Arrion Springs

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Young DBs must develop

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Young DBs must develop

Oregon's promising 2017 season ended with a wild two weeks that saw Willie Taggart depart for Florida State, coach Mario Cristobal take over the program, recruits decommit left and right and then the Ducks fall flat during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, the 2018 season could see Oregon return to Pac-12 prominence. That is, if a lot of variables play out in the Ducks' favor. We will take a position-by-position look at the team to discuss what must happen in order for Oregon to rise again in 2018. 

Other position entries: QuarterbackRunning backsReceivers/Tight endsOffensive lineDefensive backs; LinebackersDefensive line.   

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Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: A young secondary develops.

Key losses: Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson completed their careers. 

Projected 2017 starters: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., So., (5-10, 189); cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, So., (5-11, 190); safety Ugochukwu Amadi, Sr., (5-9, 197); safety Brady Breeze, RSo., (6-0, 194).

Key backups: Nick Pickett, So., (6-1, 198); Mattrell McGraw, RSr., (5-10, 193); Billy Gibson, So., (6-1, 179). 

What we know: Graham played well enough as a freshman to indicate that he has true star power. Amadi is versatile enough to start at wither cornerback or safety. Breeze, Pickett and Lenoir showed flashes but mostly performed like the young players that they were. 

What we don't know:  Breeze and Pickett both had strong moments last year but injuries and inconsistent play prevented them from having a huge impact. At least one will be needed to elevate his game to start alongside Amadi, or, should he return to cornerback, both Pickett and Breeze could end up starting. 

How that would work out is a mystery, as would be the results of starting Lenoir opposite Graham, which would give the Ducks two very young starting cornerbacks in a strong passing conference. 

The Ducks could very well be better off with Amadi back at cornerback and rolling the dice on Breeze and Pickett at safety. Both are extremely athletic and have star potential. 

McGraw shouldn't be forgotten. He began last season as the starter but ended up as a backup. At the very least, he provides veteran leadership to a defensive backfield in desperate need of experience. 

What must happen for Oregon to contend:  Graham, Lenoir, Pickett and Breeze could very well make up the starting secondary in 2019 and 2020. But they will be desperately needed to perform at a high level in 2018 if the Duck are going to contend now. 

Having an inexperienced secondary in the Pac-12 is a recipe for disaster, as we all saw in 2015 when Springs (sophomore) and Amadi (freshman) both started at cornerback. 

Some help and depth could be on the way. Freshman four-star recruits, Verone McKinley II and junior college transfer Haki Woods could push for playing time. But they shouldn't be counted on to help create a contending-caliber secondary in their first season in the Pac-12. 

That will require rapid development of the four aforementioned defensive backs that could be a year away from truly blossoming as a group.  

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Troy Dye gets some help. 

Ducks' backs must outduel Bryce Love for UO to win at Stanford

Ducks' backs must outduel Bryce Love for UO to win at Stanford

Oregon's running game had better show up Saturday night at Stanford or this game will be over before Cardinal running back Bryce Love reaches the 175-yard mark. 

Forget about what happens at quarterback for the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12). Braxton Burmeister? Taylor Alie? Both? Doesn't matter at this point. Whatever Oregon gets from that position will be gravy and it's not as if Stanford's quarterbacks do much damage, either. 

What matters most for Oregon is that the offensive line doesn't let down the team again like last week during a 33-10 loss at home to No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0) by gaining just 132 yards. The linemen admitted their mistakes. So did their leader, co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal. UO coach Willie Taggart made it clear that the players around the quarterback position must play better in order for the Ducks to win and he was mostly talking about the offensive line. 

"Just our entire performance was frustrating," Cristobal said. 

After a week to lament, the offensive line will have a chance to redeem itself and replicate the 328-yard rushing performance the team put forth two week ago during a 45-24 win over California. When the line is humming, the running back trio of Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James usually dominates. They are one of the best trios in the nation. But even they can't get loose with no place to run. 

