Led by Justin Herbert and Troy Dye, UO is preseason favorite in North Division

Editor's note: The 11th in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.

Justin Herbert and Troy Dye were on the field when Oregon hit rock bottom.

The Ducks — two seasons removed from winning the Pac-12, producing a Heisman Trophy winner, winning the Rose Bowl and playing in the College Football Playoff title game — lost 70-21 to Washington on Oct. 8, 2016, at Autzen Stadium.

“Everybody knows what happened to me my freshman year when I played against them dudes,” Dye said when asked about the rivalry.

Jake Browning passed for 304 yards and accounted for eight touchdowns (six passing, two rushing), and Myles Gaskin added 197 rushing yards and a touchdown as the Huskies ended their 12-game losing streak in the series with extra style points.

Herbert, making his first career start, passed for 179 yards and an interception. The wide-eyed true freshman was also sacked three times.

Dye had two tackles for loss on an afternoon when Brady Hoke’s defense did very little tackling.

“I came here, and we weren’t a great football team. We were kind of a group of individuals that year,” Herbert said of the 4-8 finish in 2016. “I think over the past couple years we’ve done a really good job of coming together and being a team. I’m really excited for this year.”

Led by Herbert and Dye, two seniors who could have left for the NFL draft after the 9-4 finish in 2018, Oregon is the slight favorite in the North Division in the preseason Pac-12 media poll.

The Ducks and Huskies each received 17 first-place votes and Washington State received one first-place vote to win the division.

Oregon had an 11-9 edge in votes to win the Pac-12 championship game and one more overall point in the poll than Washington (190 to 189).

The Huskies, who must replace four-year starters Browning and Gaskin, won their second Pac-12 championship last season, despite losing 30-27 in overtime at Autzen.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Herbert said of the championship expectations returning to Oregon. “I think it’s a sign of all the hard work we put in this offseason, a lot of guys coming back, and I’m really looking forward to watching this team play.

“It’s a huge honor for sure, and we’re going to do everything we can to play good football this year.”

 

The Ducks’ resurgence is the result of finally having some stability after Mark Helfrich’s firing and Willie Taggart’s hasty departure for Florida State.

Mario Cristobal is entering his second season as head coach and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo is entering his second season calling the plays.

Oregon returns 17 starters — 10 on offense and seven on defense.

Herbert is auditioning new go-to receivers after Dillon Mitchell’s early departure for the NFL, and Dye is working with his third defensive coordinator in four years, but for the most part this fall camp is about fine-tuning for the Aug. 31 opener against Auburn.

“We all know it's an incredible opportunity anytime you have a chance to play one of the best teams in the country on a big stage,” Cristobal said of the Pac-12 vs. SEC matchup in Arlington, Texas. “But we also know that you can't skip step one, two and three, which is Oregon looking at Oregon in the mirror.”

There is a lot to like in that reflection.

Herbert will be in the mix with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa to be the first quarterback taken in the 2020 draft.

The 6-foot-6, 237-pound will be asked to elevate the passing game, whether that’s by utilizing dynamic new targets like Juwan Johnson and Mycah Pittman or rediscovering the chemistry with Johnny Johnson or Brenden Schooler.

“There's going to be some times this year where a guy like that is going to have to take over the ballgame,” Cristobal said of Herbert. “We've all seen it, and he's already done it a number of times, it's just the next natural part of his growth.”

All five starters return on the offensive line, led by preseason all-Pac-12 first team selections Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux.

The Ducks are loaded at tight end with seniors Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay and juniors Cam McCormick and Hunter Kampmoyer.

Despite all of that returning experience, Herbert is most familiar with a true freshman — Patrick Herbert.

“I had a chance to have the tight ends and the tackles together, and I coach those guys hard, demand a lot of them,” Cristobal said after Friday’s first practice of fall camp. “I wanted to see how (Patrick) responded my first chance to really get in there with him, and he responded great. He really did. That's his DNA, the family DNA we are all familiar with.

“So I’m expecting big things from Patrick, and we really think he's in the mix to play this year.”

The backfield is equally crowded with the return of productive sophomores CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio. Darrian Felix is finally healthy again and two speedy freshmen, Sean Dollars and Jayvaun Wilson, are also fighting for carries.

