Dillon Mitchell

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. 

Ducks midseason report card: Offense

Ducks midseason report card: Offense

The Oregon Ducks have already matched last season's win total (4-8) with a 4-2 record. So, there is no denying that the Ducks are on the upswing. However, two losses in the PAC-12 raise questions as to just how far Oregon remains from being conference title contenders. 

Oregon's best asset right now is its youth. The Ducks are starting only four seniors on offense and three on defense (four depending on inside linebacker). That means 15 starters will return next season as well as a host of other young players who are seeing playing time. 

Oregon's offense, despite starting six freshmen and sophomores, has been one of the best in the conference averaging 43 points per game. 

Nevertheless, we all saw just how fleeting success can be when the starting quarterback goes down. Without sophomore Justin Herbert (collarbone), Oregon managed to score just 10 points during a 33-10 home loss to Washington State on Saturday. It's the lowest scoring output by an Oregon team since the Ducks lost 19-8 at Boise State to open the 2009 season. 

With that all said, here is a report card on the offense through the midway point of the season:

Quarterback - B-plus: Herbert picked up where he left off last season and continued to eleveate his level of play. He leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (172.9). The only real knock on Herbert is that he struggled to generate points in the second half against Nebraska and Wyoming, and he couldn't get the team into field goal range on two final drives during a 37-35 loss at Arizona State. Neither situation, however, could be blamed solely on Herbert. 

The reason this position doesn't receive an "A" is because of the mediocre play of the backups, senior Taylor Alie and freshman Braxton Burmesiter.  Both looked out of place at this level in comparison to Herbert. The lack of depth at this position places Oregon in danger of struggling just to become bowl eligible. 

Running backs - A: Oregon is as deep and skilled at this position as it has ever been.

Senior Royce Freeman ranks third in the conference in rushing yards per game (109.2) despite leaving the win over California with a shoulder injury after having gained 51 yards in the first quarter. Freeman is tied for the conference lead with 10 touchdowns. 

Senior Kani Benoit has performed just as well in a backup role. He has rushed for 329 yards this season and leads the team in yards per carry at 7.3.  His 54.8 yards per game ranks 12th in the conference and his eight rushing touchdowns leave him tied for sixth. 

Tony Brooks-James hasn't gotten off to a great start with 158 rushing yards on 3.5 per carry but he has also caught 11 passes for 136 yards. 

Offensive line - B-minus: The offensive line has played very well most of the time but has also experienced enough lapses and has committed enough penalties to not warrant less than an "A" grade.

Oregon ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (239.3). However, a lack of production in the second half against both Nebraska and Wyoming can be traced back to an inconsistent running game. The line was absolutely dominant against California when the Ducks rushed for 328 yards even though Herbert and Freeman went out in the first quarter. But against Washington state, with Burmesiter at quarterback, the line failed to carry the team and the Ducks were held to 132 yards rushing. 

This is a very quality group but consistency has been an issue. 

Wide receivers/tight ends - C-minus: Losing senior slot Charles Nelson (ankle) for three games set this young group back. It's unfair to expect consistency from a corps that includes a converted cornerback (redshirt sophomore Malik Lovette), a converted safety (sophomore Brenden Schooler) and converted running back (junior Taj Griffin).

That said, the group has been about as spotty as expected. Freshman Johnny Johnson III looks like a future star and sophomore Dillon Mitchell is starting to live up to his potential. At tight end, redshirt sophomore Jacob Breeland has also played well. 

But that's a lot of freshman, sophomores and young men making position changes to expect greatness right away. What we've seen is very inconsistent play that has hurt Herbert at times and certainly didn't help Burmeister in his start. 

Still, in the end, the team's youth is its greatest asset and this position figures to be much better in the future. 

Next up: Defense and special teams.  

Overwhelmed Burmeister needs more help from his friends

Overwhelmed Burmeister needs more help from his friends

EUGENE – The good news is that Braxton Burmeister can only get better. The bad news is that it won’t matter unless he receives a little help from his friends.

The freshman quarterback made his starting debut Saturday night for the Oregon Ducks against No. 11 Washington State and the results were not good. He didn’t run well. He didn’t pass well. He didn’t call the cadence particularly well, at times.

But what transpired on offense for the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) during a 33-10 loss had as much to do with what went on around Burmeister as it did what went on with Burmeister,

Asking him to adequately fill in for the injured Justin Herbert (collarbone) was a tall order to begin with. Doing so while the offensive line had a subpar night and the starting receivers included a former safety and former running back proved to be completely unfair.