Stanford's defense isn't playing as its usual dominant self. The Cardinal rank ninth in the conference in rushing defense (182 yards per game) while Oregon is averaging 239.3, good enough for third right behind Stanford (260.5). 

So, there's no excuse for the Ducks not to get the job done in the running game. Not even the reality that the Cardinal could key on the run, as did WSU, knowing that sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert isn't at quarterback to burn it with the passing game. 

Stanford hasn't needed strong quarterback play to balance out the run game. The Cardinal is averaging 188.3 passing yards per game with Keller Chryst and K.J. Costello having split the duties. But, they haven't turned the ball over much with just two interceptions thrown, both by Chryst. 

The Cardinal relies heavily on Bryce Love who has rushed for 1,240 yards on the season. That's 46 percent of the Cardinal's offense. The scariest part is that the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Love doesn't require much running room in which to operate. 

“This kid can find the smallest hole and get through it," Taggart said. "And that’s a challenge for a lot of defenses.”

Oregon, on paper, appears equipped to handle Love. Or, at least not let him run wild. The Ducks rank second in the Pac-12 an 10th in the nation in in rushing defense allowing 93.7 yards per game. However, UO has faced the two worst rushing teams in the conference, WSU (82.7, 125th in the nation) and Cal (96.8, 122nd), and the ninth-ranked rushing team, Arizona State (129.4, 97th). Nebraska (148.5) ranks 79th in the nation and Wyoming sits at 118th (100.4). 

Furthermore, none of those teams has a running back like Love. And, none run the style of offense that Stanford does. Nebraska comes close but Stanford's power running game with multiple tight ends and a pounding fullback working in concert with a strong offense line is another animal. For Oregon to be successful against Love, the Ducks cannot blow pursuit angles or expect that someone closer to the ball will make the play. 

"Stack the box," UO senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. "Staaaack the box. Everybody just has to be ready to stop the run. Everybody has to contribute. It's not just going to be the front seven."

Said Taggart: "We've got to gang tackle. It's not going to be one guy bringing him down. "He can get stopped for two or three plays and the next thing you know he will break one for 60."

So figure that Love is going to do his thing. The quarterbacks for both teams will be pedestrian, although Oregon's should be helped by the return of sophomore receiver Dillon Mitchell (concussion) and potentially, senior slot receiver Charles Nelson (ankle). 

That leaves Oregon's running attack as the only reliable aspect of the team that could lead the Ducks to a win. 

That's not a bad situation to be in if the offensive line brings its A-game. 

Oregon at No. 23 Stanford

When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium. 

T.V.: FS1. 

Betting line: Stanford minus 10.5.

Records: Oregon (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12), Stanford (4-2, 3-1).

Last week: Stanford won 23-20 at Utah. Oregon lost 33-10 at home to No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-47, 4-2 at Oregon); Stanford's David Shaw (68-17).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. If Burmeister (or Alie) improves dramatically overnight the Ducks will have a strong chance of pulling off the upset. But only if UO's rushing attack is on point. 

Final pick: Stanford 37, Oregon, 27.  UO shows improvement on offense but not enough to combat Stanford's rushing attack led by Love. 

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

Amadi and Winston Jr. move into starting lineup

Amadi and Winston Jr. move into starting lineup

Oregon has made changes to its depth chart prior to this week's game at Wyoming. 

At cornerback, junior Ugochukwu Amadi has moved into the starting lineup opposite freshman Thomas Graham Jr. Last week's depth chart leading up to Oregon's 42-35 home win over Nebraska on Saturday listed Graham and Amadi as co-starters with an "Or" between their names. Graham started opposite senior Arrion Springs. 

Graham, named the player of the game, had seven tackles and two interceptions. Amadi clinched the game with an interception late in the fourth quarter. Now both are clear starters but expect Springs to still see plenty of action.

The once tied battle for the nose guard spot between freshmen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu now has the latter listed as the clear starter. Faoliu actually started both of the team's first two games but rotated with Scott. We shall see how this slight change in the depth chart impacts the rotation at the nose position. 

