henry mondeaux

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. 

Oregon freshmen nose guards Scott and Failou will be tested by Nebraska

Oregon freshmen nose guards Scott and Failou will be tested by Nebraska

EUGENE - We will find out what Oregon freshmen nose guards Jordan Scott and Austin Failou are all about when the Ducks (1-0) host Nebraska Saturday at Autzen Stadium. 

The pair saw their first collegiate action during Saturday's 77-21 win over Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium and by all accounts played well despite neither registering a statistic in the game. 

"They didn't stumble," UO defensive line coach Joe Salave'a said. "That's a good thing. You always learn about those things. But those guys have a different temperament about the game and it's refreshing. With that, we'll continue to push and prod those guys to continue to advance and improve."

Both will receive a new education against the Cornhuskers, who return most of their offensive line from last season when Nebraska (1-0) averaged 162 yards rushing per game. The team rushed for 225 in its opener against Arkansas State with sophomore Tre Bryant going for 192 and two touchdowns on 32 carries. 

That Scott and Failou didn't register a tackle isn't a huge concern given that the nose position usually doesn't generate gaudy statistics. The position's job is to command a double team in order to allow the inside linebackers behind the nose to make plays. Sophomore Troy Dye had 10 tackles. Junior Kaulana Apelu made five stops. 

"Without them keeping the center off of me, keeping the guards off of me, I wouldn't be able to make the tackles that I did make," Dye said. "All of those tackles should go to them. They should each have five and I should have zero."

It's a nice sentiment, but one would think that one of the two nose guards would at least accidentally end up with at least an assisted tackle against a vastly inferior opponent. The last starting nose for Oregon was Alex Balducci (the Ducks ran a 4-3 defense last year). He made 40 tackles in 2015 with 7 1/2 for loss and 3 1/2 sacks. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart, when asked if Scott and Failou were ready to deal with a Nebraska offensive line that might shove them around, took exception to the word choice of "shoved."

"We're not necessarily going in thinking Nebraska is going to shove our guys around, or anything," he said. 

One would think not. However, there will be some shoving and some hitting and it will be done by a veteran offensive line that might not be as impressed with Scott and Failou and Oregon's coaches and players are. That said, Taggart pointed out that the pair has got in plenty of work against Oregon's offensive line. 

"They are young guys, they know how to play football," Taggart said. "Again, they've been competing against our offensive line all training camp and we've got a pretty good offensive line, as well...We feel like those guys are ready to compete and they will be read to compete against Nebraska this Saturday."

In the long run, we could see graduate transfer Scott Pagano (Clemson) become the answer at nose guard. He is working his way back from an injured foot. Pagano mostly played defensive end at Clemson but also dabbled inside. Ideally, he would be at defensive end opposite senior captain Henry Mondeaux. But if push comes to shove, and the Ducks' freshmen indeed are losing most of those shoving matches on the field, it could be time to turn to Pagano.

But, for now, the two freshmen have a chance to prove they can anchor the Ducks' 3-4 defense inside. 

"I thought they showed that they are good enough to play here," Mondeaux said. "Everyone has things to work on but they showed good motors and they ran around and made some plays. I think they did a good job at doing their job."

DE Scott Pagano out of walking boot, no timetable for return

DE Scott Pagano out of walking boot, no timetable for return

EUGENE - It appears that Oregon will have to wait beyond this weekend for the debut of senior graduate transfer defensive end Scott Pagano. 

The former Clemson part-time starter has been down and out with an injured foot and is not listed on the Ducks' depth chart for Saturday's season opener against Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium. 

“He’s getting better," UO coach Willie Taggart said Monday. "He’s healing. He’s out of the (walking) boot now and he’s getting better every day.”

Taggart, during an interview for Wednesday night's season premiere of Talkin' Ducks on CSN, said that the redshirt senior would undergo more tests later in the day and that he had been running on a tredmill under water. 

"Hopefully he gets back sooner rather than later," Taggart said. "When he's ready to roll, he will be ready to roll."