“I think this game he can learn a lot from,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. “He got that first game out of the way. He will be better as we move forward. But he needs a lot more help around him.”

The game was clearly too fast for Burmeister who struggled to read coverages and deliver accurate throws on time, if at all. Burmeister flashed some speed when he took off running but didn’t make defenders miss and took a lot of punishment. That could have proven to be problematic had he been injured because senior Taylor Alie was unavailable because of the concussion he suffered during last week’s win over California.

Burmeister ended up completing 15 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions and was sacked four times. He rushed for 35 yards on 11 carries but after sacks finished with negative four yards rushing.

His best two passes came on a 30-yard touchdown toss to a wide-open sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland that gave UO a 10-7 lead in the first quarter, and a 39-yard pass to sophomore Brenden Schooler who got open on a post route in the fourth quarter.

Other than that, it was dink and dunk for short gains. In fact, 11 of his completions went for eight yards, or less. Burmeister completed at least seven quick screens that went nowhere because WSU’s defense were dialed in on them as if they knew Oregon didn’t have many other options.

“We just didn’t really have enough time back there to make some plays,” Breeland said. “He’s got a good arm. He can throw the ball well.”

True freshmen players are not allowed to speak to the media.

When the Ducks did try to go downfield, Burmeister either found no open receivers and was sacked or flushed from the pocket, or he made an errant through. Several times he threw deep down the sideline on passes that had zero chance for completion because they were too far thrown and/or landed out of bonds.

Hindering the entire process for Burmeister was the wide receiver situation. Senior Charles Nelson ended up missing his third game with an ankle sprain after he warmed up during pregame in hopes of playing. Junior Taj Griffin, who also plays running back, started in his place. Sophomore Dillon Mitchell was unavailable because of the concussion he sustained against Cal leading to Schooler, a safety up until fall camp, starting in his place.

The results were inconsistent route running all game long that added to Burmeister’s confusion and indecision.

“Those are the lumps that you take with having young guys in there,” Taggart said. “A lot of those guys, they made some mistakes, too. We have to do a good job as coaches to make sure those guys are sharp on their assignments…especially when you have a young quarterback.”

But one had to know that all of the above was going to happen with a freshman quarterback making his first start while being saddled with such an inexperience receiving corps.

The biggest surprise proved to be the Ducks' subpar play of the running game. After Herbert went down and out in the first quarter Cal, the Ducks’ offensive line struggled for a quarter before completing dominating the Golden Bears to the tune of 328 yards rushing (5.9 per carry) on the night.

A repeat performance would be needed against WSU (6-0, 3-0), which entered the game with a rather strong defense but not much better than Cal’s.

But Oregon responded by rushing for 132 yards on 49 carries (2.9 per attempt). Senior Royce Freeman, still bothered by an injured shoulder that knocked him out of the Cal win in the first quarter gained 62 on 12 carries.

“We knew what Washington State was going to throw at us with all the movement,” redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job picking it up. Plain and simple.”

A better day rushing would have opened up more play-action, boots and roll outs for Burmeister, as well as given him better down-and-distance situations. Oregon converted on just 2 of 17 third down attempts

“I thought their D-line did a good jog against us,” Taggart said. “I didn’t think we played our best game upfront offensively. They did a lot of movement upfront that caused us some problems.”

So, where does Oregon go from here?

On the surface, they appear to be in huge trouble with games coming up at Stanford, at UCLA, then home against Utah before playing at Washington. Becoming bowl eligible might rely on winning home games to end the season against Arizona and Oregon State.

Herbert was said to be out 4-to-6 weeks, however, there appears to be a belief that he could return closer to the four than the six. That would but Herbert back in action for Utah on Oct. 28.

That would be great news for the Ducks, but in the meantime they need Burmeister and company to get better.

Despite what we all saw on Saturday, that could easily happen. Now that Burmeister has seen Pac-12 speed, he can adjust. The coaches must simplify the offense even more to allow for better receiver play and for Burmeister to flourish. It is also very likely that the Ducks get back Nelson and Mitchell this week at Stanford. If so, we should see an immediate uptick in the passing game.

Finally, none of that will translate into wins unless the offensive line and the running game can carry the offense.

“Everybody has got to get better,” Taggart said. “We have to go to work and learn from this tape. But more importantly we’ve got to know what we’re doing.”

