Mario Cristobal’s plate is still full six months into his new job.
“It hasn’t stopped,” Oregon’s first-year coach said during a recent interview.
Cristobal, seated behind his desk in a corner office atop the plush Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, holds up his monthly planner, which is color-coded with reminders about administrative meetings, coaching responsibilities, fundraising appearances, recruiting visits, and so on.
“If it’s green, yellow or red, it means you’re working,” Cristobal notes.
Every day is highlighted with some combination of these colors, no white space in sight.
It has been this way since December when, during a dizzying 12-day span, Cristobal was promoted to replace Willie Taggart, coached the Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl and salvaged a recruiting class at the end of the early signing period.
Cristobal has also retained key assistants, hired a handful of new coaches to fill out the staff, implemented Alabama’s strength and conditioning program, coached spring practice and gotten off to a fast start on next year’s recruiting class.
Suddenly, the season opener is only 80 days away.
“Words cannot explain,” Cristobal said of his level of anticipation for the Sept. 1 kickoff against Bowling Green at Autzen Stadium. “Anything that explains it is the understatement of the year. That’s where we’re at in terms of our enthusiasm and excitement for the year.”
There should be much for Oregon fans shout about.
Justin Herbert, a potential Heisman Trophy contender and first-round NFL draft prospect, returns to play quarterback behind a deep and experienced offensive line.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has a front seven with the size and speed to compete against high-end Pac-12 offenses and a talented group of defensive backs the coaches are buzzing about.
The Ducks have an extremely favorable schedule with four home games to begin the season — three nonconference cupcakes ahead of the conference opener on Sept. 22 against Stanford. Pac-12 favorite Washington and Chip Kelly-coached UCLA also visit Eugene this fall.
But Cristobal still has a lot of green, yellow and red days ahead of him before the program is built to compete for championships on a consistent basis.
Oregon returns 52 scholarship players from the Las Vegas Bowl roster.
The team loses 18 seniors — including starters Tyrell Crosby (left tackle), Royce Freeman (running back), Charles Nelson (wide receiver), Henry Mondeaux (defensive end), Jimmie Swain (linebacker), Tyree Robinson (safety) and Arrion Springs (cornerback) — from last year’s squad, which finished 7-6 after the disappointing postseason loss to Boise State.
“We have to continue to upgrade the roster, which of course revolves around recruiting,” Cristobal said. “We have to evolve in our systems. They cannot stay the same. We’ve seen some improvements in some areas, and in other areas we probably have to improve much more.”
There was some minor attrition after the season. Wide receiver Alex Ofodile and cornerback Jihree Stewart transferred.
Cristobal dismissed Fotu Leiato, a projected starter on Leavitt’s defense, from the program after spring practice. The senior linebacker was arrested on April 25 for allegedly removing a parking boot from a vehicle and also booked on a warrant for failing to appear in Eugene Municipal Court earlier to face a second-degree criminal trespass charge.
“You never want it to happen, but at the same time you can’t compromise the development as it relates to an organization that is responsible for 200-plus people. You can’t,” said Cristobal, who was previously a head coach at Florida International before working for Nick Saban at Alabama. “You do what you can to help someone get an opportunity somewhere else. There is a business aspect to this, which really revolves around their development, developing a standard by which we operate and which we uphold at any and all costs. It’s part of it.
“I’ve learned before when you sit in this chair those are the decisions that come with it. They are never happy ones, but they are necessary ones.”
Two of the six true freshmen from the 2018 recruiting class who enrolled early to participate in spring practice already left the flock. Running back Jamal Elliott is transferring, and wide receiver Jalen Hall, who is still listed on the roster, returned home after one practice.
Junior college defensive back transfer Haki Woods is eligible to help the Ducks immediately, but Miami defensive line transfer D.J. Johnson will have to be granted a waiver by the NCAA to avoid sitting out the 2018 season.
Even if Hall returns to campus with the rest of the incoming freshmen, and if all four expected graduate transfers (Alabama offensive lineman Dallas Warmack, South Florida tight end Kano Dillon, UNLV cornerback Tim Hough and Wake Forest receiver Tabari Hines) are admitted to Oregon, the program would still be about six scholarship players shy of the limit of 85.
“It’s expected when you’re a part of a rebuild situation, depth is usually one of the issues that goes with that,” Cristobal said. “It can’t be all remedied right now. There’s a roster fix that requires two classes to fix from a numbers standpoint. We’re certainly on our way to doing that. But in the meantime it’s on us as coaches to develop our players. They’re working really hard, they have enough talent. They don’t have all the experience in the world, but we have to continue finding ways from a teaching standpoint, a walk-through standpoint, a practice standpoint, and then getting them to the point where they can be trusted.
“Then let them just go out there and let it eat, go out there and play football, play winning football for the Ducks.”
Oregon already has nine verbal commitments for the 2019 cycle, which is currently the top-ranked class in the Pac-12. The coaching staff appears to have regained the momentum on the recruiting trail that it had before Taggart was flipped by Florida State.
“It’s a whole different world because now you know not only the prospects but their parents and what they’re about,” Cristobal said. “You really build strong relationships. It’s what we do. And the only way you build relationships is if you’re real.
“We make it a point to be real or be gone. We don’t want guys around there that don’t live for it, don’t buy into it, don’t believe in it.”