Senior Henry Mondeaux and redshirt junior Jalen Jelks are listed as the starting defensive ends this week with redshirt senior Elijah George and redshirt sophomore Drayton Carlberg as the backups. 

Pagano will likely start opposite Mondeaux once he is ready to play. 

Ducks beef up DL with addition of transfer Malik Young

Ducks beef up DL with addition of transfer Malik Young

The Oregon Ducks added some depth to the defensive line with the addition of junior college transfer Malik Young, a source has confirmed. 

The 6-foot-2, 301-pound young will compete for playing time at nose tackle. Young, a former three-star recruit out of Eastern Arizona Junior College, singed with Missouri in February but was later ruled ineligible because of an SEC transfer rule, according to DuckTerritory.

If Young pans out and senior Scott Pagano, a transfer from Clemson, returns soon from a foot injury, the Ducks could have added two solid tranfers to a defensive line much in need of veteran help. Oregon is set to start true freshman Jordon Scott at nose tackle with redshirt sophomore Gary Baker as a backup. Adding Young gives the Ducks more insurance inside of Jim Leavitt's 3-4 defense. 

 

Oregon's "#TheMovement18" recruiting blitz must scoop up impact defensive linemen

Oregon's "#TheMovement18" recruiting blitz must scoop up impact defensive linemen

Oregon's coaches are killing it on the recruiting trail. They are Tweeting up a storm complete with the fresh hashtag, "TheMovement18," while using plenty of Emojis, GIFs and photos of Ducks swag in order to appeal to the talented teens they are pursuing.  

So far, the high-energy and social media-savvy recruiting tactics under new coach Willie Taggart have worked well and have fans giddy about the future. Oregon's 2018 recruiting class currently ranks No. 11 in the country, according to Rivals.com. That's coming off of a No. 18 ranking for the 2017 recruiting class, completed last February. 

Just one problem: Where are all of the impact defensive linemen?

I know, I know, it's early. Signing day is nearly nine months away. But let's be clear: All of the bells and whistles and hyped commitment gatherings won't mean squat in the end unless the new coaching staff can make a habit out of landing high-end defensive line recruits. Just ask the former coaching staff whose failure in this department from 2013 through 2016 contributed greatly to a defense that last season ranked 128th (518.4 yards per game) in the nation in total defense and 121st (246.5) against the run during a 4-8 season. 

The defensive line is so depleted with veteran talent that Taggart went out and signed graduate transfer defensive lineman Scott Pagano. The former Clemson part-time starter will instantly become the Ducks' best defensive lineman, if not best defensive player. 

Oregon must sign the Paganos of the world on the front end of their careers, not at the back end. The Ducks are trying. According to 247Sports.com, Oregon has issued offers to 24 defensive ends and 10 defensive tackles. Of those 34 players, 21 are rated as 4-star recruits, or better. However, just one is even listed as being "warm" on Oregon while 17 have either already committed, or are listed as "cool" toward Oregon. 

Here is the overall recruiting situation thus far: 

Oregon's big weekend during the spring game included receiving commitments from six recruits followed up by another on Monday. Five were rated as four-star recruits by Rivals.com while 247Sports rated six as four-star prospects.

But zero defensive linemen were included in the haul. 

The Ducks on Friday did receive a commitment from Mohamed Diallo, a three-star defensive lineman out of Arizona Western Community College. He's a nice get. At an athletic 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, Diallo could become a good player for the Ducks at nose guard in 2018. But he must be an addition, not the center piece, to what has to be a much stronger class of defensive linemen. 

Taggart made a big splash in his first recruiting go around, but not at defensive line. UO signed three, but only one is a four-star recruit, freshman early enrollee Rutger Reitmaier. He committed to Oregon last June, five months before Taggart took over the program following the firing of Mark Helfrich.

A quick turnaround for the Oregon Ducks will mostly depend on dramatic improvement from the defense, and that will require a head-turning upgrade in play from the defensive line. So give credit to the Ducks for addressing this problem with the addition of Pagano. But the future of the defensive line remains in serious doubt and must be upgraded through recruiting. 

