UO enters the 2019 season ranked No. 13 in the coaches poll
The energy and optimism is palpable inside the hallways and locker room of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.
Oregon returns a potential NFL franchise quarterback, 17 starters and adds the highest ranked recruiting class in school history.
Outside expectations are also high for the Ducks, who are ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches poll released Thursday.
Coming off a 9-4 overall finish to Mario Cristobal’s first season as coach, Oregon begins fall camp Friday morning on the short list of teams expected to contend for the Pac-12 championship.
Justin Herbert says there’s nothing wrong with embracing the College Football Playoff chase, as long as the talented team puts in the work necessary to be a legitimate contender.
“I think that's something that coach Cristobal has done a great job with,” Herbert said. “He’s addressed all the hype, and we've acknowledged it, but we're not going to let it take away from our focus.
“We’re worried about us, and that's what we're focusing on.”
So what should Oregon be concerned about as it prepares for the high-profile opener against No. 16 Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium (4:30 p.m., ABC)?
Figuring out how to play better away from Autzen Stadium will be at the top of the list.
In addition to facing an SEC team with arguably the nation’s best defensive line in Arlington, Texas, Oregon plays conference road games at No. 23 Stanford (Sept. 21), No. 12 Washington (Oct. 19), USC and Arizona State.
The Ducks were dreadful during losses at Washington State, Arizona and Utah last season before blowing out Oregon State in Corvallis and managing to eke out a an ugly 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.
“The past couple years, Oregon has not been a great road team,” Herbert noted. The Ducks are 3-7 in road games and 1-1 in bowls over the last two seasons. “So that's something that we’ve focused on and something that we’d like to fix.
“But I think those are big opportunities, great tests for us. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The most critical position battle during fall camp is clearly at the wide receiver positions.
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Herbert passed for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior but only completed 59.4 percent of his attempts as the Ducks dropped 52 attempts.
The Pac-12’s leading receiver in 2018, Dillon Mitchell, left for the NFL after having 75 receptions for 1,184 yards and touchdowns, including the game-winning grab against Michigan State.
Jaylon Redd (433 yards, five touchdowns), Brenden Schooler (203 yards, one touchdown) and Johnny Johnson (215 yards, four touchdowns) have experience but were underwhelming in Mitchell’s shadow.
Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson (6-4) and redshirt freshman Bryan Addison (6-5) have the size to be breakout stars. The touted 2019 recruiting class includes receivers Mycah Pittman, Josh Delgado, JR Waters and Lance Wilhoite.
“Every day is going to be a competition for me. It’s a revolving door for me,” new wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight said during spring practice. “If I see some things I don’t like, next guy.”
Oregon returns 10 starters on offense, including the familiar first-string line of Penei Sewell (left tackle), Shane Lemieux (left guard), Jake Hanson (center), Dallas Warmack (right guard) and Calvin Throckmorton (right tackle).
At Pac-12 media day, Cristobal mentioned Brady Aiello, Steven Jones and Alex Forsyth as players who could push the incumbents for starting spots.
A trio of sophomore running backs — CJ Verdell (1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns), Travis Dye (739 yards, four touchdowns) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (36 yards, seven touchdowns) — will compete for carries with a healthy Darrian Felix and true freshmen Sean Dollars and Jayvaun Wilson.
Herbert also expects to benefit from having Marcus Arroyo calling the plays for the second consecutive season.
“It's really huge to have the same offensive coordinator, the same coach for a couple years in a row,” said Herbert, who had Matt Lubick (2016) and Willie Taggart (2017) as play-callers early in his career. “Going into doing a new year with new offensive stuff, you have to get everyone dialed up to speed. And with this year, we're able to kind of teach these young guys that this is the way we do the things. It's not a whole lot of time spent learning a new offense, it's teaching.
“We keep adding more and more film each year. We've got more plays going in.”
The other critical storyline for the Ducks during camp is Andy Avalos replacing Jim Leavitt.
The new defensive coordinator, whose Boise State unit came out on top of Herbert and Co. in the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl, inherits seven returning starters and welcomes some blue-chip prospects.
Senior linebacker Troy Dye, the team’s top tackler the past three seasons, is the returning headliner.
Five-star defensive end prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux and his classmates join an experienced defensive line that returns Jordon Scott, Drayton Carlberg, Austin Faoliu, Gus Cumberlander and Gary Baker.
“Our players are just excited to get the opportunity to get into this fall camp as a complete family now, because before we felt like we we hadn't had the full alignment of bodies,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said of the improved depth. “I think with the leadership and the veterans that have been here, now seeing the infusion of the young class here, together it's going to be exciting.”
Oregon has two solid returning cornerbacks in Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir. Sophomore Kahlef Hailassie and freshman Mykael Wright will be hard to keep off the field.
Replacing the leadership of safety Ugo Amadi, now making big plays at the Seattle Seahawks training camp, will be important for the secondary entering the season.
“Ugo was a great player, it’s going to be hard to replace him, but I really think we have the talent here to do it,” safties coach Keith Heyward said. “We’re not going to force that on anybody else.”
Herbert and Dye, the two faces of the program that went through the dark final days of the Mark Helfrich era and the heartbreak of Taggart’s abrupt departure together, are looking forward to the opportunity to get the program back in the national spotlight.
“We had a bunch of older guys last year like Ugo, Justin Hollins, Jalen (Jelks), so guys stepped up and showed us the way,” Herbert said. “So I think Troy and I have done a good job of kind of taking it and moving on with it.”