Speaking of "Or" situations, there are none listed on the current depth chart. However, some backup positions remained slashed ("/") between second-team and third team players.  

Junior inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu is now listed as the clear starter over senior A..J. Hotchkins. And, sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr. has shed the "Or" between himself and junior Fotu T. Leiato II to become the clear starter at the outside linebacker/Duck position. 

Entering last week, freshman safety Nick Pickett was listed as a backup behind redshirt junior Mattrell McGraw. However, Picket started the Nebraska game and is now listed as the lone starter with freshman Billy Gibson as his backup. McGraw is now listed as the backup to redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who returned to action last week after missing the opener with an injury. 

Redshirt junior safety Khalil Oliver, who started the opening game, missed the Nebraska game due to injury. 

There were no changes to the offensive depth chart. 

 

The Willie Taggert era begins with offensive fireworks, swag surfin' and optimism

The Willie Taggert era begins with offensive fireworks, swag surfin' and optimism

EUGENE - Oregon coach Willie Taggart had already started his postgame press conference Saturday night in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex following the team's record-setting, 77-21 victory over Southern Utah when senior cornerback Arrion Springs walked through a door leading to the seated podium where Taggart sat answering questions. 

"Hold on," Taggart told a surprised Springs. "It's my time."

It certainly is. And his time began with a bang.

The Ducks in their first game under their new coach put on a dizzying show that sparkled from start to finish.

The offense roard to a stadium-record 77 points behind senior running back Royce Freeman and sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. Even the defense showed signs of improvement under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. Many much tougher opponents await (Nebraska visits Autzen next week) but at least for one night, the Ducks looked like a team prepared to make a strong turnaround after last year's 4-8 nightmare that led to the firing of Mark Helfrich and the entire staff.  

For Taggart, the night brought many thrills. Before the game, he stood in the tunnel with his team fighting nerves while thick, white smoke began rising from the tunnel's entrance as Oregon's mascot got onto a motorcycle for his traditional ride onto the field. 

"When I heard the motorcycle, I got goosebumps," Taggart said. "I was ready to go then. I wanted to put on some pads."

Before the smoke had cleared the stadium, redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the process of returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Along the way he raced past Oregon's sideline with Taggart joining in on the sprint, the former college quarterback's 41-year-old legs doing their best to keep up.  

The rout was on. That the Ducks dominated 77-21 was of no real consequence. The Thunderbirds (6-5 last season) play in the Big Sky Conference. Oregon is supposed to win this type contest by a number that reflects the $500,000 the Ducks paid Southern Utah to show up.

How Oregon won, however, shouldn't be glossed over when considering the prospects for the rest of the season. There were some good and some bad but mostly the former, and all of it proved to be exciting. 

The Ducks' offense, the envy of many in the nation over the previous 10 seasons, certainly appeared to be a bit different under Taggart but it still produced the same types of fireworks. 

Up-tempo. Strong running game. Maybe a bit more deep balls thrown than usual.

Freeman rushed for 150 yards and four touchdowns. Herbert played a virtually flawless game, completing 17 of 21 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions.

The offensive line, beefier and stronger after an offseason of intense workouts designed to make them that way, tossed around Thunderbirds defender as if they were, well, FCS players.

"I thought they did what they were supposed to," Taggart said before flipping thorugh the game book searching for rushing statistics.

"Let's see here, about 348 yards rushing," he said. "Yeah, I think they did a good job."

Oregon gained 701 yards of total offense. 

The Oregon defense, however, displayed some of the same warts one would expect to still exist after ranking 128th in the country last season. That said, the group at least played with fire, excitement, speed and tenacity. They just need to still work on actually being good. 

After allowing all 21 points in the first half and 254 yards of total offense to the Thunderbirds, the Ducks' defense became tougher in the second half, holding Southern Utah to 109 yards and zero points.

The only real glaring problem were the team's 12 penalties for 115 yards.  

"We've got to get better with those penalties," Taggart said.

No doubt. Those penalties could have proven costly against a legitimate opponent. 

