justin herbert

Oregon ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP Poll

Oregon ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP Poll

For the first time since week four of 2017, Oregon has landed on the Associated Press Poll. The Ducks start the Mario Cristobal era ranked as No. 24 in the preseason AP Poll.

Pac-12 teams that made the cut in the AP Poll Top 25 include No. 6 Washington, No. 13 Stanford and No. 15 USC. 

Alabama is just the second team to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll for three straight seasons. Alabama received 42 out of 61 first-place votes.

More on the Ducks:

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

Oregon releases new uniforms; internet blows up

How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon

Who will Herbert sling the ball to? The Locks, Contenders and Longshots at receiver

How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon

How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon

Oregon’s cupcake nonconference schedule just got more interesting and the Ducks may see less transfers this season. 

If you are not familiar with the new NCAA rule passed in June, college football players can now play up to four games in a season and redshirt without burning a year of eligibility. College football players are granted five years to complete four seasons of eligibility.

The rule was unanimously agreed upon amongst college football coaches, including Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. Cristobal is excited for how it changes the developmental aspect of the sport.  Whether it be to injury or a player developing throughout a season, he plans to award playing opportunities to Ducks who he believes can help the team.

“The opportunities are endless to not only help your team, but to prevent a guy from losing an extra year of eligibility,” Cristobal said. “It certainly helps you plan differently.”

With that said, Cristobal made it clear he expects the level of competition to increase, not decrease.

Playing time will not be handed out

Just because the new rule allows participation in four games a season doesn’t mean Oregon players are guaranteed to see the field. According to Cristobal, playing time will remain a privilege, not a right. 

“That would create the wrong kind of dynamic within the walls of our locker room,” Cristobal said.

Oregon’s cupcake nonconference schedule just got more interesting

The Ducks’ nonconference opponents (Bowling Green, Portland State, San Jose State) went a combined 4-32 last season. Those three yawn-worthy games just got more interesting because now coaches and fans will get a chance to see plenty of freshmen from that highly touted 2018 recruiting class get on the field.

This means true freshman quarterback Tyler Shough, who many have described as starting quarterback“Justin Herbert-like” is likely to get a chance to play at the college level right away without wasting a year of eligibility. The back-up quarterback competition could play out between Shough and sophomore Braxton Burmeister in live games instead of just behind closed doors at practice. Keep in mind that Burmeister could also utilize his redshirt if he does not appear in more than four games.

Freshmen get valuable experience

It’s hard to emulate the speed of the college game in practice, even on scout team. Now freshmen will be able to get on the field in low-pressure situations, which is great to get their feet wet and for coaches to see how they handle being under the lights.

Oregon could give an early opportunity to see how a player reacts to the level of college level or allow them to continue to grow and learn the playbook before potentially playing later in the season.

Those meaningless bowl games that some player skip? Freshmen can get added into those, with the added month of bowl practice.

“The development process is real now,” Cristobal said. “It’s almost like the developmental squad in the NFL where down the line the opportunity, whether it be due to injury or whether that player has developed to a point where they can help us and actually contribute to the team.’

Incentivizes and may limit transfers

The new rule keeps players involved and motivated by the possibility of playing time at some point during the season.

Oregon could show a player how he fits into a game scheme, without losing a year of eligibility. Which is a great way for a coach to prove the school has a plan for him, which could potentially prevent some players from transferring.

Takes pressure off starters

Oregon starters will be less likely to feel pressure to play through injuries. The change provides more roster depth and the opportunity for Ducks at the top of the depth chart to experience less wear and tear throughout the season.

[WATCH: Cristobal continues to impress on the recruiting trail]

Imagine how different last year could have been

In 2017, the Ducks redshirted eight players on the 2018 roster; CJ Verdell, Cyrus Habibi-likio, Demetri Burch, Daewood Davis, Cody Shear, Alex Forsyth, Popo Aumavae, and Isaac Slade-Matautia. All of those players could have played in four games and still have four years of full eligibility left if this rule was in place last season.

