Despite the loss of all-time greats Justin Herbert and Troy Dye from the 2019 Rose Bowl championship team, Oregon football seemed primed to keep things rolling in 2020.
Then, uncertainty due to the pandemic led to opt-outs by Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, Rose Bowl defensive MVP Brady Breeze and starting defensive backs Jevon Holland and Thomas Graham Jr. The Ducks still managed to repeat as Pac-12 champs, albeit under odd circumstances after Washington couldn't play in the conference title game. But a Fiesta Bowl loss to Iowa State showed that Oregon had lost a little mojo.
Armed with another top-10 recruiting class heavy on offensive talent, Mario Cristobal is eager to prove that the Ducks can get back on track — back on the trajectory of a College Football Playoff contender.
"The conference is always going to be goal No. 1," Cristobal says. "But we want to build upon that. And we've made it no secret."
Previewing Oregon's Offense for 2021
The Ducks got a boost when running back CJ Verdell and receivers Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd opted to return for 2021 rather than test the draft process. Quarterback Tyler Shough has to be replaced after leaving for Texas Tech, but graduate transfer Anthony Brown was just as productive in two postseason appearances rotating with Shough in 2020, and five-star freshman Ty Thompson enrolled over the winter.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead installed his RPO-heavy system in 2020, and the offense carried the Ducks early in the season, averaging nearly 40 points through four games. Shough hit a wall in a loss at California and never seemed to regain his rhythm, with the Ducks averaging fewer than 22 points over their last three games. Brown figures to have first crack at helping the offense get rolling again, behind a line that returns four of five starters and depth at the skill positions like the Ducks have rarely enjoyed.
Verdell and Travis Dye bring a wealth of experience to the running back room, and the Ducks are excited about the all-purpose abilities of Sean Dollars. Likewise, there are veterans at receiver in Johnson, Redd and Mycah Pittman. And behind them are younger players including Devon Williams, Troy Franklin and Dont'e Thornton who provide a boost of length and explosiveness. It's similar at tight end, where DJ Johnson sits atop a depth chart enhanced by dynamic new recruits Terrance Ferguson and Moliki Matavao.
In 2020, Oregon had only four practices under Moorhead before spring drills were canceled. The fact that the Ducks had a more typical offseason in which Brown and the offense could study under Moorhead "is ultra valuable," Cristobal says.
Previewing Oregon's Defense for 2021
This side of the ball was the focus of Cristobal's first two recruiting classes with the Ducks, and members of those classes will lead the unit in 2021. Edge player Kayvon Thibodeaux had three sacks as a sophomore in 2020 and was voted the Pac-12's best defensive lineman by the conference's offensive linemen. Inside linebacker Noah Sewell was named the conference's best freshman on defense after tying for the team lead with 45 tackles.
Cornerback Mykael Wright is another one of the Pac-12's best defensive players. The Ducks could have more potential stars in defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus, outside linebacker Mase Funa and linebacker Justin Flowe, who all have the chance to play more prominent roles in 2021. Safety Jamal Hill, who had two interceptions in the Pac-12 Championship Game win over USC, could be the best fit for the "Star" nickel position under new coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
Oregon's defense took a major step forward in 2019 when Andy Avalos took over as coordinator, but the Ducks got off to a very slow start in 2020. Avalos is now head coach at Boise State, and DeRuyter is looking to get the Ducks back to their disruptive form of 2019, when they were eighth in the nation in takeaways. "There's no more critical factor in football than turnover margin," DeRuyter says. "Our job on defense is not to wait for a turnover. It's to take the damn ball away."
Previewing Oregon's Specialists for 2021
With a booming leg and a debonair mustache, Henry Katleman quickly became a fan favorite when he took over as placekicker midway through the 2020 season. Katleman made all four of his field-goal attempts, including one from 47 yards out in the Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks also return punter Tom Snee and some dangerous returners. But, Cristobal says, "Our coverage teams have to improve."
Cristobal won national championships both as a player and as an assistant coach, and he doesn't shy away from his desire to get Oregon to those heights. The Ducks have been stacking elite recruiting classes for three years now, and the question is whether this is the year they break through and challenge for a playoff appearance, or if it's another year or two away. "We are getting there," Cristobal says of Oregon's overall talent level. "We're not there yet; the expectation for the roster and what it looks like is really high."
National Ranking: 9
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(Kayvon Thibodeaux photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics)