Shane Lemieux squeezed into a bus seat wearing his football uniform and shoulder pads for the two-hour drive to Hillsboro Stadium on Saturday.
The Oregon offensive lineman and his teammates walked into a small, concrete locker room more often used by high school football teams to change for the ride home following an open practice and scrimmage.
“Coming to places like this, you sit on the bus and you are uncomfortable,” the 6-foot-4, 317-pound Lemieux said. “We had fans, but it is out of our comfort level coming up here so it made it seem like an away game.”
That was one of the reasons coach Mario Cristobal sent the Ducks north for one of their 15 spring practices.
“One of the things we wanted to emphasize was being able to change the setting, get on the road so to speak,” Cristobal said. “Even though we are only two hours away, it is a chance and a different field.”
Cristobal had similar sentiments when he sent the Ducks to practice at Nike headquarters in Beaverton in the fall. Oregon is 4-12 on the road in the past three seasons, plus a 1-1 mark in bowl games.
“Coach put an emphasis on the fact that during the past three years we have had a bad away record,” Lemieux said. “My first year we lost every road game but Utah and the second year we only won at Wyoming. Last year, we won three road games so the trend is getting better and moving upward.”
Oregon opens next season against Auburn in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 31 and plays at Pac-12 North contenders Stanford and Washington as well as USC and Arizona State from the South.
After playing three overmatched nonconference opponents last season, having Auburn waiting in less than five months has impacted spring practice for the Ducks.
“Spring ball is overlooked at a lot of places, but we take it serious here,” Lemieux said. “This is like fall camp for us. Every day is a day to work and off days are to recover and get in the film room.”
Oregon returns to the field Thursday with five practices remaining before the spring game April 20.
“We made it a point of emphasis that this is camp mentality, a physical and strong step that we will never skip,” Cristobal said. “At Oregon, spring ball means something important for the development of our program. Football comes in phases and we are in the spring football phase. When this is over we go to the post-spring football strength and conditioning program, then the summer strength and conditioning phase and then pre-camp phase and then we go to camp and play ball.”
New look on defense
Senior linebacker Troy Dye said new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos is bringing a defense with “more moving pieces up front."
“Last year, we had a 3-4 basic stout defense, old-school,” said Dye, who has led the Ducks in tackles during each of the past three seasons. “This year we are slanting more, getting a little bit across guys’ faces and letting the ‘backers and defensive backs play off of it.”
Avalos described the purpose for more movement from his unit.
“Instead of the defense always being the ones reacting to the offense, we want to have them react to us,” Avalos said. “There might be some pre-snap movement and post-snap or a combination of both. We are trying to make the offense react off us so we can play on the attack as well.”
Players on both sides of the ball acknowledged that the defense got the better of Saturday’s scrimmage.
“The offense doesn’t know what we are going to bring so it is like a new game every practice,” Dye said. “It is a blast to bring pressure, they don’t know it is coming yet and can’t cheat on it.”
Oregon added a couple of new wide receivers last week when graduate transfer Juwan Johnson and freshman Mycah Pittman arrived for the final three weeks of spring ball.
“They have adapted very well,” UO quarterback Justin Herbert said. “Both guys came in and we got them dialed in real quickly. They know what they are doing. They make some errors here and there, but those are fixable and they are athletic guys.”
Herbert also welcomed his brother Patrick, a freshman tight end.
“He’s looking a little skinny, but we will get him some time in the weight room and he will be ready,” the quarterback said.