The rule allows for the development of the player to be improved and the coaches’ ability to evaluate the player. Which Duck freshman are you most looking forward to utilizing this rule?

 

Oregon QB Justin Herbert has a lot of hype to live up to

Oregon QB Justin Herbert has a lot of hype to live up to

Justin Herbert is growing up before our eyes. He's maturing, coming out of his shell. Physically, he is considerably larger than the rail thin freshman that flashed elite skills in 2016. He's becoming so comfortable as a leader and a young man that he has the guts to wear his new hairdo - half surfer dude, half mad scientist - with the full confidence that he can pull it off.

All of the above, along with his immense skills and minus the hair, have led to the junior entering this season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate and a virtual lock to become a future first-round NFL Draft pick as soon as next spring. Herbert already should be considered one of the top 10 most talented quarterbacks to ever play at Oregon. 

But let's step back for a second and ask one simple question: What has Herbert truly accomplished at Oregon? 

The truthful answer is: Not much at all.

We know Herbert can put up big passing numbers (he became the fastest UO quarterback to reach 3,000 yards passing, doing so in 13 games) and look flashy doing so. What we don't know is if he is a championship-caliber quarterback capable of leading his team to close victories in big games against high-end competition.

What we don't know is if we should actually believe the hype?

--- Not yet a proven winner 

Herbert is being praised as if he has already attained elite status when in fact, he is not a proven winner nor should he be considered a superstar. For now, he simply remains a talented passer with a potentially bright future that hasn't accomplished much at the college level.

This is not meant to throw shade Herbert's way. Nobody has hyped Herbert more than myself. During his freshman season I proclaimed that Herbert would be a future Heisman contender and top 10 NFL Draft pick. I've gone so far as to say that he would exit Oregon as the second greatest quarterback in program history behind Marcus Mariota.

Now it's time for Herbert to deliver on all of his promise and get the Ducks (7-6 last season) back on track toward national prominence. 

So far, we've seen a lot of sizzle but little in the way of championship substance. 

Herbert is just 7-7 in games he started and finished (or at least departed with the outcome no longer in doubt). Only five of those victories have come against Power Five conference teams and just two came against such teams that finished the season with a winning record (Utah went 8-5 in 2016 and Arizona went 7-6 last year). 

Think about that for just a second. Herbert has won just two games against winning Power Five teams in two years.  

To be fair, it's not Herbert's fault that Oregon's defense was horrid in 2016, which didn't help his chances of winning games. It's also not his fault that last season he missed the toughest five-game stretch the Ducks have faced during the past two seasons because of a broken collarbone.

Herbert went down early during a win over California last season and then missed games against Washington State (9-4), at Stanford (9-5), at UCLA (6-7) home versus Utah (7-6) and at Washington (10-3). The Ducks went 1-4 against that group with freshman Braxton Burmeister at quarterback and were blown out in all four defeats. Sitting out those five games, he said, had a profound impact on him. 

"I found out how much football meant to me just watching from the sideline," Herbert said. "I try not to let any day go by that I'm not thankful for it."

Despite some bad luck and poor defensive play, Herbert has had chances to pull out victories that slipped away. Herbert as a freshman failed to engineer wins at California and Oregon State. He did, however, play exceptionally well in the second half at Utah and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Darren Carrington Jr. that won the game 30-28. 

Last season, Herbert had a couple of opportunities to pull out a victory at Arizona State but couldn't get the ball moving on two drives inside the final minutes. Oregon lost 37-35. 

Then there was the Las Vegas Bowl disaster. 

A few weeks after his return from the broken collarbone, Herbert had a chance to notch a signature win on his belt at the Las Vegas bowl. But instead, the Ducks lost 38-28 to underdog Boise State while scoring just two offensive touchdowns with one coming in the final two minutes of action to make the game appear closer than it truly was. Herbert threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. He also lost a fumble. 