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson won't play tonight vs. Cal, return date unclear

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson won't play tonight vs. Cal, return date unclear

Oregon senior wide receiver Charles Nelson will not play tonight when the Ducks (3-1) host California (3-1) at Autzen Stadium, according to sources. 

Nelson, who sprained his right ankle two weeks ago during UO's 49-13 win at Wyoming, missed last Saturday's 37-35 loss at Arizona State (2-3, lost today at Stanford) and was seen this week still wearing a walking boot. 

How long Nelson will be sidelined remains unclear, but indications are that his return is not imminent.

Oregon hosts No. 16 Washington State (5-0) next week.  The Cougars upset No. 5 USC last night by the score of 30-27. 

Oregon clearly missed Nelson last week at Arizona State. UO started sophomore Brenden Schooler in place of Nelson and he managed to catch just two passes for 27 yards. Regular starters, sophomore Dillon Mitchell and freshman Johnny Johnson III have been steady but neither has demonstrated the consistency and play-making ability that Nelson has delivered for four seasons with the Ducks. 

Nelson ranks second on the team with 15 receptions and first with 243 yards. 

Mitchell, Johnson and Schooler are not ideal slot receivers in coach Willie Taggart's offense. But freshman Darrian McNeal has struggled thus far and junior Taj Griffin only recently moved to receiver after coming to Oregon as a running back. Both are listed as Nelson's backups on Oregon's depth chart. 

Oregon's young receivers dropped several passes against the Sun Devils and at times ran routes incorrectly or were not aligned properly, all typical mistakes for young receivers. 

Nelson was clearly going to be a go-to receiver for sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and was on pace for to make roughly 60 receptions this season before his injury. 

 

 

 

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson will not play tonight at ASU

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson will not play tonight at ASU

TEMPE, Ariz. - Oregon senior wide receiver Charles Nelson, who sprained his right ankle last week, will not play tonight at Arizona State, according to sources. 

Nelson injured his ankle in the first half of the No. 24 Ducks' 49-13 win at Wyoming. He appeared later on crutches and in a walking boot. After the game, UO coach Willie Taggart said the injury wasn't as bad as originally feared. Earlier this week Taggart said that the team hoped to have Nelson in action against the Sun Devils (1-2). That won't happen and Nelson's status for next week's home game against California (3-0) is uncertain. 

Freshman nose guard Austin Faoliu is also expected to return tonight after missing last week's game, according to a source. 

Kickoff tonight is 7 p.m.

Replacing Nelson in the slot could be junior Taj Griffin, who returned to action at Wyoming for the first time since tearing an ACL late last season and caught a 20-yard touchdown against the Cowboys. Freshman Darrian McNeal is also a candidate. 

Without Nelson, Oregon will be relying on a very inexperienced receiving corps. After Nelson, the next leading returning pass catcher from last season is redshirt sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland, who caught six passes for 123 yards in 2016. Nelson caught 52 for 554 yards and five touchdowns, second only to Darren Carrington Jr., who transferred to Utah after Taggart dismissed him from the team for getting arrested and charged with a DUII in July. 

Nelson leads the team with 15 receptions for 253 yards. Sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell's 13 receptions ranks second (156 yards) while freshman Johnny Johnson III is second on the team with 172 receiving yards (10 receptions).

Who starts in place of Nelson is likely irrelevant. Oregon will probably juggle a glut of receivers at multiple positions as it did last week at Wyoming. 

Oregon WR Dillon Mitchell must shine

Oregon WR Dillon Mitchell must shine

EUGENE - Oregon sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell won't be able to shake the weight of expectations this season. Not with his immense talent. Not with the loss of senior Darren Carrington Jr.  And not with the team's need for someone, anyone, to emerge as a major threat in the passing game. 

"There's been pressure put on my shoulders," Mitchell said. "But I'm still just playing the game I love. People can expect a lot from me." 

Oregon's decision to move sophomore Brenden Schooler to wide receiver to bolster depth there could prove to be a shrewd move. But it won't matter much if Mitchell doesn't realize his potential. 

Coach Willie Taggart's dismissal of Carrington from the team following his DUII arrest eliminated that best player from an already thin group. Senior Charles Nelson is one of the premiere slot receivers in the Pac-12, if not the country. After Nelson, UO's returning wide receivers last season caught all of three passes for 17 yards. 