Then there was the atmosphere. During breaks in the action some players on the sideline, including those not padded up but in jerseys, would perform the swag surfin' dance to the 2009 song of the same title by a F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz).

"That song brings energy to anybody," Springs said. "It doesn't even matter."

The dance involves swaying back and forth to the beat. Many used a white towl to emphasize their movements. 

That display added a little sparkle to the night and almost made it appear to be more of a party than a football game. 

"Our guys were fired up," Taggart said. "There was a lot of energy. It wasn't artificial. It was real juice. 

Nobody should take anything about Saturday to be an indication that the program is back to its championship ways just yet. 

This is still a young team that will face plenty of oppoenents who could have handled Southern Utah the same way. Arizona, after all, won 62-24 over Northern Arizona, also a Big Sky team. 

Still, Saturday was a great start to the Taggart era. No doubt. The question is, will the Ducks be in position to swag surf their way into contention in the Pac-12 North division?

Ducks' CB Arrion Springs' pick for breakout player: "myself."

Ducks' CB Arrion Springs' pick for breakout player: "myself."

EUGENE - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs, one of the more humorous players on the team, didn't hesitate when asked to name potential breakout players for 2017. 

"Myself," he said with a smile. 

Springs then quickly named junior cornerback Ugo Amadi and freshman nose tackle Jordon Scott before slipping "myself" in again and ending with sophomore linebacker Troy Dye.  

It appears that someone plans to have a big year.  

“I have no choice at this point,” Springs said. “Everything has to come together.”

Putting it all together has been a problem for Springs to date. In many ways he has defined the often maddening issues the Ducks' secondary has experienced the past two seasons. At times, Springs has been brilliant, displaying strong cover skills in a Pac-12 Conference loaded with good receivers. Then there's those times when he appears to be lost and blows coverages to give up easy touchdowns. Springs is striving to increase the ups and decrease the downs. 

Senior safety Tyree Robinson said Springs has a heightened sense of urgency about him. 

"I think he has really matured knowing that this is his last go-around," Robinson said. "He's not leaving a lot of plays out there on the field that he wishes he could have had back."

Oregon coach Willie Taggart gave each player a clean slate before evaluating them and said Springs has been impressive.  

"He had a wonderful spring, especially toward the end of spring ball," Taggart said. "He's continued that throughout training camp so far. I've seen a different guy than what I saw on film last year."

When asked which loss last season hurt the most, Oregon State (34-24) or Washington (71-20), Springs answered: "Cal."

“I got scored on twice and I got pulled,” Springs said of the 51-49 overtime loss. “That was the worst day.”

Despite inconsistent play, Springs has led the team with 12 pass breakups in each of past previous two seasons. Making even more impact plays while decreasing the mental lapses is Springs' goal. 

“My mind is right,” he said. “I’m just living in the moment. I don’t have girl issues…so.”

Cornerbacks coach Charls Clark wants to see more consistency from Springs. "That's one thing we've been working on. But he's a smart kid and he understands the game. Great knowledge. He does a good job of being able to play multiple spots and get guys lined up."

Springs said he has been working on his hands. He has just one career interception, a game-clincher in the end zone during a 61-55 triple-overtime win at at Arizona State. He said he hopes that being asked to be more physical in new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's defense will improve his overall game. 

“I can press again," Springs said. "That’s a strong point of mine. I feel like that will help me out.”

Taggart and Leavitt will be relying on Springs to accentuate his strengths and improve on his weaknesses this season. Strong cornerback play will be needed if the Ducks are going to improve much upon last season's 128th-ranked defense. 

If Springs delivers, maybe a career in the NFL awaits. NFlDraftScout.com rates Springs as the No. 14 cornerback prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. There were 33 cornerbacks drafted this year. 

"Sometimes when it's your last go-around," Taggart said, "you start to put it together knowing that the end could be any time now." 

Oregon Football now a family after Taggart's courses in team chemistry

Oregon Football now a family after Taggart's courses in team chemistry

EUGENE - Oregon coach Willie Taggart relishes team unity. Watching players who at one time barely knew one another talking, sharing and laughing it up while eating in the team cafeteria brings a smile to his face. 

