Spring football games are often a taffy pull, a put-on game culminating 15 practices in preparation for the coming fall season.
Oregon traditionally has had fairly competitive scrimmages and Saturday's was no exception, a 20-13 win by Mighty Oregon (starting quarterback Justin Herbert’s team) over the Fighting Ducks (backup quarterback Tyler Shough’s team) before 35,100 enthusiastic fans in Autzen Stadium.
The crowd included a large group of high school recruits who had to be impressed with the show, the end of a huge recruiting weekend for coach Mario Cristobal. Oregon continues to impress with the quality of athletes they are talking into playing ball for the Ducks.
Most of the fans came to see the new players, many of them nationally-touted recruits who have come to Eugene to solve last year’s problems and fill in for departed graduates. Many of them showed good things to come in a contest that was not marked by any apparent serious injuries.
The Ducks threw the ball around much more than they normally do, and wide receivers had plenty of opportunities to shine. Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson showed he could make the fans forget the loss of Dillon Mitchell and freshmen Mycah Pittman and Josh Delgado have the tools and speed to make contributions and push veterans Johnny Johnson, Brendon Schooler and Jaylon Redd.
Juwan Johnson, at 6-foot-4, has height, runs excellent routes and is sure handed in making physical catches in a crowd, a pleasant improvement in a receiver corps that has taken plenty of (justifiable) criticism the past two seasons.
Herbert at quarterback, had for him, an average outing, completing 17–of-32 passes for 219 yards and two scores, including a six-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson that, according to seasoned eyes in the press box, was out of bounds. Herbert was shaky on long balls down the sidelines, throwing three out of bounds, a problem he has demonstrated periodically the past two seasons.
Where he does stand out is throwing sideline patterns, and he hit on several during the course of the game. His footwork and arm strength is very obvious on these throws, extremely difficult for the run-of-the-mill quarterback. He still shows the need for improvement for body position and footwork in making throws on the run. He often releases the ball on a weak pass across his body with his shoulders facing the sideline, especially to his right.
Fans were eager to see if backup quarterback Tyler Shough was as good as advertised and he was, completing 18-of-31 passes for 178 yards. He showed poise, elusiveness and quickness under pressure and had no problems looking as though he was in complete charge of the offensive unit when he was in the game. Compared to the past two seasons, it is apparent a skilled quarterback is in the wings waiting for a chance or situation to occur to take over for Herbert.
The last two quarters were played with running time on the scoreboard clock, although Cristobal had it stopped on incompletions or out of bounds with Herbert running the Mighty Oregon team in the last minutes of the fourth quarter. It was interesting to see that third-team quarterback Cale Millen was not given any reps as Herbert was moping up, but Cristobal indicated that Millen was banged up and not ready to play.
Herbert’s brother, freshman Patrick, played tight end, caught a pass and looked as though he could be a contender once he gets bigger and stronger. The position looks to be improved, largely because the rest of the tight ends are healthy for a change.
The running back position may be the weakest element of the offense. C.J. Verdell caught a short pass from Herbert in the first quarter and sprinted 64 yards, looking a bit quicker than he did last season. Other than that burst, there were no plays that any running back showed breakaway speed.
Compared to the speed of past running backs such as Kenyon Barner, LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas, Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin, Cristobal’s run offense lacks the home run hitter that might make the run offense more of a threat than what it is at present.
Herbert has been effective running the option in the past and the feeling is that if the Ducks don’t have that threat in their arsenal, they lack the complete run game to pressure a defense.
Traditionally, there are questions regarding exposing the quarterback to heavy hits running the option, but the quarterback usually sees who’s coming to tackle him and can protect himself, as long as he doesn’t try to be a hero and run over the defender. Quarterbacks take a much more physical, and dangerous, pounding from pass rushers who hit them from the blind side than running the option.
Defensively, freshman corner Mykael Wright made a nice interception on a long ball in the end zone and showed he may eventually push junior starters Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir. Overall, the secondary looks improved, particularly with the big-play capabilities of safety Jevon Holland, who shined in the RedBox Bowl win over Michigan State.
The kicking game had questions coming into this exercise and they still remain. Freshman all-American Camden Lewis kicked two field goals, but was short on kickoffs while Zack Emerson had two field goals and was also short kicking off. You get the feeling that the power leg the Ducks have been missing the past season will still be an issue going into the coming season.
The defensive line seemed to wear down over the course of the game, largely due to the lack of depth going in; although the players were playing for both sides during the game, it still could be an issue going against tempo offenses in the fall. New defensive coordinator Andy Avalos has put an attack element into the defense’s repertoire, but did not show any more looks than the Ducks showed the last four games of last season, according to Cristobal.
The Duck head man emphasized that his team was not going to show anything new because of the scouting that opponents will do in preparation for their first showdown against Auburn in the fall.
The Ducks have made a lot of improvement physically in the talent department, but still don’t have the overall prowess and depth to step on the field and make their opponents shake in their boots. They will still have to depend on conditioning and big plays to offset a schedule that is aversive; with road games against Auburn, Washington, Stanford and USC, and a woeful record of only four wins in the past three years away from Autzen Stadium.
Right now, the prediction is that the Ducks will fly as high as Herbert is allowed to lead them. Their top competitors in the North Division of the Pac-12 are Stanford and Washington, both of whom they have to play on the road. The third nemesis is Washington State, an 11-win team last year with a four-year winning streak against Oregon. And Cal’s Bears can’t be overlooked, either.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.