--- Searching for that signature win 

A knock on Mariota entering the 2014 season was that he had yet to put forth a big win against a strong opponent that required him to play well in the fourth quarter. Part of that was his fault. He was largely responsible for Oregon blowing out teams by the middle of the second quarter. It's difficult to fault a guy for not winning close games when he is the main reason why the team routinely wins in blowout fashion. However, winning championships usually requires a couple of victories in which the quarterback is asked to make big plays down the stretch. 

Mariota failed in that area against Stanford in both 2012 and 2013 when national title game appearances were within reach. He also couldn't get the team going in a loss at Arizona in 2013 when the Pac-12 championship remained a possibility following a 26-20 loss at Stanford.  

Sure, Mariota led the Ducks to a last minute win over Oregon State in 2013. But, it was Oregon State. He didn't register that true, signature victory until Michigan State, 2014. Oregon trailed 27-18 early in the third quarter before Mariota threw two touchdowns in that quarter and used a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter to help set up a Royce Freeman score that iced the game at 46-27. He also delivered a virtuoso performance at Washington State when he completed 21 of 25 passes for five touchdowns with a struggling offensive line in a 38-31 win.

Lose one of those games and the Ducks wouldn't have reached the national playoffs. Mariota made those two wins happen.

That is something we really haven't seen from Herbert save for the win at Utah in 2016. But, again, nothing was at stake for the Ducks that day. They finished the season 4-8. 

--- A dominant leader could get UO to the top 

Herbert is good enough to carry the Ducks, despite their flaws, to the Pac-12 title. He will have enough experience and talent around him to take on Washington and Stanford at home, and to get wins at Arizona and Utah. But pulling that off is going to require Herbert to reach another level as a player and as a leader. 

He made big strides in the area of becoming a leader last season must to the delight of former coach Willie Taggart. New coach Mario Cristobal says he's seen the same leap in that department. 

"It's exponentially growing," Cristobal said. "It hasn't stopped. He's gained more confidence about everything he does. He's obviously a tremendous student. He's well liked by everybody in the building, the community, the state. He's such a driven individual. That's the best way to explain it. He's driven to get better. He's never satisfied. He's very hard on himself. We actually have to kind of pull him off of himself sometimes because he's very critical of himself."

To make Herbert better, Cristobal says the coaching staff pushes him harder than most.

"Our best players have to be able to receive our hardest coaching to be are hardest workers and to be our best performers," Cristobal said. "He's young, but yet the maturity we've seen over the past year form him and what we expect this year has been incredible."

Redshirt senior Jalen Jelks, who played with Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr., says Herbert has become a team-wide presence.

"He's become a lot more vocal and has stepped up as a leader," Jelks said. "He likes to push everybody." 

One trait Herbert possesses that could make him special is his ability to process information. Cristobal said Herbert can fix situations when they aren't going the team's way. If a play looks like it's about to lead to a bad situation because of the defensive alignment, Herbert can recognize the problem and get the offense into a better play. 

"When a quarterback can do that it becomes another level of football for your offense," Cristobal said.

Herbert must show that he can reach that level late in games against top competition if Oregon is going to make a run at the Pac-12 title. 

Only then will Herbert have lived up to the hype. 

Penalties are hot lava, fluid personnel groups, and more from Oregon Ducks Media Day

Penalties are hot lava, fluid personnel groups, and more from Oregon Ducks Media Day

EUGENE - Oregon is three days into its fall football camp under new head coach Mario Cristobal and there are already a few surprises.

The Ducks’ true personalities shined in a game of ‘would you rather’ (videos coming soon!) and gave insights into who will become a household name this season.

