Oregon reached nine wins to close out the 2018 season, and set the foundation for a promising '19 with the announced returns of a few key names. Quarterback Justin Herbert, widely considered a potential first-round NFL draft pick heading into last season, will again lead the Ducks offense. Linebacker Troy Dye will anchor the defense for a fourth consecutive fall, and he has plenty of talented playmakers back around him.
While the Ducks look like probable preseason favorites in the Pac-12, things are not entirely smooth heading into spring practices. Second-year head coach Mario Cristobal oversees one pivotal change on his coaching staff that could make or break Oregon's championship pursuits in 2019.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oregon's Spring Practice
1. Leavitt-less defense
Just a few weeks before the opening of spring practices, Oregon and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt parted ways. After two years overseeing a complete transformation of a defense that, in 2016, was one of college football's worst, Leavitt looked to be critical to the Ducks' success this season. Now, Oregon will lean on Andy Avalos to continue the positive momentum in short order.
Avalos has a track record continuing the success of a standout defense, having done so previously at Boise State. He doesn't have much time to acclimate to a new roster, putting these 15 spring workouts at a premium.
2. Integrating Juwan Johnson
About the same time Oregon lost Leavitt, the Ducks scored a big addition with the transfer of Johnson from Penn State. Wide receiver looked to be one of the positions of need for Oregon heading into the offseason, the result of losing 2018 star Dillon Mitchell to the NFL. The experienced Johnson adds another possible option for Herbert in the passing game next autumn.
Johnson caught 54 passes for more than 700 yards in 2017. His receptions and yardage dipped in 2018, the result of missing five games, but his yards per catch improved from 13 to 14.
3. Herbert's finale
All the talk of Herbert possibly going No. 1 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft may have clouded his actual production in '18. The buzz set a standard that was difficult to reach for a quarterback already playing in the long shadow of a recent Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota.
A half-decade after Mariota brought the first-ever Heisman in Oregon football history, Herbert will embark on his senior campaign as a preseason name discussed in association with the award. The NFL draft chatter is unlikely to quiet, either. Herbert's a known commodity, so his spring practices aren't going to offer any insight of what to expect in the fall, but these workouts will ease him into several months of enormous hype.
4. An influx of young talent
Cristobal landed the Pac-12's No. 1-ranked 2019 signing class. Some of the most prominent names to join the Ducks begin their careers early. Some have the opportunity to work their way into immediate contributing roles.
Six of Oregon's 2019 signees are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, headlined by five-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux's early arrival helps beef up a defense that will need some new players to step up in the pass rush after the departure of linebacker Justin Hollins and end Jalen Jelks. Wide receiver Josh Delgado's another early enrollee to keep an eye on. The four-star prospect out of Florida could help fill the void in the receiving corps.
5. Building depth
Cristobal came to Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2017, bringing experience on the staff of Nick Saban at Alabama. A hallmark of Saban's Alabama teams is remarkable depth. The combination of an excellent recruiting class and one of the most experienced rosters in the Pac-12 presents Cristobal with the opportunity to cultivate a similarly deep lineup in Eugene.