So does venturing into the weight room to see players encouraging and competing with one another while working to improve. And, noticing players who in the past would leave the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex all alone now strolling off in groups.

“To sit back and watch that I get goose bumps,” Taggart said. “This is how it’s supposed to be.”

The Ducks, who began fall camp on Monday, having seemingly erased the issue of team fracturing that impacted last year's 4-8 season. Team chemistry and bonding have returned to the 2014 levels when the Ducks last won the Pac-12 championship and advance to the national title game. 

Two years of erosion in those departments certainly contributed to the program's downfall. Taggart, when hired last December, set out to fix the fragile mess with a cocktail of team bonding endeavors he hoped would create an atmosphere that encouraged togetherness away from the field that would translate into better play on game days. Players and coaches hang out together more often, engage in the same leisurely activities and enjoy spirited yet playful ribbing. 

“It’s so important that our guys come together, and enjoy being around each other, and love each other,” Taggart said. “I think training camp is a time where we continue to build that so once we get to the fall guys go out and play for one another.”

-- Friends first -- 

Taggart's energy inspires and influences. He seeks out his players. Welcomes them into his office. He wants to be in their presence. He wants them to seek him out, not fear him. The result is that players feel more comfortable about their place on the team beyond executing the Xs and Os of football. 

“He’s always around us,” Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “When we’re weightlifting at six in the morning, he’s there. He’s fired up. He’s cheering guys on. When were running outside he’s out there. All of the coaches are around. Everyone is just super excited to be around him.”

The team responds to his inviting personality. 

“He radiates energy,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Shane Lemieux said. “The whole coaching staff does that.”

The team, including the coaching staff, will spend the first week of fall camp living in dorms in order to further their bond. Team activities away from football are rarely ever limited to players only. 

“Coach Taggart says that everywhere we have to be, the coaches have to be as well,” sophomore linebacker Troy Dye said. "“One of the things he has preached is team chemistry and buying in to being a family."

One of Taggart's mottos is to "have a great day if you want to." He implores his players to have fun. He wants football to be enjoyable. Not feel like a job. So he attempts to structure team activities around enjoying life and one another. He sought men with similar personalities while building his coaching staff. 

“I think this staff is just so excited to be here and they have done a good job of being around us and taking care of us," Herbert said. "I’m really excited to play for them.”

Players feeling comfortable around the staff allows for greater levity and, consequently, a better opportunity for team bonding. Plus, Taggart's lust for life can be infectious. 

“He’s a really enthusiastic person,” senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby said of Taggart. “Young coach. Brings that southern vibe. That Florida vibe. Has a lot of energy.”

-- Like uncles at a barbecue -- 

The coaching staff is relatively young, especially compared to the previous staff. It's not surprising then that they relate well to the modern athlete. So much so that there plenty of teasing and joking around that flows from coaches to players and players to coaches.    

“It’s like having your uncle at a barbecue,” Dye said. “You respect them like hell but at the end of the day you can have fun, joke with them and crack jokes and have fun with them.”

Nobody is safe. Players say that Taggart and the other coaches will crack jokes about players without warning. Shoes. Clothes. Hair. Video game prowess. Not much is off limits. Many players battle back. 

“You can’t just let him get on top of you, or take advantage of you," Dye said. "You’ve got to get a couple back here or there.”

Dye said Taggart has few glaring flaws to attack. 

“You can’t really talk about his swag,” Dye said. “He has the best swag in the nation. He has a new pair of shoes on every day.”

But Taggart has some weaknesses. 

“It’s kind of hard to find things to get on him about but at times we can find something if he’s slacking with his shirt or his shorts, or something,” Dye said. “If he is ashy.”

Taggart's periodic failures to apply lotion on his dry legs aside adds to the banter. 

“It’s fun to have coaches like that that you can joke around with,” redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks said.

But there is a line. 

“You can’t go too crazy," Dye said. "It is the head man. You’ve got to know your limitations.”

