The four remaining members of Oregon’s 2014 recruiting class have experienced just about everything during their journey with the Ducks.
Running back Tony Brooks-James, outside linebacker Justin Hollins, defensive end Jalen Jelks and safety Mattrell McGraw — who will play their final home game when the Ducks face Arizona State on Saturday night at Autzen Stadium (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) — are the last remaining link to the glory days.
These fifth-year seniors have dealt with adversity since sharing a locker room with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota as part of the team that won the Pac-12, crushed Florida State in the Rose Bowl and appeared in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game.
They watched Mark Helfrich get the pink slip after a 4-8 finish, Willie Taggart scurry off to greener pastures after a one-and-done season in Eugene and Mario Cristobal emerge from a dark December with a promotion.
Brooks-James has played for four coaches with the offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator title (Scott Frost, Matt Lubick, Cristobal and Marcus Arroyo) and three position coaches (Gary Campbell, Donte Pimpleton and Jim Mastro).
Hollins and Jelks bounced between outside linebacker and defensive end in Don Pellum’s 3-4, Brady Hoke’s 4-3 and Jim Leavitt’s 3-4. McGraw played three years for longtime secondary coach John Neal and the last two years for safeties coach Keith Hayward.
“A lot of us haven’t even stuck around to figure out the last portion of it,” Jelks said. “For me to be here still and still battling out is kind of crazy. Now that I’m at the end of the road, it’s kind of eerie, just because I’ve never really thought I’d get to this point.
“Now that I’m here, it’s kind of emotional. I’ve been here for a while, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, so I’m thankful for everything this university has done for me.”
The 2018 team falls somewhere in between the extreme highs of 2014 and the chaos of losing Helfrich and Taggart in back-to-back seasons.
The Ducks (6-4, 3-4) will be playing in a bowl game. But after last week’s loss at Utah, which was without its starting quarterback and star running back, they were officially eliminated from the North Division race.
Oregon can clinch a winning record for Cristobal in his first season, and perhaps spoil one of the Pac-12’s best story lines: Herm Edwards’ surprising run to the conference championship game.
The Sun Devils (6-4, 4-3) were picked to finish last in the South but can clinch the division title with wins over Oregon and Arizona.
“He certainly has had a great career, an impactful career,” Cristobal said of Edwards, the affable former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach, who returned to the sideline after spending a decade as an ESPN NFL analyst. “I think it’s great for the conference because he brings a lot of credibility to the conference. He’s a tremendous professional and he’s done a really good job this year.”
Justin Herbert has passed for 2,621 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions this season, and Arizona State counterpart Manny Wilkins has passed for 2,449 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Herbert passed for 281 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a touchdown during the Ducks’ 37-35 loss in Tempe last season. Wilkins passed for 347 yards and a touchdown and rushed for two touchdowns.
“When you can storm the castle, you have a chance. When you can’t storm the castle, then it’s going to be a long day," Edwards said. "We are going to have to find a way to get to (Herbert), and it's going to be hard because they are a good football team.”
If either quarterback has time to throw, it will be a long night for the opposing secondary. Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell is the Pac-12’s leading receiver (1,002 yards), and Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry is a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
“I’m not really disappointed,” Mitchell said of not making the final cut for the Biletnikoff, which is given to the nation’s top receiver. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are still on there that I respect and know they’re great players. Hopefully one of the guys out of the Pac-12 wins, just because I think the Pac-12 Conference is the best conference. I was a little disappointed. I’ll keep working though.”
Harry, who has 928 yards and nine touchdowns this season, is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick.
“You can see why,” Cristobal said. Harry had seven receptions for 170 yards and a touchdown against Oregon in 2017. “Last year he certainly made some monster plays against us, so guys have to be aware of it.”
The Ducks allowed Utah backup Armand Shyne to rush for 175 yards. Arizona State's Eno Benjamin leads the Pac-12 and ranks fourth nationally averaging 129.5 yards per game.
Cristobal is still searching for a consistent feature back with Brooks-James and his young teammates struggling this season to replace four-year starter Royce Freeman. Oregon ranks 62nd nationally in rushing offense (171.6 ypg).
“I am an old-fashioned coach,” Edwards said. “If you run the ball, you become a tough football team. I have no problem with that."