I had a chance to interview quarterback Justin Herbert, offensive lineman Shane Lemieux, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, defensive end Jalen Jelks, linebacker Lamar Winston Jr. and defensive back Ugo Amadi one on one. My takeaways:

- Penalties are hot lava for the Ducks this season. Oregon was the worst team in college football in penalty yards last season, averaging a national-worst 88.3 penalty yards per game. Over 13 games the Ducks totaled 1,148 penalty yards and were called for a penalty 9.4 times per game. What is Cristobal doing to improve discipline? The Ducks have officials at practice that join the coaching staff and players during film sessions to correct bad habits.

“You’re either teaching it or allowing it to happen,” Cristobal said. “And we allowed it.”

- Coaching duties are set. Quarterback and tight ends coach Marcus Arroyo will handle the passing game and be the primary play caller. However, Cristobal will be on the headset and can over rule calls. Running backs coach Jim Mastro is the run game coordinator. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will handle the defensive game planning with help from safeties coach Keith Heyward and associate head coach and defensive line coach Joe Salava’e.

[WATCH: Cristobal continues to impress on the recruiting trail]

- Oregon is experimenting with fluid personnel groupings. “No one” is off limits to play on both sides of the ball, Cristobal said. Specifically, freshman Bryan Addison and sophomore Jaylon Redd could play wide receiver and defensive back. Also, defensive linemen could be used in jumbo packages on offense.

- Oregon has serious offensive line depth. Cristobal said he plans on regularly rotating 8-10 offensive lineman whom he said were good enough to help the Ducks “win championships.” Last season the starting offensive linemen took 900 snaps; Cristobal would like to spread out the playing time this season.

- Young Ducks are impressing veterans. Herbert picked redshirt freshman running back CJ Verdell as a player he’s expecting to surprise fans this season. Dye thinks freshman Adrian Jackson could have an instant impact at inside linebacker. Mitchell has been impressed with freshman Jalen Hall at wide receiver.

- Herbert and Mitchell have been working on chemistry and it’s paying off. Herbert described Mitchell as “soft spoken, like me” and that they both have worked on breaking down barriers off the field to develop better chemistry on the field. Herbert has noticed a difference in their connection already in fall camp. Mitchell is excited to be utilized both on the outside and in the slot this season.

-The Ducks have beefed up in the weight room. Whatever Oregon’s strength and conditioning coordinator, Aaron Feld, is doing is working. "Flex Friday" is a small part of the infectious energy Feld has brought to the Oregon weight room. Herbert and wide receiver Daewood Davis have both put on close to 20 pounds. Senior running back Tony Brooks-James has added 10-13 pounds. Troy Dye, Jalen Jelks, Ugo Amadi and LaMar Winston all appeared much bigger. 

A couple fun notes:

- Cristobal is a fisherman. He caught 31 rainbow trout on a fishing trip with his mom over this summer.

- Growing up a Duck fan, Herbert owned Lamichael James, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota jerseys.

- Outside linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. studied art abroad in Paris this summer. He conquered his fear of heights at the Eiffel Tower and ate Duck for the first time because it was the most expensive item on the menu.

Five Ducks that must rise if UO is to contend

Five Ducks that must rise if UO is to contend

Oregon began fall camp on Friday with a team that should win eight games without breathing hard this season providing that quarterback Justin Herbert remains healthy. 

The Ducks went 7-6 last season with Herbert missing five games (1-4) and this team should at least be as good. Plus, the Ducks' non-conference schedule is a joke. Home games against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State (the trio combined for four wins a year ago) will go down as one of the least interesting three-game stretches in terms of competitiveness in program history. 

Assuming Oregon wins all three - if UO doesn't then everyone on staff should be fired and every player should lose his scholarship (half joking) - all the Ducks would have to do is win four out of nine Pac-12 Conference games to reach seven victories.

That shouldn't be a problem. The trick will be winning seven conference games to reach 10 wins and potentially contend for the North Division title. Washington is the real deal and will be a tough challenge for Oregon. So will Stanford. Fortunately, both matchups will occur at Autzen Stadium where anything can happen, especially if UO develops in certain areas that appear to be question marks at the moment. 