Two of those catches, going for a total of nine yards, belonged to Mitchell, who in 2016 was buried on a depth chart behind a very deep group. Gone are Carrington, Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford and Jalen Brown, who transferred despite having a strong chance to start in 2017. 

But while Mitchell, a four-star recruit last season and 17th-rated receiver in the nation, didn't play all that much last season, he did, by all accounts, display elite potential during practices, which was one of the reasons why he didn't redshirt. 

"I’m just waiting on this season to showcase what I’ve always been doing,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell wasn't excited to see Carrington, his mentor, leave the program. 

“When I first got here he was the first person to talk to me,” Mitchell said. “He was the first person to show interest in me. He taught me how to be a college football player."

Mitchell called Carrington, "a big brother."

“He had a lot of mistakes but he also did a lot of good things that people will never see,” Mitchell said.

Carrington was the team's best big-play threat. His combination of speed, ability, leaping ability and ball skills made him unique on this roster. Mitchell possesses similar talents, and, if he develops, could lessen the sting of losing Carrington. 

According to Mitchell, he has spent extensive time working out with Herbert during the offseason to improve their chemistry, and he's been working on fine-tuning the craft of route-running. 

“I want to become a more creative wide receiver and try things that haven’t been tried before,” he said. 

But doing in practice and doing on game days are two different things. Taggart is hopeful Mitchell will be the guy on Saturdays that he's seen in practice. One aspect of Mitchell that Taggart has noticed is coming along is that he is becoming more of an extrovert as his confidence has grown. 

“I think he’s coming out of his shell,” Taggart said. “He was very similar to Justin (Herbert).  Just a quiet guy and go about his business. But now you see him smiling and talking and being excited to go."

 

Ducks' WR Charles Nelson must be Justin Herbert's security blanket

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USA Today

Ducks' WR Charles Nelson must be Justin Herbert's security blanket

EUGENE - Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert will frequently be looking for a reliable receiver he can count on when times get tough this season. A target who will get open on time, in the right spot and make the catch, even tough catches should a pass be a bit off target. 

That receiver will be senior slot Charles Nelson. 

“He can do it all,” Herbert said. “I think we’re going to try to get him the ball as much as possible because he’s one of the fastest guys around. He’s a playmaker.”

Nelson is also the only receiver on the team with a proven track record of success. The elimination of senior Darren Carrington Jr. from the mix following his arrest for DUII - he transferred to Utah - thrust Nelson into the No. 1-receiver role where he must produce and help teach a slew of young receivers. 

“I just feel like I have to be more of a mentor for these guys,” he said.

Nelson's career has come full circle. In 2014 he was the lone true freshman receiver in the mix for playing time on a team with little experience at the position after Bralon Addison was lost for the year with a knee injury during spring practices. Fast forward four years later and Nelson finds himself as the lone senior receiver on a team with little experience at the position. 

Gone are six of Oregon's top seven wide receiver/tight end targets from last season. Nelson finished second in receptions with 52 for 554 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland was 10th with six grabs for 123 yards.

Consequently, the Ducks will rely on the rapid development of sophomore Dillon Mitchell (two receptions last year), redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile (one reception last year), redshirt sophomore Malik Lovette (played cornerback last season), sophomore Brenden Schooler (started 10 games at safety last year, moved to receiver last week), and a host of freshmen receivers led by Darrian McNeal, who had a solid spring. 

Considering that Nelson started eight games at safety in 2015, the Ducks return almost as much collegiate defensive back experience at the receiver position as they do receiving experience. Oregon is hoping for a repeat of 2014 when the team returned just one receiver, Keanon Lowe, with more than 200 yards receiving in 2013.  

That 2014 season turned out just fine. The Ducks saw Nelson, Carrington, Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford and Byron Marshall (who moved from running back because of a lack of receive depth) all explode as targets for quarterback Marcus Mariota. 

“Back then Keanon was the only guy with experience," Nelson said. "We ended up being one of the best receiving groups in the country and I feel like we can do that with this unit right here.”

For that to happen, Nelson must set the tone for the younger players on field, in the weight room and the meeting room. 

“Charles has been a great leader for us by showing us how it’s done,” Mitchell said.

Herbert has witnessed Nelson the leader in action: “He’s already done a great job with that. He’s already stepped up and put some of them under his wing.”

Oregon coach Willie Taggart said Nelson has taken it upon himself to act as big brother to the younger receivers. 

