Mario Cristobal has some rebuilding to do with the Oregon football program.
The cost of having three head coaches in as many seasons included the loss of several high-profile recruits last winter and some player attrition that leaves the Ducks thin at certain positions entering the 2018 season.
The coaching staff will have to refortify the roster over a couple of recruiting cycles.
But Cristobal inherits a rare talent at the sport’s most important position in Justin Herbert.
The 6-foot-6, 231-pound quarterback from Eugene is already showing up on preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists and in 2019 mock NFL drafts.
“Over the years, it has always been proven that that position can be the ultimate game changer in a program,” Cristobal said. “We feel great about him. We feel great about the guys that are at that position behind him as well.”
The Willie Taggart era got off to a fast start as Oregon went 4-1 with a healthy Herbert running the “Gulf Coast” offense. After losing the rising star to a broken clavicle, the Ducks went 1-4 with true freshman Braxton Burmeister at quarterback.
The development of Burmeister and the addition of 6-5, 202-pound true freshman Tyler Shough were important storylines during the spring.
“I thought Braxton made a significant jump in not only managing the offense but making big plays,” Cristobal said. “He took a big step. Tyler Shough as well. Both those guys had a really good spring.”
With the NCAA implementing a new rule that allows players to participate in any four games in a season and still be allowed to redshirt, fans at Autzen Stadium may get a look at all three of Oregon’s scholarship signal-callers during the weak nonconference slate versus Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State.
“I have high expectations for myself, but it’s a new experience,” said Shough, who passed for 3,071 yards with 30 touchdowns and five interceptions during his senior season of high school in Chandler, Ariz. “I just want to execute the plays, do as much as I can with my teammates.”
As a sophomore, Herbert completed 66.5 percent of his passes last season for 1,750 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. Burmeister struggled in relief, completing 57.1 percent of his passes for 330 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions.
“One of the biggest things is adjusting to the game speed. I think that’s something every young guy has to go through. He’s done a great job,” Herbert said of Burmeister. “Even when we’re running seven-on-seven in the offseason, he’s doing a good job of kind of relaxing and taking things in.”
The Ducks defeated Utah 41-20 with Burmeister at quarterback but averaged 8.5 points during his starts in losses to Washington State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.
“It was tough. I felt I could handle it, but it was definitely a tough situation,” Burmeister said of being thrown into the Pac-12 fire after Herbert and senior backup Taylor Alie were both injured in the second half against California. “I’m grateful I got to learn and get better every game.”
Herbert returned and led Oregon to high-scoring romps over Arizona (48-28) and Oregon State (69-10) before throwing two of his interceptions during the 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Cristobal said the entire playbook will be open for Herbert in his second season playing for offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo.
“Justin continues to show that he can handle a lot,” Cristobal said. “He now has a tremendous feel for the run game, protections, being able to change plays, being able to understand disguised coverage.”
Two years ago, Herbert was an afterthought entering fall camp as a true freshman. Montana State graduate transfer Dakota Prukop won the starting job over Travis Jonsen and Jeff Lockie. Terry Wilson was a higher-ranked recruiting prospect than his classmate from Sheldon High.
Now Herbert, who earned first-team CoSIDA Academic All-America honors last year by carrying a 4.06 grade-point average in biology, is following Marcus Mariota’s footsteps on a path to greatness.
The significance of the story is not lost on Herbert’s new coach.
“He’s all about Oregon. You cut him open and he’s green and yellow inside, he bleeds it. That’s what makes his situation and our situation so special,” Cristobal said. “You can coach 20, 25 years, another 40 years and not have a local guy from right down the street, who lived and died for the Ducks since he was knee-high, end up going to the local school and having a chance to be one of the best players in the country. It sounds like an ESPN 30-for-30 one day.
“When you have something like that, you have the most important part of the structure you want to build.”
Spring rewind: Herbert passed for 126 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, but linebacker Kaulana Apelu returned his interception for a 100-yard touchdown. Burmeister was 7-for-12 passing for 64 yards and a touchdown. Shough finished 5-for-8 for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
Fall outlook: Herbert has a chance to lead the Ducks back to prominence and perhaps emerge as a first-round NFL draft pick, if he chooses to leave Oregon a year early. Burmeister will try to hold off Shough for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Walk-on Mike Irwin, a redshirt freshman from Lake Oswego, enters his second season in the program. Demetri Burch, who practiced at quarterback last season because of the injuries to Herbert and Alie, should be able to focus on wide receiver.
Projected depth chart: Justin Herbert, Tyler Shough, Braxton Burmeister, Mike Irwin, Demetri Burch.