Here are five players that must deliver at a high level in order for the Ducks to contend:

1. Running back Tony Brooks-James must be a true No. 1 back: Oregon ranked second in the conference in rushing last season with running back Royce Freeman finishing third at 1,475 yards. He is now with the Denver Broncos leaving Oregon scrambling to identify a lead back. 

That man should be Brooks-James, a redshirt senior who has bided his time while waiting for his shot. He has amassed 1,557 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns during his career. Should he put up similar numbers this season, the Ducks would be in business.

But Cristobal on Thursday stopped short of making it clear that Brooks-James is the unchallenged lead running back while also praising the work he has put in to win the position. 

"I see a lot of competitiveness (at that position)," he said. "It starts with what TBJ has done with his game. He's really elevated his game. Not only as a ballcarrier but as a blocker, as a physical presence."

Cristobal said Brooks-James has bulked up about 12 pounds. He was listed at 180 last year. Increased size to go along with Brooks-James' blazing speed certainly makes for a featured back. Brooks-James is also operating as a leader. 

"I think that when you combine all of these factors and TBJ's want-to, and the realization that this is his senior year, he has created a better running back room," Cristobal said. 

Still, competition is thick, according to Cristobal. Redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell has opened eyes with his all-around abilities. Sophomore Darrian Felix played last season. Senior Taj Griffin is back at running back after spending some time at receiver last season. In the end, it doesn't really matter how Oregon gets back over the 3,000 yard rushing mark. It could be five players each rushing for 700 yards. That said, having that veteran guy lead the way would create stability at the position and give the running game a true identity.  That guy should be Brooks-James. 

2. Deommodore Lenoir must be as good as Thomas Graham Jr. was last season: Oregon is searching for two starting defensive backs after the departure of safety Tyree Robinson and cornerback Arrion Springs. Oregon has several options at safety opposite senior Ugochukwu Amadi. Sophomore Nick Pickett made starts last season, as did redshirt senior Mattrell McGraw. Redshirt sophomore Brady Breeze could become a star. Cornerback is a bit thinner making Lenoir's development imperative. 

A highly-touted recruit last year, Lenoir earned playing time as a true freshman but now as a sophomore must at least perform as well as Graham did last year as a true freshman. Graham took his lumps at times but for the most part took to big time college football relatively easy thanks to his physical gifts and mental approach to the game. 

Lenoir, as a sophomore, must do the same. However, UO does have other potential options. Freshman Verone McKinley III is a four-star recruit who enrolled early and reportedly had a strong spring. Junior college transfer Haki Woods Jr. could also challenge. 

3. Wide receiver Johnny Johnson III must become more consistent: The sophomore made some spectacular plays last season as a true freshman and certainly looked like a future star. He started 10 games and played in all 13. However, he caught just 21 passes for 299 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers must go up by at least 150 percent. 

No. 1 receiver Dillon Mitchell, proven tight end Jacob Breeland and graduate transfer Tabari Hines (nursing a few weeks with a knee injury) will give the team three strong targets. But that's not enough.

[RELATED: Ducks transfer WR Tabari Hines missed start of all camp with knee injury]

The Ducks will need Johnson to ball out to the tune of at least 600 yards and five touchdowns. If Herbert has four viable receiving threats and a strong running game to work with, the Ducks would be able to put up massive offensive numbers on just about anyone, including Washington and Stanford. 

But if the targets are limited and remain green, Oregon would be much easier to defend, limiting its chances of winning the Pac-12. 

4. Linebacker La'Mar Winston must pick up where he left off in 2017: Watch out for Mr. Winston. 

He played in all 13 games last season while making seven starts. Five of those starts came over the final six games when he delivered 31 tackles with five for loss. He finished the season with 49 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. 

