Mario Cristobal wants all of his assistants and players on the same page as Oregon attempts to climb back into Pac-12 championship contention in 2019.
“What are we doing? How are we doing it? And why are we doing it that way?” Cristobal said of the fundamental lesson he took away from playing for Jimmy Johnson at Miami and working as an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama. “Every single person in the organization has to know those things.”
After finishing 9-4 overall and 5-4 in Pac-12 play (fourth in the North Division) during Cristobal’s first season as coach, the Ducks begin spring football practice Saturday with 17 returning starters, including senior quarterback Justin Herbert, and three new assistants, including defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.
Here are five key storylines to follow as the team spreads out 14 practices ahead of the spring game April 20 at Autzen Stadium.
Pressure on Arroyo
Oregon averaged a respectable but not spectacular 34.8 points (25th) and 427.2 yards (41st) per game last season during offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s first fall calling the plays.
But the Ducks only averaged 20.0 points and 334.3 yards in road losses to Washington State, Arizona and Utah. Oregon also had the same amount of punts (11) as first downs during the 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
With Herbert deciding to exhaust his collegiate eligibility, Arroyo needs to take advantage of having a projected NFL franchise quarterback playing behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines.
CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who combined for 1,757 yards and 14 touchdowns as freshmen, did a nice job of replacing four-year starter Royce Freeman.
Cristobal will demand that Arroyo keep the offense balanced, but this year the boss is also looking more efficiency in the passing game and on third down, more explosive plays and quicker tempo.
Avalos looking for “studs”
Cristobal pushed the start of spring practice back a couple of days to give Avalos some more time to prepare the players for his defense.
The Ducks must replace defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins, the NFL-bound pass rushing duo that was highly productive in Jim Leavitt’s scheme.
Avalos, who was Boise State’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons before being lured away from his alma mater to replace Leavitt, will coach the “stud” position, his defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid.
Cristobal is looking for improved chemistry on the coaching staff as Avalos and new linebackers coach Ken Wilson mesh with veteran defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, safties coach Keith Heyward and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams.
Troy Dye, the team’s leading tackler the past three seasons, headlines a talented unit. Position battles to keep an eye on are at the other inside linebacker spot, where Kaulana Apelu started when healthy, and the competition to fill Ugo Amadi’s spot at safety and punt returner.
The search for a No. 1 WR
The Ducks would have returned all 11 starters on offense had Dillon Mitchell decided to stick around for his senior season. But after leading the Pac-12 with 1,184 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns, Herbert’s go-to-guy declared for the NFL draft.
Jovon Bouknight, who replaces Michael Johnson Jr. (left for Mississippi State) as the wide receivers coach, inherits three players with starting experience — Jaylon Redd (433 yards, five touchdowns), Johnny Johnson (215 yards, four touchdowns) and Brenden Schooler (203 yards, one touchdown).
Redshirt freshman Bryan Addison, the touted 6-foot-5 prospect who joined the team last August after being released from his commitment to UCLA by Chip Kelly, has the talent to emerge as a star with Herbert.
Oregon’s depth at tight end, where a healthy Cam McCormick rejoins Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay at the top of the depth chart, should also help replace the production of Mitchell.
Historic class here to help
The highest ranked recruiting class Oregon has signed in the modern era is not just expected to wait its turn behind the veteran starters.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, ESPN’s No. 1 overall prospect in the 2019 cycle, is one of five members of the class already on campus. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound true freshman will start out on the defensive line and will likely get a look at the “stud” position this spring.
Wide receiver Josh Delgado and linebackers Dru Mathis and Ge’Mon Eaford will also get a head start on the competition at their respective positions.
Cristobal said all of the above are in the mix for playing time in 2019.
Tight end Patrick Herbert, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, cornerback Mykael Wright and placekicker Camden Lewis will enroll for the spring term and participate in the final 10 practices.
Finding a reliable QB backup
Braxton Burmeister has transferred to Virginia Tech after struggling in relief of an injured Herbert the past two seasons. The dual-threat quarterback Willie Taggart flipped from Arizona in 2017 completed 56.3 percent of his passes for 373 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions at Oregon.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Shough and true freshman Cale Millen will compete to replace Burmeister as Herbert’s backup. Walk-on Bradley Yaffe is the only other quarterback on the roster.
Shough played in three games last season but did not attempt a pass. Millen, the son of former Washington Husky and NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, is enrolled at Oregon but will be limited during the first week of practice due to injury.