One of the knocks on the previous staff was that they failed to recruit impact players on defense after 2012, especially within the front seven. Under former coach Chip Kelly In 2012, the Ducks signed maybe their best defensive line recruiting class ever with the additions of four-star recruits, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci. Buckner and Armstead both went on to become first-round NFL Draft picks by the San Francisco 49ers. Balducci signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent and is now a center with the New York Jets.

Kelly's final recruiting influence came in 2013 before he moved on to the NFL. That class, which included 13 of 19 players who committed to Oregon under Kelly, ended up with just two defensive linemen: Torrodney Prevot and Doug Brenner. Prevot actually ended up playing linebacker while Brenner played offensive line. Elijah George, a two-star recruit offensive lineman in that class, is now a reserve defensive lineman.

Let that all sink in for a minute.

The Ducks sought to recover in 2014 with the addition of five defensive line recruits. Only one, however, was rated as a four-star player and that was junior college transfer Tui Talia. Of the four three-star recruits, Justin Hollins and Jalen Jelks have had the only impact. Both remain tweeners who might be undersized to be more than pass rushers. Eddie Heard, who ultimately played linebacker, and former starter, Austin Maloata, were removed from the team following their respective troubles with the law last year. 

Oregon tried again with five defensive line recruits in 2015. Again, just one was a four-star get. That was Canton Kaumatule, who appeared to have the potential to become the next Armstead or Buckner before repeated injuries and concussions slowed his development. He retired last season.  

The other four signees, all three-star recruits, remain projects. Junior Rex Manu and redshirt sophomore Gary Baker are the top returning defensive tackles. They will now play nose guard in UO's 3-4. Redshirt sophomores Drayton Carlberg and Gus Cumberlander will be competing for time at defensive end. 

UO signed four more defensive linemen in 2016. Redshirt freshman Hunter Kampmoyer and sophomore Bryson Young, a four-star recruit, have shown promise. However, Ratu Mafileo retired due to injury concerns and Wayne Tei-Kirby, thrust into action as a freshman, has transferred to BYU. 

To put all of this into perspective, consider that over the last five recruiting cycles Clemson has signed 10 four-star defensive linemen, including Pagano in 2013, and two five-star defensive linemen.

Oregon, during the past handful of years, did just fine signing players at most every other position, especially on offense. Running backs. Wide receivers. Offensive linemen. Even at quarterback where the Ducks at least signed promising four-star recruits, Morgan Mahalak (2014) and Travis Jonsen (2015). Mahalak has since transferred while Jonsen has yet to meet his potential. But, the Ducks hit big on Justin Herbert in 2016. 

Recruiting at defensive back and linebacker has been mixed, but at least some bright spots exist at those two positions. The defensive backs improved greatly last year over 2015, but a lack of a run defense and adequate pass rush left the secondary hung out to dry.

That all said, the linebacker position also needs an upgrade. Even with Balducci, Buckner and Armstead, Oregon's defense got steamrolled in the national title game by Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. One reason was Elliott's talent, another was Oregon's lack of future NFL prospects at linebacker.

But we've seen and are seeing inroads being made at the second level of defense. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is a budding superstar. Commit Adrian Jackson, is rated as the No. 11 outside linebacker in the nation. The 2017 class featured linebacker Sampson Niu, who committed to Oregon last June under Helfrich and was rated as the No. 12 outside linebacker in his class. 

Oregon must match that level of recruiting along the defensive line so that transfers such like Pagano are viewed more as nice additions, such as 2015 transfer center Matt Hegarty, rather than as saviors, like 2015 quarterback Vernon Adams Jr..

The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Pagano could be an immediate starter opposite Mondeaux in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's 3-4 defense. Or, the former Clemson defensive tackle could also play nose guard. Figure he will play all over in different situational packages. 

Pagano's presence will prevent Leavitt from having to depend on a young end or nose guard that might not be ready to stand up to the rigors of the 3-4 defense.

Freshman nose guard Jordan Scott, a Taggart get, turned heads during spring drills with his athleticism and size but shouldn't be relied upon to carry the load in the middle next season. It's likely going to be up to Manu and Baker to get it done inside. 

