Jacob Breeland

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.  

Ducks overcome adversity, face uncertain future

Ducks overcome adversity, face uncertain future

EUGENE - The Oregon Ducks stared adversity in the face Saturday night and didn't falter. They barely even blinked. They simply found a way to win, and did so convincingly, 45-24 over California at Autzen Stadium. 

The victory did come with a heavy injury toll, however. Starting quarterback Justin Herbert will miss at least a couple of games with a broken collarbone. Still, the night might have provided another peak into something positive to be found within this team. The young Ducks (4-1, 1-1 PAC-12) remain quite flawed but they don't quit.  Not when Arizona State last week took a 31-14 lead in the third quarter and not on Saturday when players began going down left and right from injuries. 

The carnage could have been enough to cause most teams to collapse, as did the 2015 Ducks during the Alamo Bowl debacle two seasonsago. Not this year's team. These Ducks kept their heads up, backups rose to the occasion and UOs pulled through. 

"I realized that this team cares about each other," UO coach Willie Taggart said. "I think what we're all seeing right now is a team that enjoys playing for one another."

Senior running back Royce Freeman left the game first with what appeared to be a shoulder injury after making a nice cut outside to the right for 13 yards early in the first quarter with Oregon leading 3-0. That drive ended with Herbert throwing a 37-yards touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Brenden Schooler to give the Ducks a 10-0 lead.

Team sources say that Freeman's injury isn't all that serious and that he could return next wek against No. 11 Washington State (5-0).  Taggart said during his post game press conference that Freeman told him that he should be okay. 

Minutes after Freeman went down, sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell went out with an undisclosed injury while returning a punt when UO safety Fotu T. Leiato II doubled back to blast a Cal player only to miss his mark and instead drill an unsuspecting Mitchell.

The ensuing drive ended with Herbert rushing for a seven-yard touchdown to give the Ducks a 17-0 lead. On the play, Herbert was violently tackled as he fell into the end zone. Team trainers attended to him on the sideline before he left the field with what multiple team sources say is a broken collarbone that will sideline him for at least a few weeks.

Oregon entered the game minus senior wide receiver Charles Nelson (ankle), redshirt sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland, freshman safety Nick Pickett (knee) and senior inside linebacker A.J. Hotchkins (ankle). 

After Herbert went out, the Ducks' offense took a nap. After gaining 159 yards of offense in the first quarter, the Ducks managed just 32 in the second quarter. Cal (3-2, 0-2) finally scored and make it 17-7 at halftime. Suddenly, a once seemingly sure victory became precarious for UO.

The Ducks figured things out by the second half, found their resolve and turned the game over to the offensive line and the defense.

"You just have to really just keep going and try not to skip a beat," redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson said. "It seemed like everyone was going down."

Cal trailed 24-17 early in the fourth quarter before the defense really clamped down. Oregon held Cal to eight yards rushingfor the game, sacked Golden Bears quarterback Ross Bowers seven times and had 11 tackles for loss. 

"With everybody dropping like that we just figred, hey, we're losing people but somebody has to step up," junior defensive end Jalen Jelks said.  

The offense rushed for 126 yards in the third quarter alone and would end up with 308 on the day. Running well became a must after Herbert went out.

"It was good to see our offense able to run the football like we did," Taggart said. "That was important. That was an emphasis for us."

Senior running back Kani Benoit rushed for a career-high 138 yards and scored on a 68-yard run to give the Ducks a 31-17 lead with 9:51 remaining in the game. 

"I don't think anyone waivered at all," Benoit said about Herbert going down. "We knew what we were going to do and we know we could execute it."

A sack of Bowers by Oregon outside linebacker Justin Hollins led to a fumble that the Ducks recovered inside the Golden Bears' 5-yard line. That led to a five-yard touchdown run by redshirt sophomore Tony Brooks-James to pretty much ice the game at 38-17 with 8:01 remaining. 

Oregon showed flashes of heart during a 42-35 win over Nebraska when the defense held on for the win after the offense struggled and the Cornhuskers came back from a 42-14 halftime deficit. Last week at ASU, the Ducks looked awful in the first half before coming back to take a 35-34 lead after training 31-14 in the second half. 

But the Ducks were unable to hang on and lost 37-35. 

On Saturday, UO did lead all game and Cal doesn't have a very good offense. Still, the Ducks entered the game with several key players out and watched three more impact players leave the game. Yet, somehow the Ducks managed to find a way to win. 

Some caveats exist. Oregon committed 10 turnovers for 110 yards with most coming in the second half. One penalty negated a long Brooks-James reception on a pass in the third quarter from senior back up quarterback Taylor Alie before he also go injured in the fourth quarter.

Also, Oregon's defense feasted on a very mediocre Cal offense that entered the game averaging 28 points. The Ducks next face a Washington State team averaging 41. 

