Justin Herbert's surprise return keys a push for the Pac-12 title
Mario Cristobal's first full season as Oregon Ducks head coach brought something a little old, and something different to the program.
Brought in as offensive coordinator under Willie Taggart, Cristobal was part of the first outside regime hired at Oregon since Rich Brooks took over four decades prior. Taggart's abrupt departure for Florida State marked a return to tradition for UO, however, with Cristobal ascending to the head coaching position just as offensive coordinators Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, and Mark Helfrich had prior.
The 2018 campaign also saw Oregon stray from recent tradition, embracing a brand of physical football different from the hurry-up spread that became the Ducks' calling card during the previous 10 years. The revamped look paid dividends: Oregon won nine games for the first time since 2015, along the way out-muscling rival and Pac-12 champion Washington.
The head-to-head defeat of Huskies, in which Oregon beat Washington at its own game, signaled the Ducks' return to Pac-12 contention. The road to UO's first title since 2014 begins with a promising outlook for '19.
1. Justin Herbert... and company
Beginning at some point in the 2018 offseason, all the buzz from draftniks suggested Herbert was destined to be the first quarterback selected (if not the No. 1 overall pick) in the 2019 NFL Draft. His decision to return to Oregon for another season was, thus, a bit of shock.
But draft pundits' shock is Oregon's championship jolt. Herbert running the show for a fourth season sets a high bar for the Ducks' offense in 2019 -- and it's more than just him back on that side of the ball.
Breakout performers Travis Dye and C.J. Verdell return to give the Oregon backfield a potent one-two punch. They'll operate behind a senior-heavy offensive line, featuring Dallas Warmack and Shane Lemieux on the interior. The Ducks' experience up front translates to theirs rivaling Washington's for the title of best offensive line in the Pac-12 next season.
2. Putting the D in Ducks
Abbreviated as it may have been, Taggart's tenure as Oregon head coach brought two program-altering additions. One was Cristobal, and the other was his defensive coordinator counterpart, Jim Leavitt.
Leavitt brought head-coaching and NFL experience to Eugene, but perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishment on his resume was transforming Colorado's moribund defense into the cornerstone of a unit that played in the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2016. His approach paid similar immediate dividends for Oregon in 2017, with the Ducks flipping from having one of the nation's worst run defenses to one that finished in the top 25.
Mirroring Herbert's return for a fourth season, linebacker Troy Dye opted to come back to close out a four-year tenure as leader of the Oregon defense. Dye's return is crucial, with outstanding linebacker Justin Hollins and havoc-wreaking lineman Jalen Jelks both gone.
However, returning Jordon Scott, Drayton Carlberg, and Gus Cumberlander ensures the defensive line will be one of the most formidable in the Pac-12. The experience and depth in the secondary are reminiscent of Leavitt's breakout defense at Colorado in 2016.
3. Instant impact players
The Nick Saban influence Cristobal brought from Alabama perhaps best shows in the outstanding recruiting class Oregon signed for 2019. The Ducks' class ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 through the early signing period, and No. 8 nationally.
Five-star prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux could help alleviate some of the pass-rushing presence lost with Hollins' graduation, while 4-star wide receiver Josh Delgado arrives just in time to help replace 1,000-plus-yard pass catcher, Dillon Mitchell.
Adding those blue-chippers for spring practices should have them ready to go by the time Oregon faces Auburn in a marquee, early-season matchup. An influx of potential contributors also arrives in the summer, including standout linebacker Mase Funa.