Nelson said the give and take creates a better coach-player bond. 

“It's built more of a connection,” Nelson said. “You don’t want a coach who just tells you what you can and can’t do. You want a coach that’s going to laugh with you, joke with you. Just build more of a friendship.”

The team soundtrack that blares in the weight room and during practices has changed, as well. 

“He’s just young and he can relate to us,” senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. “He likes rap music. We don’t have to listen to 80s rock music during practice anymore."

-- Players know where lines are drawn -- 

The player's coach approach only works when discipline has taken hold. Taggart, when hired, spelled out what he expected: Be good students. Good citizens. And, of course, good football players. Failing in two of those areas could lead to dismissal from the football team. 

Taggart sent a message to the team by letting go of senior wide receiver Darren Carrington Jr. following his DUII arrest July 1. 

“He’s going to tell you the truth,” senior wide receiver Charles Nelson said. “He’s going to tell you straight up, ‘this is what I want. This is how we’re going to do it.' And if you don’t like it then you don’t have to be on this team.”

Said Crosby: “When it’s business time, they are all business. When it’s not business time, they know how to have fun. They really allow us to enjoy our time here."

The sense of accountability, respect and trust - all missing at times last season - have created better team leaders. That has led to a greater team connection, according to Lemieux. 

Taggart said he noticed while watching game video from last season that it didn't appear like players were playing for the man next to them. That, the team hopes, will change with greater team bonding. 

“He has taught our team to be more accountable and more accountable for each other," Lemieux said. "There’s stronger leadership roles within our football team now. We’ve all taken it upon us to be a better individual to make the team stronger."

-- HDC is the place to be -- 

Vibrant coaches. Team camaraderie. Renewed energy following a 4-8 season. Each has helped make the team's facility the hot spot for the Ducks.  

Taggart encourages the players to spend as much time at the HDC as possible. Working. Bonding. 

“People love to come to the facility now,” Dye said. “You can just feel the energy.”

Said Jelks: "He just makes us feel like we’re at home."

At times in the recent past, going to the HDC felt like a job for some players. Now, the $68 million facility feels like the team hub. 

“You don’t want to feel like you’re a prisoner in the building,” sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said. “You don’t want to feel like you’re made to come to the HDC everyday. Taggart and the rest of the coaches make you want to show your face around the building to see them.”

The Ducks appear to have become a closer-knit group and the staff has helped create that. But soon it will be time to perform on the field. Team unity is easier to achieve when winning. How the Ducks react to adversity will be the real test. But for now, the Ducks believe they have at least formed a bond they hope will help them overcome any obstacles on the field. 

“If you can trust a guy off the field," Dye said, "and really get to know him as a person, as an individual, you can really trust him and know that he’s going to be there for you on the field."

Oregon Ducks out to prove the doubters wrong

Oregon Ducks out to prove the doubters wrong

EUGENE - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs had some misinformation. He knew the results of the Pac-12 media poll released during media days last week had the Ducks finishing fourth. He just didn't realize that meant fourth in the North Division.

“I thought it was fourth in the Pac-12,” Springs said Sunday during Oregon's media day at Autzen Stadium. “Wow. Fourth in the North? That’s kind of sad, that’s real sad. But I guess they had to do that based off last year.”

Yes, they kind of did. And although such predictions aren't worth much more than the paper they are written on, the reality that those who follow the conference the closest have such a low opinion of these Ducks, 4-8 last season, is telling. 

Few are buying that new coach Willie Taggart will return this program to its championship ways in year one, which begins today with the team's first fall practice. Not many believe sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and senior running back Royce Freeman can compensate for a defense that finished 128th in the nation last season. And don't try to sell the idea that new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt can in one year elevate said defense to championship levels. 

For the first time in a decade, few believe the Ducks are championship contenders of any kind. Yet, Oregon's players are mostly concerned with how they view themselves. 

“It hurts to be ranked fourth like that,” redshirt sophomore guard Shane Lemieux said. “It’s basically kind of like a slap in the face. But at the same time a lot of us don’t care.”

