After a memorable run to the program's first Pac-12 championship in five years, Oregon DucksCJ Verdell and Kayvon Thibodeaux promised much more success to come. Well, that future is here now with the opening of spring practice for the reigning league and Rose Bowl champions.
Oregon heads into its third season under head coach Mario Cristobal after losing the veteran corps responsible for pulling Ducks football from the depths of a 4-8 season in 2016, but the program isn't lacking in reinforcements. Far from it.
Success on the recruiting trail has Oregon loaded up to defend its Pac-12 crown, and perhaps ready to contend for a College Football Playoff berth.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oregon's Spring Practice
1. Replacing Justin Herbert
Four-year starting quarterback and Eugene native Justin Herbert was at the forefront of Oregon's turnaround. His college career ended appropriately enough, with him scoring the winning touchdown in the Ducks' Rose Bowl defeat of Wisconsin.
Herbert's outstanding career leaves behind an impressive legacy, and a lofty standard for his success to meet. Third-year sophomore Tyler Shough is best positioned to succeed Herbert after being the quarterback's understudy each of the past two seasons. Shough also played meaningful snaps in 2019, in the process going 12-of-15 with three touchdowns and rushing for 11 yards on two carries.
But while the job is likely Shough's to lose, he will face competition in the spring. Oregon's highly touted 2020 recruiting class includes a number of early enrollees, including four-star quarterback Jay Butterfield.
2. Instant impact newcomers
Speaking of early enrollees, Oregon has eight in total from the Pac-12's No. 1-ranked recruiting class. While some stand out more than others for obvious reasons, just about anyone from the group could emerge over the course of spring and preseason practices.
Noah Sewell is the most prominent of the early-enrolled freshmen. The five-star linebacker and brother of current Ducks offensive line star Penei Sewell figures to compete to help fill the void left by standout Troy Dye.
3. Rebuilding the offensive line
The road to the Rose Bowl started up front for Oregon, with one of the best offensive lines in college football. Last year's front five was a veteran unit, featuring Calvin Throckmorton, Jake Hanson, Dallas Warmack, and Shane Lemieux — all of whom are gone.
While the lone returning starter is an All-American — tackle Penei Sewell — those are four important roles for the Ducks to fill. Oregon isn't without some experienced options, however, including Steven Jones and Alex Forsyth, as well as promising youngsters Jonah Tauanu’u and incoming four-star Jonathan Denis.
4. Just how good will the defense be?
Despite losing four-year starter Troy Dye, Oregon's defense figures to be better in 2020 than it was in 2019. That's because the Ducks have a deep and experienced secondary with proven commodities like Thomas Graham Jr., Verone McKinley III, and Jevon Holland, and playmakers in the front like Jordon Scott, Mase Funa, and Kayvon Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux, in particular, finished 2019 on such a strong upswing, he could be the most dominant pass-rusher in college football come next season.
Expectations will undoubtedly be high for this defense. Andy Avalos is tasked with meeting potential, and the Ducks must stay healthy.
5. No average Joe
If there was one consistent lament in Oregon's championship 2019 campaign, it was that the Ducks offense had a tendency to stagnate. It cost the Ducks in losses to Auburn and Arizona State and was perhaps the most jarring difference from the current era of Oregon football compared to the previous, oh, 20 years.
But with Joe Moorhead coming on as offensive coordinator, Oregon could be cooking on that side of the ball in the coming season.
Moorhead's background includes time as head coach at Fordham, where Chase Edmonds was one of the most dynamic playmakers in the FCS. As offensive coordinator at Penn State, he cultivated an offense that transformed the once stodgy Nittany Lions into one of the most exciting offenses in college football, showcasing a guy named Saquon Barkley.
Given his recent success with running backs, CJ Verdell just might be a Heisman candidate come autumn.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.