SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Justin Herbert and a familiar cast are returning to Oregon in 2019.
Despite the optimism about the direction of the program, heightened with the NFL franchise quarterback prospect announcing he will exhaust his collegiate eligibility, there is a sense that changes are needed on offense.
Coach Mario Cristobal concurred with the thesis after the Ducks eked out a 7-6 victory over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl on Monday at Levi’s Stadium.
Oregon mustered only 203 yards of total offense, including 37 net rushing yards, with 11 first downs, 11 punts and a third-down efficiency of 14.3 percent (2-for-14).
“Every single year you have to,” Cristobal said of reevaluating the playbook. “If you don’t do that, I think you hurt yourself.”
During offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s first season as the play-caller, Oregon was one of three teams in the FBS to produce a 3,000-yard passer (Herbert), a 1,000-yard receiver (Dillon Mitchell) and a 1,000-yard running back (CJ Verdell).
Oregon averaged 34.8 points and 427.2 yards per game after getting stonewalled by the Spartans, save for Herbert’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell in the fourth quarter.
Cristobal noted that Nick Saban and the Alabama staff switched an uptempo spread attack after losing to Ohio State in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinals.
“Two days later, you’re on a plane to go visit the University of Houston and sit down with Tom Herman and talk about tempo and talk about getting 11 personnel and the RPO (run-pass option) world,” said Cristobal, who was a part of the Crimson Tide’s national championship team in 2015. “There’s certainly some things that we need to explore. And as our personnel continues to develop and as we acquire certain personnel as well, I think you’ll see us evolve more.
“Especially when you have a quarterback like Justin and some of the weapons we have coming back and some of the guys coming in.”
There will be a lot of of pressure on Arroyo, who is also the quarterbacks coach, to take advantage of Herbert’s rare skillset.
“At that position you can never stop, you really can’t,” Arroyo generalized when asked what Herbert needed to improve on before the 2020 NFL draft.
Developing more dependable options for Herbert to throw the ball to will be critical before the Ducks’ opener against Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Mitchell led the Pac-12 and set a single-season Oregon receiving record with 75 receptions for 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The team’s second-leading receiver was Jaylon Redd, who had 38 receptions for 433 yards and five touchdowns.
Verdell, who finished his redshirt freshman season with 1,018 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, was Herbert’s No. 3 target with 27 receptions for 315 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m going to approach it definitely a little differently,” Verdell said of his offseason. “Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t know much about everything. Having played my first season and knowing how everything is, I’m going to be more comfortable out there and show you some things.”
If Mitchell decides not to enter the NFL draft, Oregon will return all 11 starters on offense, including the 10 offensive linemen listed on the two-deep for the Redbox Bowl.
The Ducks will be given at least two weeks to rest their bodies before beginning the winter strength and conditioning program.
The touted recruiting class set to join the fray for fall camp includes wide receivers Mycah Pittman, Lance Wilhoite, Josh Delgado and JR Waters, as well as four-star all-purpose back Sean Dollars and Sheldon High tight end Patrick Herbert.
After finishing Cristobal’s first season as coach with a 9-4 record, the Herbert-led Ducks have made a New Year’s resolution to win the Pac-12.
“Before we got here, Oregon was good for a long, long time, and these guys got to see it,” Cristobal said. “The onus has been on us, has been on them, to rebuild it. I think when guys dig in their heels and draw a line in the sand and say, we’re going to get it done, it speaks volumes.
“There’s some teeth to it. It’s not just talk and tough-guy chatter. There’s legitimate meat to it. I think it’s paid big-time dividends.”