Finally, despite finding a way to run well and win this game the Ducks will be hard-pressed to use that formula to win many of the upcoming five games on the schedule without Herbert. 

Alie, should he return, is very limited as a passer. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 41 yards against Cal. Freshman Braxton Burmeister, who replaced Alie when he went down, is a mystery but shouldn't be expected to replace Herbert. 

After WSU, the Ducks play at No. 24 Stanford (3-2, 2-1), at UCLA (3-2, 1-1), home against No. 20 Utah (4-0, 2-0) and then at No. 6 Washington (5-0, 2-0). 

The Ducks will need to be strong on offense to defeat any of those opponents. Unless Alie or Burmeister suddenly prove they can pass for 275 yards and multiple touchdowns in a single game, defeating any of the next five opponents is going to be quite difficult. Just don't tell Oregon that. The Ducks believe in themselves too much to listen to what they can't do. 

After Saturday's game, the team could be heard celebrating in the locker room. That level of enthusiasm will be needed if Oregon is going to able to ride up these difficult injuries. 

"We always say around here, 'winning is living' and I think that's what you heard in there," Taggart said. "It can't stop."

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 TE Jacob Breeland might fulfill the promise Colt Lyerla failed to realize

Oregon TE Jacob Breeland might fulfill the promise Colt Lyerla failed to realize

EUGENE - Oregon redshirt sophomore Jacob Breeland isn't allowing an injured right hand to get in the way of playing like the team's best tight end. 

"It kind of sucks but I'm just going to go out there and do as much as I can and play," he said. 

The results have been impressive. 

"He hasn't dropped a ball," UO coach Willie Taggart said, stating that Breeland's protected hand makes it appear like he might be getting ready to participate in the upcoming bout between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. "So we might let him use that all year long out there."

Breeland's right hand has been wrapped in a cast as a precautionary measure. But the Ducks can't afford for Breeland to take time off. They need him. In a big way. Thin at wide receiver with very little tight end depth, Breeland could end up being one of the team's more vital pieces on offense this season. 

When it's all said and done, Breeland could live up to the promise once showed by former UO tight ends, Colt Lyerla and Pharaoh Brown. Lyerla could have become the greatest tight end in program history but off-the-field troubles derailed his career. Brown came close to equaling Lyerla in ability but overcame maturity issues just in time to suffer a severe leg injury in 2014 that altered his career's trajectory. 

Breeland could accomplish what both Lyerla and Brown did not. He is that guy on this roster and could become the first Oregon tight end to reach elite status since David Paulson in 2011. 

Breeland, listed at 6-foot-5, 241-pounds, matches Lyerla and Brown in size at the same age, and is only getting bigger. He isn't the athletic freak both Lyerla and Brown were but is a better overall athlete than Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt, two quality senior tight ends who last season split time with Brown. 

Breeland has exceptional body control and natural running instincts after the catch. He also doesn't mind sticking his nose into the mix and blocking, something he will be asked to a lot of in a more physical rushing attack than Oregon has employed in previous years. 

Breeland finished the season with six receptions for 123 yards as the fourth tight end behind three seniors he said he watched and learned from. 

"They taught me a lot," Breeland said. "A lot about reading defenses...they just pushed me to be better, basically,"

Good thing, because Breeland stands as the lone tight end with any practical experience. Still, Taggart said he doesn't have much concern about the position. 

"I'm really impressed with all of our tight ends from spring to now," he said. 

The backup is redshirt freshman Cam McCormick, a three-star recruit a year ago out of Bend. Then there are sophomores Ryan Bay and Matt Mariota. 

"Are they where we need them to be? No," Taggart said. "But they are a lot better than what they were when we first started off. And to be honest with you, I feel good about putting any of those guys into the game and running our offense."

Taggart's offense will rely heavily on the tight end position, especially in the running game.

"That's one of the main things we're going to do," Breeland said. "(Taggart) said we're going to run the ball a lot so be ready to block."

Breeland said he has spent a lot of time working on reading defensive fronts, knowing who to block on certain plays and mastering his footwork and ability to gain adequate pad level on defenders. 

South Florida last season, under Taggart, saw its leading tight end - Mitch Wilcox - make just 12 receptions. Oregon's senior tight end trio last year combined for 65 receptions.  

While Breeland said he expects the overall role of the tight end to be different in this offense compared to the previous attack, he still expects to catch plenty of passes. 

"We're having some special plays for us to come open for touchdowns," Breeland said. 

Whatever the role he is asked to play, Breeland says he is ready to perform. 

"I'm going to go out there and play as hard as I can," Breeland said. "And if they are going to use me a lot then I'll be there to do my best and catch the ball if I need to, block if I need to and do it all."

He certainly is going to need to if the Ducks' offense is going to succeed. 

