one in the spring with early enrollee Darrian McNeal.
In 2016, Oregon’s offense slipped from elite to merely very good. The Ducks were 27th nationally in scoring at 35.4 points per game, and 18th with 6.6 yards per play. Being very good on offense didn’t get it done given that Oregon was absolutely dreadful on defense, finishing 126th in the nation both scoring and total defense.
With Herbert, Freeman, Nelson and all that experience back on the offensive line, the Ducks figure to be even more explosive in Taggart’s “Gulf Coast Offense,” which was fourth nationally last season — at South Florida — in scoring (43.8 ppg) and sixth in yards per play (7.2). But will the Ducks be demonstrably better on defense?
The good news is that Oregon also returns a host of players on that side of the ball, too; the bad news is that those players were woefully ineffective last season. Leavitt might be one of the best in the country — the Ducks are paying him to be, at more than $1 million per season — but he may need another year to coach up the veterans and recruit more talent before Oregon is back competing for championships.
NATIONAL RANKING: 21
PAC-12 NORTH PREDICTION: 3
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