Mario Cristobal’s first recruiting class at Oregon is signed and sealed.
Now a handful of the new Ducks will have opportunities to deliver as true freshmen, just as cornerback Thomas Graham, defensive linemen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, and wide receiver Johnny Johnson did in 2017.
Oregon returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense, but there are still plenty of holes on the two-deep for newcomers to fill this fall.
Junior quarterback Justin Herbert will be looking for young players to fill the void of losing the team’s leading wide receiver (Charles Nelson) and running back (Royce Freeman) to graduation.
The Ducks signed wide receivers Isaah Crocker, Jalen Hall and J.J. Tucker on Wednesday after adding running back Travis Dye in December.
“This is a conference of great quarterback play and a lot of great play-making wide receivers,” Cristobal said. “We had to get ourselves a couple of those.”
Starting receivers Dillon Mitchell and Johnson return, as well as senior Taj Griffin in the slot. The trio of incoming freshmen will compete for a spot in the rotation with other talented but inexperienced players, including Daewood Davis, Jaylon Redd, Brenden Schooler and Darrian McNeal.
Tony Brooks-James, a fifth-year senior who spent the past three seasons backing up Freeman, is expected to step into the spotlight for the program’s all-time leading rusher.
“I look at TBJ and now is his moment to shine,” Cristobal said.
New running backs coach Jim Mastro also will inherit Darrian Felix, who averaged 6.1 yards in limited carries with one touchdown as a true freshman, as well as redshirt freshmen Cyrus Habibi-Likio and CJ Verdell.
Dye, the younger brother of star linebacker Troy Dye, was the first player to verbally commit to the Ducks in the 2018 cycle.
“This guy’s statistics are staggering,” Cristobal said of Travis Dye, who rushed for 2,383 yards and and 34 touchdowns as a senior at Norco (Calif.) High. “His heart was always here at Oregon.”
Although the Ducks lost some notable receiver recruits after Willie Taggart departed for Florida State, Cristobal noted that four-star tight end Spencer Webb has elite pass-catching skills.
Oregon returns starting tight end Jacob Breeland, who had 320 yards receiving and a team-high five touchdown catches last season. Webb should push Cam McCormick and Ryan Bay for the No. 2 spot.
“He’s widely regarded as the best tight end on the West Coast and has started making his way as one of the best tight ends in the entire country,” Cristobal said of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Webb. “We firmly believe that.”
Cracking the rotation along the offensive line, where the Ducks return four players with significant starting experience, is difficult for most true freshmen.
But they don’t make many true freshmen like Penei Sewell, Oregon’s highest ranked recruit. The 6-foot-5, 350-pound prospect is the No. 2 offensive guard in the class.
“Let’s talk about stars,” Cristobal said as Sewell’s paperwork was approved by the compliance staff during his national signing day news conference Wednesday. “Wow.”
Cristobal, who plans to continue coaching the offensive line, returns two-year starters Shane Lemieux (left guard), Jake Hanson (center) and Calvin Throckmorton (right tackle). Brady Aiello started at left tackle in 2016 when NFL-bound Tyrell Crosby was injured.
Sewell should challenge Jacob Capra at right guard or at least provide some quality depth to a unit that also welcomes his sizable classmates — Justin Johnson (6-7, 342), Dawson Jaramillo (6-5, 295), Steven Jones (6-6, 340) and Christopher Randazzo (6-7, 330).
“They’re going to change what we are up front,” Cristobal said of the impact the five offensive line signees will have during their careers.
On the defensive line, Oregon added junior college transfer Sione Vea Kava and freshman-to-be Andrew Faoliu — the younger brother of Austin Faoliu, a projected starting defensive end — during the December signing period.
Miami transfer DJ Johnson, one the top defensive end recruits in the 2017 class, was introduced as part of Oregon’s 2018 haul. The 6-5, 270-pound sophomore would have an immediate impact if granted a hardship waiver, but more likely Johnson will have to sit out next season.
Kava and Andrew Faoliu add depth behind emerging stars Scott and Jalen Jelks in Jim Leavitt’s 3-4 defense.
“We have a lot of young guys that have played well, Jordon Scott and Austin (Faoliu),” defensive end Henry Mondeaux said before his final collegiate game at the Las Vegas Bowl. “It’s huge that Jalen is coming back for his senior year. I think there’s a lot of guys that didn’t get as big of a chance this year that are really good players. I think they’re going to do just fine.”
Oregon returns players with starting experience at all four linebacker positions with Troy Dye and Kaulana Apelu at the inside spots and Justin Hollins and La’Mar Winston at the outside spots.
The Ducks signed Adrian Jackson and MJ Cunningham in December and added Andrew Johnson on Wednesday. Jackson could vie for the starting inside linebacker spot opposite Dye, and his two classmates have the athleticism to at least contribute on special teams as freshmen.
There are also opportunities for newcomers Jevon Holland, Verone McKinley, Steve Stephens and Haki Woods to crack the rotation in the secondary, where Graham and fellow sophomore Deommodore Lenoir are the likely starters at cornerback, alongside safeties Ugochukwu Amadi and Brady Breeze.
True freshman long snapper Karsten Battles was signed to replace Tanner Carew, who is headed to the NFL Scouting Combine after four flawless seasons snapping the ball for the Ducks.
“You want to make sure they understand they’re coming to work,” Cristobal said of integrating the 2018 class into the culture he’s trying to establish at Oregon. “This is a full-time situation when you’re a student-athlete at the Division I level.
“You don’t paint a false picture, you don’t create a false hope, you present opportunity.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @rgduckfootball . Email email@example.com .