The Ducks are embracing the underdog role. 

“I think we’ve kind of had that mentality that we’re just going to try to surpass the expectations,” Herbert said. 

Not having a target on the team's back could prove to be a bonus, according to sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, and it's something he sees Taggart using to fuel the team's energy. 

“You have no expectations," Dye said. "So you can go out there and play every game like it’s your last and just try to take somebody’s season away and build on top of yours.”

Springs agrees: "It’s great.  For the first time we don’t have any expectations. We can’t do anything but go up.”

What's truly realistic for this team? Could the Ducks overcome Washington State to finish third? Probably. But is it realistic to believe that Oregon could pull off upsets at Stanford and/or defending champion Washington to truly contend? 

Oregon certainly believes so. 

“Guys won’t settle for being fourth,” senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby said. “We want better.”

It's all a matter of believing in the process.

“At the end of the day we’re going to end up with the Pac-12 title if we just follow the course,” Dye said. “So we don’t really care about what people project.”

Senior wide receiver Charles Nelson said last season won't impact the team's mentality regarding 2017. 

“We feel like every other team does,” he said. “Every other team feels like they’re the best and we feel like we’re the best.”

Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James took things a step further.

“I see this team at the very least winning the Pac-12 but at the maximum going all the way,” Brooks-James said.

All the way as in to the national title game. That prediction might be a tad out there, but why not?

“We did have a really bad year last year," Lemieux said. "But this is a totally different team, a totally different coaching staff and a totally different atmosphere.”

The reality is that very few players remain that had an impact on the 2014 team, which won the Pac-12 and reached the national title game. Maybe, in the end, it's best that the newer Ducks aren't treated as if they had already accomplished what their predecessors had. 

“It’s good for a lot of new guys,” Springs said. “Most of these guys weren't on the championship team. So, it’s all new for them. They are really just trying to prove themselves.”

And, prove the doubters wrong. 

Jim Leavitt Part 3: Players respond well to Leavitt, but is there enough talent?

Jim Leavitt Part 3: Players respond well to Leavitt, but is there enough talent?

This is Part 3 of a three-part series on new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt based on an extensive interview conducted for Talkin' Ducks, which first aired on Wednesday and will re-air several times in the coming week. Ducks begin fall camp on Monday. 

Part 1: Enamored with state's beauty, Ducks' program

Part 2 - With big money comes big expectations

---

EUGENE - New Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt doesn't want to hear about the talent the Ducks don't have on defense following a season that saw that side of the ball rank No. 128 in the nation. As far as he is concerned, UO has enough gifted athletes to become formidable right away. 

“There are no excuses,” Leavitt said during a television interview with CSN.  “I donʼt want to hear excuses. 'We donʼt have this and we donʼt have that.' We have plenty. We donʼt have to wait to recruit for two years and all that, weʼll take the guys we got right now and roll. Weʼll go to bat with those guys."

Leavitt has been paid $1.125 million per year to turn around the Ducks' defense after he did a dramatic job of whipping Colorado's into shape the previous two seasons. The Buffaloes went from allowing more than 30 points per game before Leavitt arrived to 27.5 with him in 2015 and then last year giving up just 21.7, third fewest in the conference.

That rapid rise influenced Oregon to make Leavitt the highest paid assistant in the Pac-12. Colorado had no chance of keeping him. 

"We weren't able to match the money that Oregon paid him," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said last week during Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, Calif. "When he told me how much he was making, I said: 'Why are you even sitting here? Move on.'  I hated to lose him."

Yet, Colorado believes it will be just fine without him. MacIntyre said Colorado will run the same schemes under new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.  It's a scheme MacIntyre installed in 2014 when a bunch of sophomores were anchoring the defense. By the time Leavitt had things in order in 2016, the team had nine starting seniors. 

So, was Leavitt's success at Colorado about him, the scheme or the personnel?