Give Winston a full season as a starter and he could flirt with 80 tackles with 12 for loss. He is that talented. 

The Ducks know they have two stars at linebacker in junior Troy Dye and senior Justin Hollis. Should Winston become a regular impact player, the Ducks would have one of its more talented group of linebackers in history. Yes. In. History. 

The fourth linebacker remains a question mark, but three beasts out of four would get the job done at a championship-caliber level.

5. Kicker Adam Stack must be lights out: The kicker position might not make for a sexy topic, but when the game is on the line and a team trots out its kicker and asks him to win the game that guy had better be as mentally tough and as skilled as any other player on the roster.

Stack struggled as a punter last season (his 38.4 yard average ranked 10th in the Pac-12), but now he slides over to kicker to replace Aidan Schneider. 

If Oregon is going to sneak up on the top teams in the conference the Ducks will likely have to win some close games. That will likely require Stack to make some big field goals in pressure situations. 

Justin Herbert is taking on a new leadership role

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USA Today

Justin Herbert is taking on a new leadership role

By 

Although Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert is already considered to be one of the favorites this year to win the Heisman trophy, in order to seal the deal, his offense has to thrive. This means that Herbert, along with his young, talented wide receivers will have to step up and make big plays against teams like Stanford, Washington, and Utah. The only problem, however, is that this has been a difficult task for Oregon to accomplish throughout the past couple seasons.

To make matters worse, wide receiver production has crumbled throughout the years in Eugene, ever since the departure of Marcus Mariota — the 2014 Heisman trophy winner. But not all hope is lost for the Ducks, since they have candidates that can turn things. Aside from Herbert himself — who’s demonstrated key leadership skills in the classroom due to his academic achievement, the Oregon Ducks also have their receivers. Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson III, and Brenden Schooler have all shown head coach Mario Cristobal and quarterback Justin Herbert what they can do with the ball in their hands.

In order to be recognized nationally and win the Pac-12, however, the Oregon offense will have to put up big-time numbers. How much are we talking? They’ll have to put up at least 950 more yards than they did last year. In other words, their offense would have to average out between Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr. in order for Herbert to get an invitation to New York in 2019 for the upcoming draft. With that much pressure on their plate, it’s easy for athletes like Herbert to forget how important rest and rejuvenation are when it comes to staying energized and injury free.

What needs to be done moving forward?

Oregon has to find ways to put the ball in the hands of their playmakers. Schooler, who’s become one of those much-needed players did well during his first season as a wide receiver. In fact, he did so well, fans forgot he was once a safety as he caught three touchdown passes and averaged 13.7 yards per catch last year. Now that he has a full year of practice under his belt at the wide receiver position, Schooler has shifted his focus from learning the plays to leading his team to victory.

Mitchell (another much-needed receiver), not only led the team in receptions, he also led the team in receiving yards. That, however, hasn’t slowed down his work ethics, which means this is another key player Oregon can count on. Johnson III, who’s become a return specialist for the team has also improved throughout the off-season. With that kind of potential, along with a healthy quarterback, the Oregon ducks could easily find themselves making a run for the Pac-12 championship.

One other thing that makes the receiver’s abilities even stronger is the relationship they all have with their quarterback. Michael Johnson III, for instance, noted that their quarterback is pretty special and that guys enjoy being around him — another key leadership quality that Herbert has shown his teammates throughout the off-season. The question fans are wondering, however, is with so much talent surrounding Eugene, can Oregon pull through and be the team they were three years ago? If everyone can stay healthy and Herbert can avoid having another season dealing with chronic pain, then the Ducks could possibly be a top contender. For now, however, only time will tell.

Cristobal begins reshaping Oregon football today with start of spring drills

Cristobal begins reshaping Oregon football today with start of spring drills

Today won't technically be the first time that the Oregon Ducks take the field under new coach Mario Cristobal when spring drills begin. But in many ways it will be. 

