The Ducks stars decided to come back for their senior seasons to make history
New Year's Eve often brings about a mix of reflection and anticipation of what the future may bring. This was the case for Oregon Ducks linebacker Troy Dye on the last day of 2018.
In the media auditorium at Levi's Stadium, thoughts of both his last three years and the 2019 season to come flooded Dye after a 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
"After the bowl game, we were sitting at the podium — me, [quarterback] Justin [Herbert], coach [Mario] Cristobal and [wide receiver] Dillon [Mitchell] — and I was just looking around like, 'Man, this is going to be my last time at a podium at the University of Oregon."
Having just completed his third season as an All-Pac-12 honoree at linebacker, the NFL seemed a natural destination for the talented Dye. And it still is. But the calendar will turn one more time before he begins that leg of his football journey.
Dye's New Year's reflection brought him to the conclusion that one more run with Oregon was his best path forward — for a number of reasons.
"When I went home over that break, sat down and talked to my family and some friends, it felt like there was still so much on the table at the University of Oregon," Dye said. "Still so much I could do and give back to the university that gave me so much, it was only right I came back for my last season."
His senior season began unofficially in July with Dye representing Oregon at a podium once more, this time at Pac-12 media day. He recounted those New Year's Eve feelings at the Redbox Bowl, and his pivotal few days at the start of 2019, and the standout linebacker touched on a theme shared with plenty of resolution makers.
"I know a lot of people who left [college] early, and they would always say, 'In the long run, I wish I would have went back for that last season.' So I'd rather just stay, finish it out and have no regrets," he said.
No regrets. Had Dye entered the NFL draft in 2019, he would have ended his Oregon career with 302 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks and three interceptions — hardly the numbers indicative of individual regret.
But Dye also broke into the starting lineup in 2016, a freshman on a program just two years removed from playing for a national championship but in the first phase of a ground-up rebuild. Those 2016 Ducks finished 4-8. In Dye's sophomore season, they improved to 7-6. Last year's team concluded a 9-4 campaign with a 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
A different head coach oversaw each of those three seasons, with Mark Helfrich in 2016; Willie Taggart in '17; and Cristobal last year. Cristobal's back for 2019, providing stability at the top that hasn't existed in Dye's tenure. That stability trickles down throughout a veteran roster, which returns 19 starters between offense, defense and special teams, including Dye's younger brother and running back Travis.
Oregon's year-to-year improvement could well continue, which means contending for a Pac-12 championship; perhaps even a berth in the College Football Playoff. For Dye, missing out on those opportunities could indeed be regrettable.
For his teammate Herbert, a similar sentiment is rooted in childhood.
"Growing up, I knew this is all I ever wanted to do: be a Duck football player," said Herbert, a graduate of Sheldon High School in Eugene. "To walk away from that didn't seem right. I have enjoyed my three years here so much that no amount of money, nothing could have pulled me away from another year at Oregon."
In Herbert, a previous regime of Oregon football mined a true hidden gem quite literally in its own backyard. He had no Power 5 conference scholarship offers when Helfrich's staff came calling, and Herbert didn't take long to commit
The Helfrich era may have ended on a sour note, but the coach who saw Oregon to the first College Football Playoff National Championship Game helped set the standard Cristobal's team now strives to meet. Of no coincidence, plenty of the cornerstone players came to Oregon during Helfrich's tenure. Cristobal is quick to point this out.
"When you come into a place, I really believe this," Cristobal said. "You respect those that came before you. There is nothing worse than hearing someone coming through and throwing someone else under the bus. That's horrible.
"We've had so many former players come in, meet, speak with our guys, that they understand like this thing was strong for a long, long time," he added. "Troy and Justin came to Oregon because of that strength."
Herbert, in particular, is uniquely qualified to carry the flag of Oregon's past into the program's future. He went from under-recruited gamble in 2015, to Oregon's starter in '16, to a popular projection for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He's passed for almost 7,100 yards with 63 touchdowns in three seasons, last year producing 3,151 and 29 in his first full campaign.
Herbert's star may have risen meteorically, but his attitude is still that of the Eugene-raised kid with a closet stocked with Ducks replica jerseys. Making his mark on Oregon football in a way comparable to that of Ducks he watched like Dennis Dixon and Marcus Mariota kept Herbert at home.
Talking to his fellow three-year starting teammate Dye, Herbert said the reality of Oregon's 2019 potential began to set in.
"We talked to each other about this year we're about to have in front of us, and the offensive line coming back was going to be special," he said. "So we had all these puzzle pieces coming together, so it's only a matter of time before we put them in the right place."
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.