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 QB Justin Herbert reacts to loss of Carrington, thin WR depth

Oregon QB Justin Herbert reacts to loss of Carrington, thin WR depth

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert might be the most impacted by the departure of senior wide receiver Darren Carrington Jr. 

But Herbert said he is standing by coach Willie Taggart's decision to remove Carrington from the team following a DUII arrest in the early morning hours of July 1

"I think Darren has moved on and we have too," Herbert said. "We have a lot of great receivers still on the roster, so we're going to get those guys ready and let them make plays."

Carrington would have been the team's unchallenged No. 1 receiver. Now he will look to do damage with Utah after transferring there this week. Taggart warned the team when he took over in December that breaking rules would have consequences. Following through with Carrington, who has a track record of sketchy behavior, reinforced that mantra. 

"I don't know if he was trying to send a message," Herbert said. "He's a man of his word. He's the leader of this team. He's the head guy. We've just got to listen to him because he knows what he's talking about."

Herbert said he is confident in the pass catchers that remain, starting with senior slot Charles Nelson. 

"Charles is going to be a huge name this year," Herbert said.

The man to likely replace Carrington on the outside will be sophomore Dillon Mitchell, who last season caught one pass for nine yards. 

"He's going to be a great receiver," Herbert said. 

Nelson and Mitchell won't hardly be enough. Oregon has a history of seeing receivers get injured. Depth will be a concern unless younger players rise to the occasion. 

"But I think the main focus is getting the younger guys ready," Herbert said. "They gotta get the offense down and just have timing with them and gain confidence with them."

Freshman on the spot will be Jaylon Redd, Johnny Johnson III and Darrian McNeal, who might have earned a spot in the rotation during spring drills after arriving early to campus. Redshirt sophomore Malik Lovette could start now that Carrington is gone. 

"Fortunately we've had enough workouts where I think we have a lot of promising guys," Herbert said. 

Tight end depth will be an issue after losing three seniors, but the starting position should be fine with sophomore Jacob Breeland. 

"I know where he's going and he knows where I'm going," he said. "Just the entire year we've spent has been a huge bonus."

Despite the positive spin, losing Carrington's talent certainly will hurt. But losing the distraction he often brings could prove to be a blessing. 

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 5 - TE Jacob Breeland

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 5 - TE Jacob Breeland

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. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland.

No other position on the roster could be more desperate for someone to rise to the occasion than tight end. 

Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt all left the program as seniors after combining for 65 receptions last season. 

That leaves Breeland as the lone returning tight end with playing experience. He caught six passes for 123 yards in 11 games last season with a long reception of 63 yards at Washington State.

While all of this might paint a seemingly hazardous situation at tight end, the truth is that Breeland has the potential to become better than all three of Oregon's senior tight ends from last season. He is certainly more athletic than Mundt and Baylis and he is faster than Brown, who lost some steps after suffering a major leg injury in 2014. 

At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Breeland brings good size to the hybrid position that in coach Willie Taggart's offense, much like in Oregon's previous scheme, will align tight at the line of scrimmage, as a wing and flexed out. 

Depth is a bigger problem at tight end than the starter situation. Behind Breeland is redshirt freshman Cam McCormick, walk-on redshirt sophomore Matt Mariota and a bunch of names that remain mysteries. 

Oregon did not sign a tight end in the 2017 recruiting class. 

So as of now, Breeland is the lone guy Oregon can count on, which makes the tight end position a potential soft spot for the Ducks unless he remains healthy. 

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

 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - TEs: Loss of three seniors opens doors

Oregon 2017 Outlook - TEs: Loss of three seniors opens doors

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: Quarterbacks; Running backs, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Tight ends.

Key losses: Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis all exited as seniors forcing the Ducks to completely reload at this position. 

Projected 2017 starter: Jacob Breeland, RSoph., (6-5, 240). 

Key backups: Cam McCormick, RFr., (6-5, 240), Ryan Bay, RSoph., (6-4, 235). 

What we know: Not much. Breeland, a three-star recruit in 2014 (Rivals.com), caught six passes for 123 yards last season, with a long of 63 yards at Washington State. He certainly appeared to have the athleticism and skills to become an impact tight end, but he remains a mystery. 

McCormick, a three-star recruit in 2016, redshirted and is the only other scholarship tight end on the roster. 

What we don't know: Could a true freshman earn instant playing time? Quite possibly. The Ducks don't currently have a tight end committed to the 2017 class, but will have four-star prospect Josh Falo in town for a visit on Jan. 28, according to The Oregonian

As a side not, Matt Mariota, younger brother of former Oregon quarterback Matt Mariota, has moved from linebacker to tight end. 

Final word: From a receiving standpoint, Oregon should be just fine with Breeland in the lead role. Whether Oregon has a consistent run blocking tight end on the roster might be the bigger concern.  

Position grade: C-minus. There's some talent to work with but zero in the way of proven starting talent.  

Next up: Wide receivers.