Shane Lemieux

Oregon's offensive line could be considered the greatest in program history by season's end

Oregon's offensive line could be considered the greatest in program history by season's end

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. 

Ducks OT Tyrell Crosby healthy and hungry

Ducks OT Tyrell Crosby healthy and hungry

EUGENE - Oregon senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby has some unfinished business. 

He wants to leave the program as a winner following a 4-8 season in 2016. He wants to win the Outland Trophy given to the best college football interior lineman.

“That’s a huge personal goal for myself,” Crosby said.

Mostly, he just wants to simply play again after missing 10 games his junior season with a broken foot. 

“Last season was really hard on me,” Crosby said.

Crosby missed the opener, played the second game then was lost for the season in game three at Nebraska. The Ducks were 2-1 at the time before going on to lose seven of their final nine minus Crosby to anchor the line.  

Not able to contribute, Crosby grew as a leader. He watched the game from the sideline, took in information from a coaches perspective and offered encouragement and advice to a line that relied heavily on four redshirt freshmen. 

“It allowed me to grow and see from a different perspective on areas I can improve on whether leadership or pushing myself to find more motivation to be as good as I can be,” Crosby said.

Now back, he finds a stronger line to work with and is ready to be their leader. 

“It’s really nice to get Tyrell back to add that experience,” redshirt sophomore guard Shane Lemieux said. “To see his talent is pretty incredible to watch.”

Once finally health last offsesaon, Crosby aggressively worked on his strength and was able to hit the 500-pound mark in the squat and set the team offensive line by power cleaning 367 pounds, breaking the old record of 363 set by Max Unger. The added power, Crosby hopes, will make him a more dominant player. 

“I love just trying to take someone from point A to point B against their control,” Crosby said. “And hopefully just push them on their back at the end of it.”

Crosby is destined to be a NFL Draft pick next spring. He wants the bridge to that moment to be filled with winning. 

"I want to leave here knowing I did as much as I could to help the team," Crosby said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Friends first -- 

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

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

The team responds to his inviting personality. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Like uncles at a barbecue -- 

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

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

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

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

Dye said Taggart has few glaring flaws to attack. 

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

But Taggart has some weaknesses. 

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

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

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

But there is a line. 

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

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

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

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

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

-- Players know where lines are drawn -- 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- HDC is the place to be -- 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oregon Ducks out to prove the doubters wrong

Oregon Ducks out to prove the doubters wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ducks are embracing the underdog role. 

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

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

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

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

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

Oregon certainly believes so. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, prove the doubters wrong. 

Mario Cristobal eager to mold Ducks' young linemen

Mario Cristobal eager to mold Ducks' young linemen

Oregon's offense will have a similar feel to what fans have grown accustomed to seeing at Autzen Stadium the past 12 years, but the goal is to accomplish the same potency with a different level of size and toughness. 

Ducks co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Mario Cristobal came to Oregon after spending the past four seasons as the offensive line coach at Alabama. The Crimson tide offensive lines have been built to bulldoze opponents while the Ducks have used a bit more finesse while running their spread offense, whether coaches ever wanted to admit that, or not. 

On Wednesday, when the Ducks began spring drills, Cristobal said he looked forward to infusing some of what he did in a pro-style offense at Alabama under coach Nick Saban with what Oregon's plans will be under new head coach Willie Taggart who employs a spread offense. 

“It was an incredible four years [at Alabama],” Cristobal said. “You learn everything from regimen to structure, practice planning, how to look ahead and schedule out an entire year for the pitfalls that come with certain phases of football. I’m certainly bringing everything over here and applying it as it fits to coach Taggart’s plan. That’s the most important thing."

Cristobal takes over a line that helped the Ducks finish second in the Pac-12 in rushing offense with four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen leading the way. The Ducks return redshirt sophomores, Jake Hanson, Brady Aiello, Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux, along with senior Tyrell Crosby (injured most of last season) and redshirt senior guard Jake Pisarcik, who started at guard before and after Crosby went down.