But Pagano only buys Oregon time. All of the young defensive linemen have time to develop under position coach Joe Salave'a, considered to be a great recruiter. Helfrich's recruits could ultimately pan out. Regardless, the Ducks must move away from waiting for linemen to develop and step into an era of having a revolving door of impact defensive linemen with NFL potential flowing through the system. 

So while it's nice for Oregon that this staff has brought high energy to the recruiting trail and has landed commitments and signatures from promising recruits at many positions, the reality is that unless they can sign some Buckners, Armsteads and Balduccies, the Ducks' future will include more teams padding their offensive stats against Oregon's defense.  

Taggart wants Oregon players ready to deliver - current events

Taggart wants Oregon players ready to deliver - current events

EUGENE - Oregon's players never know when coach Willie Taggart might pounce. 

It could happen anywhere. At practice. During a workout. At dinner. In the weight room. 

Chances are, it might never come at all. Taking that chance, however, wouldn't be wise. 

"I always want to make sure I have one ready," Oregon receiver Taylor Alie said. "You don't want to be the guy he calls on and then you're scrambling."

One what? A joke? A football play? A dope rhyme? 

No. Taggart at any moment could ask any player on the team to inform him of a current event from around the world. 

"You've got to be ready to be called on," senior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux said. "You never know."

Mixed in with the typical heavy emphasis on Xs and Os, weights, conditioning and academics, Taggart said he wants to motivate his players - often overly engrossed in their athletic careers, video games and dating - to have a greater grasp of the world around them.

"A lot of these guys are so wrapped up in football and school that they don't have a clue what's going on in the world," Taggart said. "This is a way to force them to be aware. Take a few minutes each day to learn something new that's going on."

The only punishment for not being prepared is Taggart's disappointment and some mild humiliation. Nobody wants any of that. So, players stay prepared. 

Senior cornerback Arrion Springs has yet to be called upon.

"Thanks God," he said.

But he says he is always ready, just in case. So is junior cornerback Ugo Amadi. 

"I always have one in my back pocket," he said, figuratively referring to remaining armed with a tidbit.

To stay prepared for a Taggart grilling, many players have developed news consumption habits. Amadi said he receives CNN news alerts on his laptop. 

"It will pop up and I'm like, 'oh, whelp, I've got something,'" Amadi said. 

Mondeaux said many players will check news apps just before entering the team dining room.

"Have to make sure you have something," he said. 

Sports-related news counts, as long as it's something of substance, not merely scores or transactions. But more kudos are received for actual world news. 

"We're paying attention to the news a lot more," Springs said. "There's not much to talk about except the dude in office." 

Sometimes players pool their resources, go over notes, share news discovered and have a plan in case they are called upon as a group.  

What's obvious is that more UO players have become more aware of the world they live in. 

"That's really important because you don't want to be ignorant to what's going on," Amadi said. 

And they don't want Taggart to embarrass them if they don't. 

"The fear of getting called has driven (players to research), which I think is a smart tactic," Alie said. 

If Taggart calls upon a player that happens to be unprepared, sometimes teammates will help them out by whispering to them an event to report.

"Teammate help each other out, which is fun to see," Alie said. "Guys have done well. There's a lot of interesting things I've learned that I didn't know was going on. So, it's cool."

And that, Taggart said, is the point. He wants his players to be better informed individuals. 

"It's our world," Alie said. "We've got to know what's going on."

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

The Willie Taggart-era at Oregon on the practice field began this morning when the Ducks opened spring drills, which will include 14 sessions before the Spring Game on April 29. 

Oregon enters spring with a new staff but most of the same players who were largely responsible for a 4-8 season in 2016, a year that led to the firing of former coach Mark Helfrich and a staff that featured some assistants who had been in Eugene for as many as 20-plus years.

In order to win right away, Taggart must do so with the players recruited by the former staff. That's not impossible. In fact, it's highly likely. Oregon played mostly a young and battered group in 2016. It's a core that should be considerably better in 2017 after taking their collective lumps during the program's first losing season since 2004 (5-6). 

