The announced attendance for Oregon’s spring game Saturday at Autzen Stadium was 35,110.
That’s certainly an impressive turnout for a glorified practice, especially by Pac-12 standards.
Oregon State had a crowd of about 2,500 for its spring game at Reser Stadium. Chip Kelly didn’t do much to entertain the small gathering that showed up to watch UCLA’s hourlong scrimmage, which ended with the Blue beating the White, 3-0.
Mario Cristobal wants Oregon’s spring game to continue to evolve into an event that rivals the scene in Alabama (62,219) and Ohio State (61,102).
The Ducks once again used the energy created by fans inside Autzen Stadium to honor the military and impress a section filled with blue-chip recruits.
“We want to make the spring game a really big deal. We want to make this sort of the spring homecoming,” Cristobal said. “I want to meet as many former players as possible, and it doesn’t have to only be the great ones.”
The list of notable Ducks who returned to the flock included Pro Football Hall of Fame members Dan Fouts and Gary Zimmerman, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and current NFL draft hopefuls Jalen Jelks and Dillon Mitchell.
Saturday was also about showcasing a talented 2019 roster featuring quarterback Justin Herbert, who led Mighty Oregon to a 20-13 win over the Fighting Ducks.
Cristobal’s team returns 17 starters and has added a list of impressive newcomers, including Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson (6-yard touchdown reception) and true freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (12-yard sack).
“Now all these recruits are coming in and I’m on the other side of it,” Thibodeaux, ESPN’s No. 1 prospect in the 2019 class, noted. “I honestly feel like it’s the coaches that make it what it is. The fans have been great, but you go everywhere and there’s fans and a big stadium. They make you feel like family.
“If you look at a lot of guys, they’re loving the coaches. That’s essentially what you go to college for, to be around the people that are going to help you elevate your game. They’re doing it on and off the field.”
Five years after Mariota led the Ducks to the College Football Playoff championship game, it appears Herbert has enough pieces around him to at least get the program back in contention for the Pac-12 championship.
Johnson, along with true freshmen Mycah Pittman and Josh Delgado, have improved the competition and play-making ability at wide receiver. Cyrus Habibi-Likio adds more physicality to a productive running back rotation led by CJ Verdell and Travis Dye.
Starting tight end Cam McCormick is healthy again and fits right in alongside the decorated offensive line.
The coaching staff is looking forward to seeing how the leadership inside the locker room takes over during the three-month wait until fall camp begins.
“Now the culture really kicks in,” Cristobal said. “Because there is no coach here. The position coaches are on the road recruiting, so now you take over the football team and you’re the one that holds the guys to a high standard as it relates to class, doing things the right way, making sure the culture is never compromised, no matter what.”
First-year defensive coordinator Andy Avalos installed as much of his system as the hours would allow during spring practice.
Despite parting company with former coordinator Jim Leavitt, Oregon’s defense should take a step forward with the return of proven players up front (Austin Faoliu, Jordon Scott, Drayton Carlberg), at linebacker (Troy Dye, La’Mar Winston) and in the secondary (Thomas Graham, Deommodore Lenoir, Jevon Holland).
“This is honestly the most comfortable I’ve felt,” said senior defensive lineman Bryson Young, who started with the first-team unit. “The last few years we’ve had multiple defenses. I feel like it’s easier to learn for me. Getting reps from the ones helps a lot and gives me more confidence I can play like I play.”
Oregon will open the season against Auburn on Aug. 31 in Arlington, Texas. Cristobal’s former rivals drew a crowd of 41,489 for the Tigers’ spring game this year.
“You get 35,000 people in Autzen, it’s rocking,” said Cristobal, who was an assistant at Alabama before coming to Oregon. “I think it’s a great opportunity for people to see exactly what our community and our support system is here.
“People are crazy about the Ducks. They are.”