It’s almost time to fill out NCAA March Madness brackets.
Mario Cristobal is more interested in starting the process of updating the Oregon football depth chart.
The Ducks, coming off a 12-2 finish with a Pac-12 championship and final ranking of No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, begin spring practice on Thursday with an eye on the 2020 season.
“Regardless of how good or bad you’ve done the previous year, you always want to improve,” Cristobal noted at a signing day news conference last month.
A look at five storylines to follow leading in to the April 18 spring game:
Meshing new OC and QB
Justin Herbert’s eventful four-season stint as Oregon’s starting quarterback spanned three head coaches, a 4-8 finish and his memorable touchdown runs for the Rose Bowl trophy.
Four candidates will compete to replace the NFL-bound Herbert, who finished his collegiate career with 10,541 yards passing, 95 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Shough is the favorite after serving as Herbert’s backup in 2019.
“It’s obviously been great to learn from him and all these coaches and my teammates,” Shough said leading into the Ducks’ 28-27 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. “I just prepare myself for each game. That’s been my goal is just to stay ready and get better.”
Redshirt freshman Cale Millen and true freshmen Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford all get to start with a clean slate provided by new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
The former Mississippi State head coach has replaced Marcus Arroyo, who is now UNLV’s head coach.
“I met with all four guys, watched what Tyler has done on tape last year, went back and looked at high school tape of the other guys,” Moorhead said when asked about how the talent in the program fits his tempo offense. “It’s a personnel-driven game. It’s not what the coaches know, it’s what the players can execute.
“It’s really going to be based on what we can do as a team and what we’re efficient at. You try to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.”
Four new O-line starters alongside Sewell
Oregon has the best offensive lineman in the country with the return of junior left tackle Penei Sewell, the program’s first Outland Trophy winner.
Cristobal has recruited a list of touted offensive line prospects during the last three cycles and will need four of them to replace graduated starters Calvin Throckmorton (right tackle), Dallas Warmack/Brady Aiello (right guards), Jake Hanson (center) and Shane Lemieux (left guard).
Alex Forsyth, Steven Jones, Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu and Ryan Walk are among the players that have been patiently waiting in the wings.
“I didn’t play as much as I wanted to this year, but that comes with having such a veteran O-line for the past three years,” Forsyth said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything because they’ve taught me a lot of stuff, specifically how to prepare for a game.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience learning behind them.”
What is Noah’s spring story arc?
Eight members of the 2020 recruiting class, including five-star linebacker Noah Sewell, enrolled early to participate in the strength program and spring practice.
“Little bro coming,” Penei Sewell said of his talented sibling joining the program. “We about to do our thing, have some fun. It’s going to be a good time. I can’t wait.”
Sewell, an unstoppable force at running back in high school, is listed as an inside linebacker. Another five-star recruit at the position, Justin Flowe, will arrive for the spring term.
Isaac Slade-Matautia is back after a breakout sophomore season. Seniors Sampson Niu and Dru Mathis and sophomores MJ Cunningham, Ge’Mon Eaford and Andrew Johnson will also compete for playing time.
With three starters returning on the defensive line and a loaded secondary, replacing Troy Dye in the heart of the defense will be at the top of coordinator Andy Avalos’ to-do list.
Butterfield, defensive backs JJ Greenfield and Bennett Williams, defensive lineman Jake Shipley and Bradyn Swinson, and offensive lineman TJ Bass and Jonathan Denis are the other newcomers joining the Ducks for spring practice.
“It’s hard to match that opportunity,” Cristobal said. “So we’re excited about them.”
At the NFL Scouting Combine last week in Indianapolis, Herbert predicted his brother, Patrick Herbert, will be auditioning for coaches and general managers in a few years.
The younger Herbert, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound redshirt freshman, should have a more prominent role at tight end in 2020.
Injury-prone senior Cam McCormick is the projected starter as the Ducks prepare to replace Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay.
Sophomore Spencer Webb helped make up for some of the lost production in the passing game when Breeland went down with a knee injury last season, finishing with 18 receptions for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior Hunter Kampmoyer, a former defensive lineman, also returns.
And 6-5, 272-pound junior DJ Johnson has moved from defensive end to tight end.
Just for kicks
One of the most consistent players on last year’s team was punter Blake Maimone, who averaged 44.02 yards on 61 attempts. The senior had 17 punts of 50 or more yards and 17 punts placed inside the 20-yard line.
Sophomore Tom Snee, an Australian import, has big cleats to fill in replacing Maimone.
The competition at placekicker will also be important after an up-and-down freshman season for Camden Lewis, who made a game-winning field goal against Washington State but missed four chip shots in the 20- to 29-yard range.
Sophomore walk-ons Henry Katleman and Taylor Koth will have an opportunity to push Lewis.
The Ducks return two of the most dynamic kick returners in the Pac-12 in Jevon Holland (averaged 15.2 yards on punt returns) and Mykael Wright (averaged 38.8 yards with two touchdowns on kickoff returns).
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email questions to email@example.com. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.