That development process began during the winter and continues this spring. Many questions linger for this staff to sort out, but here are five that must be addressed this spring: 

1. Will a quarterback controversy develop or will Justin Herbert re-establish himself as the guy for this new staff? The only quarterback in Oregon history who at the same age could have beaten out what we saw from Herbert as a freshman would be Marcus Mariota. Maybe. That's how good Herbert is. So, when Taggart says that the position is open, he is essentially hoping that either redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr. or redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen demonstrates some Mariota-level skills.

We shall see. 

Herbert took over as the starter in week 6 and in seven starts completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,986 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Project those numbers out over 13 games (with a bowl) and you get 3,688-35-6. Those numbers are almost identical to what Mariota put up in 2013 (3,665-31-4) as a redshirt sophomore while playing on a much better team.  No doubt Taggart witnessed all of Herbert's skills while reviewing game video from last season. 

Still, Taggart points out that UO won just four games, so whatever Herbert did last season wasn't good enough. Truth be told, Herbert won just two of those four (Arizona State and Utah), but Mariota wouldn't have won much more with the defense Oregon put on the field. 

Taggart does liked the physical abilities he saw from Wilson and Jonsen during winter workouts, but added that Herbert has also looked great, so far. 

“Really impressed with winter conditioning watching him run around and change directions, and doing those things," Taggart said. 

Now, Taggart wants to see Herbert, or another quarterback, become an established leader. 

“At the end of the day, I want to see who can lead this football team," Taggart said. "Who can get this team to rally around him.”

Let the QB games begin. 

2. Are there any young playmakers at linebacker not named Troy Dye? Dye made a name for himself last season as pretty much the only playmaker on defense. The Ducks will return to the 3-4, defense, which means UO needs three other linebackers to emerge. Seniors A.J. Hotchkins and Jimmie Swain must improve. Also, Oregon could use someone among the young group of sophomores La'Mar Winston Jr. and Keith Simms, and redshirt freshman Eric Briscoe, to breakthrough. 

"We have to get more athletic at that spot," Taggart said.

Translation: "We lack ballers."

Oregon will be looking for more of those this spring. 

3. Are there any playmakers along the defensive line at all? We must continue on with the defense because that side of the ball was so bad last season. So bad that there really weren't any bright spot along the defensive line to be found. 

Taggart, however, said he believes that some playmakers exist upfront. Mass confusion on defense last year, he added, led to a lot of young defensive linemen not being able to flourish. 

"Usually when you don't know what you're doing, you'll get your butt whooped," Taggart said. "But there's some potential."

Jalen Jelks, Henry Mondeaux, Gary Baker, Rex Manu, Drayton Carlberg, and others, all must develop this spring or opposing offenses will once again trample the Ducks. 

4.  Can Dillon Mitchell and Alex Ofodile ease concerns about depth at wide receiver? Oregon returns two wide receivers of consequence: seniors Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson. Taggart needs about four more receivers for him to be comfortable about the depth at this position. 

Sophomore Dillon Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile are both former four-star recruits and the next men up. But the jury is out on both. They could either emerge this spring or open the door for one of seven freshmen receivers to take their jobs. 

One such freshman already on campus is three-star recruit, Darrian McNeal, a quick elusive receiver in the mold of Nelson and former UO star, De'Anthony Thomas, but not quite as fast, according to Taggart.

Taggart said McNeal's love for the game shows in his play, play that could get him on the game field right away. 

But for this position to take off, Mitchell and/or Ofodile must take major strides in their development this spring. 

5. How will a new coaching staff mesh? Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and cornerbacks coach Charles Clark worked together in Colorado. Taggart brought two South Florida assistants, special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie and running backs coach Donte Pimpleton, to UO from his former team. Other than that, no other coaching connections exist on this staff. 

So, stands to reason that there could be some growing pains as the staff learns to work together. 

"Not everybody has been around me," Taggart said. "A lot of things I might not like and I'll continue to coach those guys up and get it the way that we want it."

So far, Taggart said, the staff has worked together very well. Camaraderie and enthusiasm have been high. Taggart said it helps that Leavitt and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal are former head coaches who get the process. 

