EUGENE - Oregon's offensive line should be a wrecking crew in 2017.
When it's all said and done, this group could be considered the greatest in program history. The line's combination of size, strength, agility and tenacity across the board is unmatched by any previous Ducks line. It's so good, that the line could be the unit that transforms the Ducks from fledgling bowl team to one that could actually challenge in the Pac-12 North Division.
“I think it all starts up front and if there is one position group on this football team that’s very solid and together and I’m really excited about, it’s the offensive line,” UO coach Willie Taggart said.
The Ducks return four redshirt sophomores who saw starts last year. Center Jake Hanson, guard Shane Lemieux and tackle Calvin Throckmorton each started 12 games. Tackle Brady Aiello saw 10 starts. Most importantly, UO returns senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby, the team's best offensive lineman who missed 10 games last season mostly due to a broken foot. Toss in senior Jake Pisarcik, who played in six games and will compete to start at guard, and senior backups Doug Brenner and Evan Voeller and the Ducks have a loaded group to work with.
“There’s so many guys that we can plug in there and I’ve got complete confidence in all of them,” sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “They’ve done a great job this offseason and they really know what they are doing.”
They experienced some great lessons last year and came out looking pretty good. Consider that the Ducks, despite running back Royce Freeman have a down season due to injuries, finished second in Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (226.4) and tied for the conference lead with Arizona in yards per attempt (5.5).
Not bad. But there was tons of room for growth.
“I think we’re going to be tons better," Lemieux said. "Just looking at film from last fall camp to this last spring, it’s just like a total different offensive line.”
Different in size, strength, techniques and smarts.
The Ducks line has increased its strength and bulk, going from about a 290-pound average to 310. The added physicality will be needed to operate in a new rushing attack. Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has installed a more physical attack based on what he did as line coach at Alabama and Taggart's schemes.
Oregon wants to be more downhill in its attack. Straight ahead. Powerful. Tough. They will still get to the edges, which the previous scheme lived off of, but the new attack wants to enforce its will on opponents. The change in attitude takes time to build.
"We're getting there," Cristobal said. "I wouldn't trade these guys for anything...You see the power...When you have a backfield like we have you can't help be excited to come off the ball and knock people back."
The trick is to build that depth through competition.
"You can't let them feel comfortable," Cristobal said. "If they played to a certain standard then that standard has got to be higher...You're going to need depth. And you're going to need someone at some point in time to step in, or at some point in time be better than what's being done."
Unity and synergy are also important. Crosby acted as a mentor last year while sidelined. Now he is a leader and likes how the group has gelled.
“We’ve all really grown together,“ Crosby said.
That, and experience, should lead to better communication. Last year, Herbert, playing as a freshman quarterback, sometimes had trouble communicating checks with such a young line. A season together, and a strong offseason complete with team bonding should make on-field communication more efficient.
“When we see something that we don’t like we can change the play and we’re all on the same page,” Herbert said. “Last year, just five or six guys coming together that haven’t played much together communication stuff wasn’t great but having a year with them has been awesome. We’re so comfortable together that if Jake says something we know we are all going to follow him.”
Last season ended on a negative note for the Ducks. They led at Oregon State in the second half before the rains came. The passing game went down hill while OSU began to pound its running game at a weak Oregon defense. The Ducks' running game never answered. Oregon won 34-24.
“There’s obviously some freshman mistakes that shouldn’t have been there by the end of the season” Lemieux said.
But that was then. This is now.
“Our play has changed a lot," Lemieux said. "Our demeanor has changed a lot. Where last year I can look back and early in the season our strength wasn’t up to par as it should have been. There were some technique issues that shouldn’t have been happening that late in the season. Definitely I think the freshmen mistakes are obviously out the window.”
And that's bad news for opposing defenses.