The remaking of Oregon football in the image of head coach Mario Cristobal continued in 2019, and that process figures to extend into 2020.
Known for high-octane offense and flashy uniforms, the Ducks cemented a new smashmouth identity by beating Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game and Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The style change was implemented on defense as well, with the Ducks thriving under first-year coordinator Andy Avalos last season. In 2020, that unit will try to keep Oregon contending for championships while the offense weathers the loss of quarterback Justin Herbert and four starting linemen.
Previewing Oregon's Offense for 2020
Herbert’s heir apparent is Tyler Shough, who lacks his predecessor’s stature and arm strength but fits the stereotype of a charismatic leader who commands respect. Shough was very efficient in four mop-up appearances over the course of the 2019 season, and he got all the first-team reps during the four spring practices Oregon held. Cristobal said Shough “entered the spring as the starter, (and) he leaves the spring as the starter.”
The deficit in experience is significant, though, and the Ducks addressed it by adding graduate transfer Anthony Brown from Boston College. Though Brown is coming off the second major knee injury of his career, he is the only other QB on the roster with collegiate experience. Having a veteran backup should allow more freedom to run the QB. New coordinator Joe Moorhead says his previous offenses would employ 10 to 15 plays per game with a QB run option, a number he calls “just about right.”
The skill positions feature no such lack of experience. The Ducks return eight of the 10 players who had double-digit receptions in 2019, as well as a trio of running backs who combined for more than 2,200 rushing yards. Junior CJ Verdell runs with a punishing style that has helped him post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, though it also takes a toll on his body; backups Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio combined for 995 rushing yards off the bench, with Habibi-Likio scoring 10 touchdowns.
Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd lead the receiving corps, with Johnson having enjoyed a bounce-back junior season in 2019. They provide steady, capable experience. Sophomores Mycah Pittman, Bryan Addison and Devon Williams all have higher ceilings and should have the chance this fall to show what they can do. The tight end group is a mix of athletic pass catchers (Cam McCormick, Spencer Webb) and physical run blockers (Hunter Kampmoyer).
On the line, the Ducks return Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell but must replace the other four starters. Alex Forsyth is a Swiss army knife in the mold of departed four-year starter Calvin Throckmorton, and the Ducks think they have another budding star in Steven Jones. The staff prepared for this changing of the guard in recent recruiting classes, and coaches hope that it will pay off with solid contributions from juco transfers Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu and T.J. Bass.
Previewing Oregon's Defense for 2020
The UO defense lost its own “quarterback” in inside linebacker Troy Dye, but there’s every reason to think the unit can be even better in 2020 despite his loss.
Nearly everyone else of significance returns, and there’s a bunch of young talent pushing the veterans. Players like defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, cornerback Mykael Wright and safety Brady Breeze were among the team’s best playmakers during the Pac-12 title game and Rose Bowl, yet none was a full-time starter in 2019. Such was the depth of talent in the first season under Avalos, and it’s no different entering 2020.
The task of replacing Dye falls to junior Isaac Slade-Matautia, who led the team last year in both QB hurries (six) and passes broken up (11). All eyes will be on true freshman inside linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell, the top two recruits in the country at the position; both were early enrollees, though neither was able to participate in the abbreviated spring practice schedule.
The big question mark is the secondary. Senior cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir are mainstays, but Wright has to see the field; Avalos experimented with using Graham at nickel during the spring. Doing that pushes budding star Jevon Holland into one of the two safety spots, which are themselves crowded by the presence of established contributors Breeze, Nick Pickett and Verone McKinley III. The loss of 11 spring practices denied the Ducks important chances to sort through those options.
Previewing Oregon's Specialists for 2020
Camden Lewis will look to clean up a hiccup in his placekicking as a freshman, when he was 5-of-6 from 30 yards and out but just 4-of-8 inside 30. With dangerous return men Holland and Wright back for another year, the lingering offseason task was replacing punter Blake Maimone, whose career average of 43.4 yards was tops in UO history.
If the Ducks indeed take another step forward defensively — and there’s every reason to expect them to — that will ease the pressure on Shough as he steps into the enormous shadow cast by Herbert. Oregon has a bellwether game in Week 2 when Ohio State visits Eugene, so it won’t take long to learn a lot about the Ducks’ 2020 fortunes.
National Ranking: 10
(Top photo by Eric Evans Photography)