"Well, we had very good talent," McIntyre said. "I remember when I was telling coach Leavitt about coming to Colorado, I told him about all those sophomores we had that would be juniors, and then he would be able to work with them and mold them. Then they ended up being seniors. We got better and better, so that was a big part of it. He did an excellent job, there's no doubt."

Oregon is hoping that Leavitt will make all of the difference. But he can't scheme his way to success. He is going to need the talent to get it done. Right now, the Ducks don't have much in the way of proven talent on defense. Of course, that could change overnight. 

Leavitt exited spring practices "encouraged" by what he saw on the field. Encouraged, he said, because of the ability his players displayed. The group only needs to come together in unison. 

"I always tell a group of guys that ‘we donʼt have any stars,'" Leavitt said. "'Itʼs not about that. But together we can be a star, and thatʼs the only way itʼs going to happen.ʼ If we donʼt play that way and weʼre not fundamentally sound and we donʼt play with great discipline and we donʼt line up right and do all the things that weʼre supposed to do, then weʼre not going to be very good. And thatʼs something I believe very strongly that weʼll do."

Leavitt didn’t watch much Oregon game video from last season. He said he didn’t want to evaluate players playing in the 4-3 when he was putting in a 3-4.

“Quite honestly, it didnʼt matter to me," Leavitt said. "We were going to build a completely different defense. I wanted to come in and evaluate them through spring, through winter conditioning, and I told them that. I said, ‘Iʼll evaluate you based on what you are now.’”

So, does Oregon have the talent for a quick turnaround? Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is the only returning impact player from last season. Everyone else on the roster was marginal to mediocre.

That said, senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux played much better football in 2015 than he did last season. Transfer defensive end Scott Pagano certainly played well the past few seasons at Clemson. Senior cornerback Arrion Springs, one would think, is ready to put it all together and enters fall as the team’s top corner.

So, there are some pieces in place. And for all anyone knows, there could be many more gems ready to flourish in 2017. 

“We've got to take the guys we have right now and got to get them to do what we want them to do in our scheme and I think we got some guys that can do it,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt would like to return to being a head coach before he retires. His last stint at South Florida – where he built the program from the ground up – ended after he was accused of assaulting a player. Leavitt denied the accusations but ultimately lost his job.

He said he’s received other head coaching offers since but not in the Power Five or the NFL, where he would like to be.

But if it doesnʼt happen, then Iʼm ecstatic about being here, and hope to be here a very long time,” Leavitt said. “To do that you got to build a great defense. So I donʼt really think about it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesnʼt, it doesnʼt. Again, I canʼt control those things. All I can do is try to get our defense to practice well each day and play great in games.”

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 1 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 1 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

No. 1: Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

At the very least, Graham will likely be the team's third cornerback behind senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugo Amadi next season. But don't be surprised if Graham becomes a starter.

Graham lived up to his billing as the No. 12-rated cornerback in the nation (Rivals.com) with a strong spring after enrolling early, enough to likely move senior safety/cornerback Tyree Robinson back to full-time safety.

Graham is a dynamic athlete with corner skills beyond his age. Oregon coach Willie Taggart raved about Graham during spring drills, calling him a competitor and an elite playmaker.  Receivers and quarterbacks went at Graham all spring and he never backed down. His competitive nature and love for football, Taggart said, makes him a threat to be an instant impact player.

Springs and Amadi also had high praise for the four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., both stating in so many words that Graham is the real deal and ahead of where they were as freshmen. 

Oregon has started freshmen cornerbacks in the past with mixed results. Amadi was up and down in 2015. Long-time Ducks fans will remember the struggles of Aaron Gipson and Justin Phinisee back in the day. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrence Mitchell and Troy Hill all made starts in 2011 and took their lumps. 

Nevertheless, virtually all of the above - the jury remains out on Amadi - went on to have great careers at Oregon. 

The Ducks' defense, in complete rebuild mode after ranking 128th in the nation last year, improved greatly in the back end last season but received little help from a weak pass rush. That said, the defense lacked playmakers (just nine interceptions, zero from Amadi and Springs).

Graham could help change that reality while also taking a few lumps here and there.  

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver