Oregon's dramatic rise to national prominence featured an even faster fall when, two years after playing in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game, the Ducks went 4–8 in 2016. Three years after that, the Ducks are poised to rebound almost as quickly, with a veteran-laden roster attracting preseason top-15 rankings and consideration as a CFB Playoff contender.
The primary fuel for the hype is senior quarterback Justin Herbert, who passed up the possibility of being the No. 1 overall draft pick and stayed in school for his fourth season. He'll play behind an offensive line that returns more than 150 career starts, and the skill positions are deep, if not marked by elite talent. Defensively, Andy Avalos was poached from Boise State to remake a unit that slipped slightly from 2017 to '18.
The Ducks open the year at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against Auburn. The hype will be huge for that game, and Oregon's playoff chances could hinge on its outcome. "We're not going to let outside pressure affect us, and we're not going to worry about what anyone else is saying," Herbert says. "We're just going to focus in-house and worry about what we have to say."
Previewing Oregon's Offense for 2019
Herbert is a soft-spoken hometown kid. So in that regard, it made some sense that he wanted one more year to hone his game and prepare for the harsh spotlight attracted by NFL quarterbacks. He's coming off a season in which he threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns but saw his completion percentage dip to 59.4, in no small part because receivers dropped what the Ducks tabulated as 52 passes in 13 games.
Despite the loss of Dillon Mitchell, who entered the draft after setting a school record with 1,184 receiving yards, Oregon believes it will be better catching the ball in 2019. Head coach Mario Cristobal hired long-time Utah State assistant Jovon Bouknight to coach receivers, and he brought a more cerebral, disciplined tone to the group. The position took a big step forward during spring practice when graduate transfer Juwan Johnson and true freshman Mycah Pittman enrolled; not only did they catch pretty much everything, but their presence also seemed to motivate vets Johnny Johnson III and Brenden Schooler, who had trouble hanging on to the ball in 2018.
The running game will benefit from all the experience on the offensive line. Left guard Shane Lemieux, center Jake Hanson and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton will be fourth-year starters, and the other spot on the right side will be manned by another experienced senior, either Dallas Warmack or Brady Aiello. The left tackle is Penei Sewell, a budding star whose absence in the second half of 2018 due to injury was acutely felt.
Running back CJ Verdell is a bowling ball between the tackles, and Travis Dye complements him as a jitterbug. Cyrus Habibi-Likio was a goal-line specialist in 2018 who worked hard to expand his role, and Darrian Felix had a promising spring after being injured in 2018. Top recruit Sean Dollars joins the mix in the fall.
Previewing Oregon's Defense for 2019
Oregon's defense showed remarkable resolve in the red zone in 2018, limiting opponents to field goals nearly 43 percent of the time. That helped mask some slippage in fundamentals like rushing yards allowed and third-down defense. Avalos will bring a more multiple, attacking style from Boise to Eugene.
The front will be more varied than Jim Leavitt's three-man look, taking advantage of the versatility of players such as Austin Faoliu, Gus Cumberlander and super recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux. The keystone will remain nose tackle Jordon Scott, though the Ducks would like to rotate him more frequently to keep him fresh and healthy.
Inside linebacker Troy Dye had 115 tackles last season — 50 more than anyone else on Oregon's defense. Next to him, Isaac Slade-Matautia was slowed by a shoulder injury in 2018 but looked like a rock during spring practice. Off the edge, senior La'Mar Winston Jr. is a passionate competitor at outside linebacker. The other bookend for Avalos is the hybrid Stud position, where senior Bryson Young blossomed in the spring, and where D.J. Johnson could be a factor.
The secondary features two third-year starters at cornerback in Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir. They finished well as sophomores and will look to get off to faster starts as juniors. Free safety Jevon Holland is an absolute ball hawk, and the Ducks have a couple of very physical options at the other spot in Nick Pickett and Brady Breeze. Departed nickel back Ugochukwu Amadi left behind a big hole in the lineup that Verone McKinley III looks to fill.
Previewing Oregon's Specialists for 2019
The Ducks hope that true freshman Camden Lewis can solidify the team's placekicking, which has been inconsistent in recent years. He could get a look as the punter, too, Cristobal says.
Oregon fans enjoyed dining at college football's head table during the Chip Kelly and Marcus Mariota years. A couple seasons of settling for table scraps has them hungry for more. Cristobal has energized the fan base with his staff's success in recruiting, giving Oregon that "cool" factor again. But it's a bottom-line game, and Duck fans want to see results in 2019 that are commensurate with their expectations.