We will see if harmony continues or if some feathers get ruffled along the way. Especially if the previous four questions go unanswered and the team is left floundering in a sea of mediocrity during year one of the Taggart era. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DL - Immediate help might be needed, or not

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DL - Immediate help might be needed, or not

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backs, Wide receivers/tight ends, Offensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs.

Today: Defensive line.

New Ducks: Austin Faoliu (6-3, 285, Mater Dei H.S., Santa Ana, Calif.), Rutger Reitmaier (6-3, 279, Lipscomb Academy, Nashville, Tenn.) and Jordan Scott (6-1, 350, Pinellas Park Senior H.S., Largo, Fla.). 

Projected starters: Defensive ends Henry Mondeaux, Sr., (6-5, 280) and Drayton Carlberg, RSo., (6-5, 290), and nose guard Rex Manu, Jr., (6-3, 300).

Key backups: Defensive ends - Jalen Jelks, RJr., (6-6, 260), Elijah George, RSr., (6-5, 290), Gus Cumberlander, RSo., (6-6, 260), Hunter Kampmoyer, RFr., (6-4, 245), and Bryson Young, So.,  (6-5, 245).  Nose guard - Gary Baker, RSo., (6-4, 305), 

The situation: Oregon's defensive line was used and abused in 2016 so shifting from the 4-3 to the 3-4 could be addition by subtraction for the Ducks. 

That said, there is some young talent onboard, such as Carlberg, Manu, Jelks and Baker, who should improve after being thrown into the fire last season. 

So where do the freshmen fit in?

One might assume that help is needed right away given that UO allowed 246.6 rushing yards per game last season. Not so fast. Out of the three recruits only Reitmaier comes with much hype. Rivals.com rated the four-star recruit as the No. 21 defensive tackle prospect in the country. Scott will need of some serious conditioning and training to shed some of his 350 pounds in order to make an impact at the Pac-12 level. Fauliu is not rated national but certainly has some size and talent. 

One never truly knows who will surprise in fall camp (see Troy Dye and Justin Herbert in 2016), and new coach Willie Taggart has made it clear that all freshmen will have a chance to earn instant playing time.  

“They are going to have every opportunity to go out and compete and try to take somebody’s job,” Taggart said. “I told our players that’s what we’re going to do, recruit guys to take their jobs and it’s on them to keep their jobs.”

The verdict: Oregon already has good defensive line recruits on the roster. They simply struggled playing as freshmen and sophomores. So why believe that new freshmen are going to revolutionize the defensive line? Development is always the key, so expect to see the now experienced Oregon defensive linemen improve while the freshmen, except for maybe Reitmaier, redshirt next season. 

Next up: Linebackers. 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DL: The area most in need of improvement

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DL: The area most in need of improvement

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsTight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Defensive line.

Key losses: Defensive end T.J. Daniel.   

Projected starters: Defensive ends Henry Mondeaux, Sr., (6-5, 280) and Drayton Carlberg, RSo., (6-5, 290), and nose guard Rex Manu, Jr., (6-3, 300).

Key backups: Defensive ends - Jalen Jelks, RJr., (6-6, 260), Elijah George, RSr., (6-5, 290), Gus Cumberlander, RSo., (6-6, 260), Hunter Kampmoyer, RFr., (6-4, 245), and Bryson Young, So.,  (6-5, 245).  Nose guard - Gary Baker, RSo., (6-4, 305), 

What we know: Oregon played 15 defensive lineman last year out of necessity because of injuries and poor play. The results were ugly. The defensive line contributed greatly to the Ducks allowing 246.6 rushing yards per game.

Mondeaux, expected to be a rising star, did little all season, finishing with just one sack and four tackles for loss in UO's 4-3 defense. He might be better suited for the 3-4 defense, to be brought back under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, where he can eat up space and make plays when they present themselves rather than be asked to force the issue in a one-gap scheme.

Manu proved to be solid during his first year as a starter but he and the rest of the interior linemen failed to make much of an impact as pass rushers or against the run. The experience he gained, however, should pay off in 2017.

