The Ducks rank No. 23 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2018
Willie Taggart bolted for his dream job at Florida State after just one season as Oregon has turned to Mario Cristobal to lead the Ducks back to contention in the Pac-12. With another Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, Oregon has an offense that should be potent in the backfield but needs some weapons to emerge in the passing game. For once, the offense may not need to do all of the heavy lifting thanks to an improving defense under coordinator Jim Leavitt. Thanks to a home-friendly conference schedule, the Ducks seemed well positioned to have a major say in how the Pac-12 North race shakes out, and perhaps more.
Previewing Oregon Football's Offense for 2018
Just four years after Marcus Mariota won the first Heisman Trophy in Oregon's history, the Ducks have another candidate in junior quarterback Justin Herbert. In the seven regular-season games he played in 2017, Oregon went 6-1 and averaged 52.1 points. In the five he missed, the Ducks were 1-4 and averaged 15.0 points. While not as athletic as Mariota, Eugene native Herbert is every bit the pocket passer.
He'll set up behind a line that returns three full-time starters and added a class of incoming freshmen that includes four newcomers weighing at least 330 pounds - indicating the direction new head coach Mario Cristobal wants to take the offense. At least one, guard Penei Sewell, could crack the lineup this fall. Alabama graduate transfer Dallas Warmack is also expected to add depth and competition to the lineup this fall.
The backfield is deep, headlined by senior Tony Brooks-James - who has a national championship ring from his days as a sprinter on the track team - and powerful little redshirt freshman CJ Verdell, who calls to mind former UO back LaMichael James.
The question mark is the receiving corps. Tight end Jacob Breeland is Herbert's favorite target, and there are a couple of other dependable returners in junior wideouts Dillon Mitchell and Brenden Schooler. But the group lacks star power, unless second-year guys Johnny Johnson and Daewood Davis can make big jumps after encouraging springs. The coaching staff is also counting on Wake Forest graduate transfer Tabari Hines to help right away.
Previewing Oregon Football's Defense for 2018
Two-time team Defensive MVP Troy Dye is an emerging star at inside linebacker who blossomed in coordinator Jim Leavitt's first season, and looks to take another step after Leavitt chose to remain in Eugene under Cristobal. "It's pretty cool to be out there and know what I'm doing," Dye says.
There are talented edge players in outside linebackers Justin Hollins and La'Mar Winston, plus defensive end Jalen Jelks, who flirted with the idea of the NFL Draft after recording 15 tackles for a loss as a junior.
The sophomore class will be leaned on heavily - linemen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu are returning starters, and the class of 2017 also brought both cornerbacks, Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir. There's little experience behind either duo, however, and middle linebacker was a revolving door in the spring. The Ducks do have some depth at safety, headlined by converted cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi. "He's like a quarterback for the defense," Cristobal says of Amadi.
Previewing Oregon Football's Specialists for 2018
The Ducks lost a dependable placekicker in Aidan Schneider. To replace him, they'll turn to sophomore Adam Stack, who will do double duty after punting as a freshman last season. All-America long snapper Tanner Carew was the only player at his position invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and the Ducks signed freshman Karsten Battles to replace him.
The schedule sets up for a return to contention in the Pac-12 North. After three bland non-conference matchups - the Ducks can thank Texas A&M for backing out of a contracted series - Oregon hosts Washington and Stanford in conference play. With Herbert and Brooks-James in the backfield, and experience up front, the offense should be able to put up points. History says the defense in its second year under Leavitt will take another step forward. But will it be enough to get Oregon back to double-digit wins and Pac-12 title contention? The Ducks haven't won a bowl game since the 2014 CFB Playoff semifinal, a streak fans badly want to see end.