That's quite a group, but it's one that Taggart said needs a lot of work in order to meet his standards for strength and attention to detail. Cristobal indicated about the same.  

“This is a development game and the offensive line is probably the most significant development position in terms of, it takes a little bit longer,” Cristobal said. 

His enthusiasm about molding this group was obvious. 

“I don’t want to use clichés but I’m jumping out of my skin right now,” he said.

Cristobal said he came to Oregon for the opportunity to be a coordinator at a great program and to work with Taggart. 

“I think coach Taggart has infused juice into the program," he said. "Players have bought in.”

Cristobal added that he likes Taggart's philosophies on building young men, maintaining great attention to detail and creating good people who can win. 

“We’re in the people industry," Cristobal said. "In my opinion, this game is played from the inside out...We want to make sure we do the best by our players as student athletes, as players."

The overall goal, he said, is to get Oregon back to where it was before the coaching changes made after a 4-8 season a year ago. 

“Oregon football has been outstanding for a long, long time," Cristobal said. "There’s been several great things accomplished here….Like I tell everywhere I’ve been; we’re borrowing these jerseys, we’re borrowing these coaching hats. It’s our responsibility, our obligation to raise the standard, to elevate the standard, to uphold the legacy. That’s our job.”

Oregon 2017 Outlook - OL: Greatwood left behind a group poised for greatness

Oregon 2017 Outlook - OL: Greatwood left behind a group poised for greatness

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, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs.

Today: Offesive line.

Key loss: Senoir Cameron Hunt moves on after starting for the past three seasons and part of his freshman year. 

Projected 2017 starters: Left tackle Tyrell Crosby, Sr., (6-5, 310), left guard Shane Lemieux, RSo., (6-6, 310), center Jake Hanson, RSo., (6-5, 295), right guard Brady Aiello, RSo., (6-7, 290), right tackle Calvin Throckmorton (6-6, 300). 

Key backups: Guard Jake Pisarcik, RSr. (6-2, 300), center Zach Okun, RSo., (6-4, 315), guard/center Doug Brenner, RSr., (6-2, 300), tackle Evan Voeller, RSr., (6-5, 295).​  

What we know: Former Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood left his replacement, new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Mario Cristobal, with plenty of strong pieces to work.  

The return of Crosby from an injury suffered at Nebraska  that ended his season, and the further development of four talented redshirt sophomores who carried the line last year could give the Ducks one of its best set of offensive linemen in program history. 

The potential starting group is one of, if not the, most athletic groups ever to play for Oregon. And they are huge. The Ducks started four redshirt freshmen for most of the season in a Pac-12 Conference that saw only a couple of other freshmen linemen make starts. 

Still, the Ducks finished second in the conference in rushing yards per game (226.4). 

The scary part is that there remains great room for improvement. Oregon did allow 29 sacks, tied for eighth in the conference, and had enough silly penalties and mental errors to at times be a detriment in key moments.

However, all of that was to be expected for such a young group. 

What we don't know: How exactly will this lineup shake out? Hanson, Throckmorton and Lemieux began last season as starters while Aiello backed up Crosby before he suffered his season-ending injury.

Crosby's return pushes Aiello back to second-string tackle unless shuffling is done to find a spot for him along the line. The question is if he can play guard. If he can, he slides into right guard, vacated by Hunt's graduation. If not, then maybe Throckmorton slides to right guard to make room for Aiello at right tackle. However, Throckmorton is at right tackle for a reason and could become the starting left tackle once Crosby moves on to the NFL.

If Aiello and Throckmorton simply best belong at tackle with one as a backup then Pisarcik could start at guard. Heck, maybe Okun makes a move at guard, or Brenner.

Final word: This potentially special group should allow Taggart to get his run-friendly offense that racked up 285.7 yards per game last season at South Florida going in high gear from the opening game. 

Position grade: B-plus. 

Next up: Defensive line.