What we don't know: Plenty. After Mondeaux the Ducks have a lot of mysteries at defensive end. Carlberg won a starting job early in the season before being lost for the year. Cumberlander saw some time. So did George. Jelks looked like a strong pass rusher in the 4-3, but will need to add bulk in order to function as a two-gap end in the 3-4.

At nose guard, Baker has promise and is the front-runner to backup Manu. But the loss of Wayne Tei-Kirby, who transferred to BYU, hurts what was already a thin group.

The team's move to a 3-4 defense will likely mean that redshirt sophomore Justin Hollins moves from defensive end, where he was woefully undersized at 235 pounds, to outside linebacker where he could become a heck of a pass rusher in the mold of former Ducks, Christian French, Tony Washington and Dion Jordan. Hollins had 9 1/2 tackles for loss, including 3 1/2 sacks in 2016.

The scheme shift could also force senior Jonah Moi (245 pounds) to return to linebacker where he could compete for a starting job as an inside linebacker.

Final word:  Had the defensive line just played average football last season the Ducks would likely have won games at Nebraska, at home against Colorado, at California and at Oregon State. That said, too much was asked of such a young and inexperienced group that also faced more than its share of injuries. A year of getting their teeth kicked in should pay dividends.

Position grade: D. This group could easily reach 'C' status, or better, with growth. New defensive line coach Joe Salave'a will have his work cut out for him, that's for sure.

Next up: Linebackers.

Oregon's true self will be revealed at Nebraska

Oregon's true self will be revealed at Nebraska

Oregon is going to get smacked in the mouth on Saturday. 

Nebraska is going to come out like Mike Tyson circa 1986 and try to drop the No. 22 Ducks where they stand when the two teams meet at Memorial Stadium, sure to be filled with nearly 90,000 Cornhuskers fans

The question is, can Oregon take a punch? Can they rise from the canvas after being knocked down, which they most certainly will be?

We don't know. Oregon (2-0) might not even know. But we will find out on Saturday, and what we learn will have reverberations throughout the rest of the season.

"They're a physical football team, they've been known to be a physical football team for a lot of years," Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said of Nebraska. 

Oregon has prided itself on being physical despite holding the label of being a finesse team because of its use of the no-huddle spread offense. Of course, there's nothing "finesse" about 235-pound running back Royce Freeman pounding through a hole. With that said, there is mystery surrounding the Ducks' offensive line and front seven in terms of their abilities to hold up against a physical team. 

Nebraska will put that to the test Saturday. Can three redshirt freshmen offensive linemen handle Nebraska's aggressiveness on defense? Will the front-seven, gashed for 220 yards rushing by Virginia's running backs last week, stand up to the Cornhuskers rushing attack?

"When you look at what they've had success doing, and what we haven't necessarily had success stopping, it sure would make sense to just pound it," UO coach Mark Helfrich said. 

And pound it and pound it and pound it. 

"I like games like this because it's more physical," Oregon junior defensive end Henry Mondeaux said. "You kind of don't have to think as much. It's more of just one-on-one matchups."

That's where the game will be decided. Nebraska (2-0), coached by former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, will certainly attack Oregon with the run to find matchups that can be exposed. If the Ducks stand up to it, they could win. If not, it will be a long day for the Ducks, and quite possibly a long season.  

The rest of the Pac-12 will be watching. There is no more vulnerable Ducks team than one that loses at the line of scrimmage. No. 7 Stanford and No. 8 Washington will surely take apart the Ducks if they cannot handle Nebraska. 

However, if Oregon stands strong, even in defeat, that would bode well for their chances to make noise in the tough Pac-12 North Division. 

Oregon could lose a close game while still proving its toughness, not just against Nebraska's physicality but also against a rabid fan base that will make life difficult for the Ducks. 

Nebraska is out for blood. Riley most certainly wants some measure of revenge for all the times the Beavers got blasted by Oregon. Nebraska is out to return to national prominence and views a win over the Ducks as a gateway toward respect and the Top 25 after a 6-7 season in 2015. 

"We're going into a hostile environment," Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said. "And how we prepare and how we react in that kind of environment will really kind of set the tone for the rest of the season."