“We just told Charles to be Charles,” Taggart said. “We’re not going to ask guys to be more than they have to. With Charles, we didn’t ask him to do anything. I think he’s taken it upon himself to be that guy.”

More importantly, Nelson needs to be that guy Herbert can rely on to make plays. 

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."

Willie Taggart sends message with removal of WR Darren Carrington Jr. from team

Willie Taggart sends message with removal of WR Darren Carrington Jr. from team

Oregon coach Willie Taggart has removed the team's best wide receiver, Darren Carrington Jr. from the program following a DUII arrest in the early morning hours of July 1, and in the process sent a message to the rest of the Ducks that certain levels of misconduct won't be tolerated. 

Taggart, through the athletic department, issues the following statement: 

"I have visited with Darren Carrington and informed him that he is no longer a member of our program. We will always consider Darren a Duck and support him in any way we can. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors."

The decision could not have been all that easy for Taggart. Carrington is the team's best playmaker on offense in the passing game, and maybe all around. But he has had far too many off-the-field transgressions to be ignored, including being suspended for the 2015 national title game due to testing positive for marijuana use, and for being accused of assaulting someone last fall. 

Plus, Carrington, according to sources on the previous coaching staff, has committed a series of relatively minor to semi-serious transgressions that have indicated he hasn't taken discipline seriously while at Oregon. 

Taggart wiped the slate clean with Carrington back in January and as recently as about 12 hours before the player's approximate 3 a.m. arrest on July 1, praised his star for the progress he had made on and off the field. Then, the following morning, Carrington betrayed Taggart's trust and belief in him.

When Taggart took the job last December he informed the entire team that it would not get him fired as it had Mark Helfrich by lacking discipline, cutting corners and losing games. "Try me," he warned the Ducks. 

By all accounts, the team as a whole got the message. Players who were not giving 100 percent under Helfrich were flying straight under Taggart or getting out of Eugene. 

Carrington is the latest and he has been dismissed the hard way. The good news for him is that as a recent graduate - a testament to him committing to academics - Carrington could transfer to play anywhere in the country. He could easily rehabilitate his image with one great season and end up in the NFL, where his talents belong. 

For Oregon, this puts a lot of pressure on sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell to become a legitimate threat in the lineup that now only includes one proven pass receiver, senior slot Charles Nelson.

Oregon will also need sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland, and wide receivers, redshirt sophomores Alex Ofodile and Malik Loveette, and freshman Darrian McNeal, to rise to the occasion and provide adequate to elite targets for sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. 

It's a lot to ask for. It could safely be said that losing Carrington will cost Oregon a game or two next season, especially given that the defense - 128th in the nation last year - will likely still have major holes this season. 

But, in the long run, this is a move that could pay dividends by leading to a roster that now has an example of an elite talent being let go because he didn't follow team rules. 

That reality could result to a better overall program as Taggart's regime moves forward. 

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 2 - WR Dillon Mitchell

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 2 - WR Dillon Mitchell

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. 2: Sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

Late last season when Mitchell returned a punt 45 yards against Utah he demonstrated the speed and athleticism that have made him such an intriguing prospect since he signed as a four-star recruit in 2016. The Ducks will need to see many more examples of his talent in 2017. 

Mitchell came to Oregon as the No. 17-rated wide receiver in the nation but ended up catching just two passes for nine yards while getting lost in a crowded depth chart at receiver. 

Injuries to Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford thinned out that depth a bit but not enough to for Mitchell to become a major contributor. Now the depth at receiver is so thin that Mitchell will be needed to deliver in order for the passing game to reach its potential under sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. All signs point to Mitchell being ready to make an impact. 

The Ducks will return just two proven pass catchers in senior wide receivers Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson. Mitchell will enter fall camp as the No. 3 receiver in an offense that starts three receivers. 

Redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile, injured all spring, was a four-star recruit in 2015. He will have a chance to compete for playing time. Freshman Darrian McNeal could be in the mix after a solid spring. So to could former cornerback Malik Lovette. Each presents some intriguing abilities but none are as complete as Mitchell could possibly be. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart entered spring drills hoping to see Mitchell demonstrate play-making ability to match the hype. Taggart says he has been pleased with what he saw from Mitchell and expects him to be in the mix this fall and receive a chance to thrive. 

But it's up to Mitchell to seize the moment. How well he performs could be the difference in a game or two for the Ducks, who will likely need to play great on offense to overcome what figures to still be a mediocre defense. 

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