Oregon was fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing last season, averaging 179.4 yards per game. Cristobal noted that his offense doesn’t call designed runs for the quarterback like the old days when Marcus Mariota was breaking off long touchdowns.

“Our goal is to have the best running game in the conference year after year, wherever that lies,” Cristobal said. “Certainly it's something that's at the forefront of everything we do — running the football and stopping the run.”

The Ducks were fifth in the conference and 43rd nationally in rushing defense last season under Jim Leavitt, giving up an average of 144.3 yards per game.

New defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ Boise State unit was 20th (122.9 ypg).

The defensive line returns an intriguing mix of upperclassmen (Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu, Drayton Carlberg, Gary Baker, Gus Cumberlander) and new faces (Kayvon Thibodeaux, Keyon Ware-Hudson, Sua’ava Poti, Brandon Dorlus).

“They've worked their tail off and this is a tremendous opportunity for them now to see how they can stack up,” defensive line coach Joe Saleve’a said of his touted 2019 recruits joining his proven players in the competition for snaps. “The improvements and the gains that they've made, and with the same head coach now going into year two, those are the things that we're really excited about.”

Dye, an inside linebacker, has led the team in tackles the last three seasons. Sophomore Isaac Slade-Matautia will have to hold off several gifted players for the other starting spot.

Seniors La’Mar Winston and Bryson Young bring a wealth of experience at outside linebacker, where Miami transfer DJ Johnson, sophomore Adrian Jackson and freshmen Andrew Johnson and Mase Funa are also expected to have an impact.

“We have a lot of experience transitioning defenses, and I think we have done a great job this offseason doing so,” Dye said of learning Avalos’ schemes. “I think these next 19 days are going to be big for us in polishing things up and doing the little things coaches are adding here and there. I think guys are on the right path.”

Oregon returns starting cornerbacks in Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir. Sophomore Kahlef Hailassie and freshman Mykael Wright will also be on the field for a lot of plays.

Jevon Holland, Nick Pickett and Brady Breeze are the familiar faces and Steve Stephens, Trikweze Bridges and Jamal Hill are among the fresh faces at safety.

Cristobal said improving the kicking game will be one of the major points of emphasis during fall camp. The addition of 2019 recruiting class should improve the depth and talent on special teams.

The Oregon-Washington game (Oct. 19 in Seattle), and perhaps the North Division title, could come down to a field goal or even one point.

Herbert and Dye obviously want to finish their collegiate careers by leading the Ducks from the bottom all the way back up to the top of the Pac-12.

“Most of us have seen Oregon in their prime, whether it was the Marcus Mariotas, the Dennis Dixons, all those dudes,” Dye said. “High flying offenses, good defenses, playing in the Rose Bowl, playing in the Fiesta Bowl, playing in the national championship, playing in those big-time games, winning the Pac-12 title, stuff that you used to grow up dreaming of.

“I think we’re trying to reestablish that here because we have the talent, we have the coaching, we have the facilities. We’re just trying to put all the pieces together.”

OREGON DUCKS

Coach: Mario Cristobal, second year (9-5 at Oregon, 36-52 overall)

Key players: QB Justin Herbert, RB CJ Verdell, WR Juwan Johnson, LT Penei Sewell, DT Jordon Scott, LB Troy Dye

2018 record: 9-4 overall, 5-4 Pac-12

2019 projection: The Ducks are picked to win the North Division in the preseason Pac-12 media poll

Nonconference opponents: Auburn, Nevada, Montana

Full schedule: Aug. 31 vs. Auburn (Arlington, Texas, 4:30 p.m., ABC), Sept. 7 vs. Nevada (4:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), Sept. 14 vs. Montana (7:45 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), Sept. 21 at Stanford (TBA), Oct. 5 vs. California (TBA), Oct. 11 vs. Colorado (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1), Oct. 19 at Washington (TBA), Oct. 26 vs. Washington State (TBA), Nov. 2 at USC (TBA), Nov. 16 vs. Arizona (TBA), Nov. 23 at Arizona State (TBA), Nov. 30 vs. Oregon State (TBA)

Monday’s preview: Utah