The actual first time Cristobal led the Oregon football team onto a field of any kind occurred in early December shortly after Willie Taggart departed for Florida State, leaving the Ducks in disarray. 

Cristobal did his best to right the ship in time for the Las Vegas Bowl just 10 days later but he simply didn't have enough time to fix the mess at hand. The players, who lobbied for Cristobal to replace Taggart, didn't successfully make the transition from "Do Something" to disappointment and then back to contentment under their new leader (save for defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt being bent out of shape he didn't replace Taggart) in time to avoid a 38-28 loss to Boise State in Sin City. 

There was simply too much disruption in play, and that included star running back Royce Freeman electing not to play in the bowl game in order to avoid a potential injury before departing to the NFL. 

So, let's give Cristobal, the staff (those who returned) and the players the benefit of that doubt that what we saw in Las Vegas was an aberration and that the new era under a man who won national titles as a player at Miami (1989 and 1991) and as an assistant coach at Alabama (2015) begins today with a clean slate.

What Cristobal inherited was a team that should win at least eight games in 2018 given the presence of junior quarterback Justin Herbert, the return of several key players on what was a greatly improved defense, and a weak schedule that included three non-conference powder puffs. 

Reaching 10 wins, or more, will require maintaining the momentum created by Taggart, keeping Herbert healthy (UO went 1-4 in his absence last year due to a broken collarbone) and flushing the offense's showing in Las Vegas while recapturing the magic that had the Ducks averaging about 50 points per game during the regular season when Herbert was in action. 

"I think last year there was a foundation laid between all of us that gave us a chance to start building upon that but there's a big difference between winning seven games and winning eight, nine, 10, 11," Cristobal said.

To reach those levels the Ducks (7-6 last season) must have success against Washington, Stanford and the Chip Kelly-led UCLA Bruins at home, while also finding a way to win potentially tough road games at Arizona and Utah. 

The problem is that there is much mystery to unravel before anyone can rightfully believe that Oregon is going to find those 10 wins and contend in the Pac-12 North. 

Cristobal hasn't been a head coach since being fired from the same position with Florida International in 2012 after going 27-47. The Ducks are on their third coach in 15 months (Mark Helfrich was fired in December of 2016). Backup quarterback remains a huge issue. Wide receiver is in flux. The defensive line lacks depth. Freeman is gone. 

Plus, Oregon's aura as a dominant force has waned. The conference is not longer chasing Oregon. The Ducks are the one doing the hunting. And there's reason to believe that the hierarchy of conference coaches are not shaking in their boots fearful of the Cristobal era sweeping through the conference and laying waste to opponents. 

None of this is to say that Cristobal won't find success. He very well could. He also very well could not. 

We won't know the results for months. But that process begins today. 

Notes: UO will practice five times in March before taking time off for finals and spring break before returning to the field on April 3 to prepare for the spring game on April 21 in Autzen Stadium...Oregon will hold a practice at Franklin High School in Portland on April 7.  The Ducks practiced at Jesuit High School last spring. 

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 1)...: They find a backup quarterback

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 1)...: They find a backup quarterback

Oregon's promising 2017 season ended with a wild two weeks that saw Willie Taggart depart for Florida State, coach Mario Cristobal take over the program, recruits decommit left and right and then the Ducks fall flat during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, the 2018 season could see Oregon return to Pac-12 prominence. That is, if a lot of variables play out in the Ducks' favor. We will take a position-by-position look at the team to discuss what must happen in order for Oregon to rise again in 2018. 

Other position entries: QuarterbackRunning backsReceivers/Tight endsOffensive lineDefensive backsLinebackersDefensive line.   

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Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 1)...: They find a backup quarterback.

Key departure: Senior Taylor Alie.

Projected 2018 starter: Justin Herbert, Jr., (6-6, 225). 

Key backups: Braxton Burmeister, Soph., (6-1, 204); Tyler Shough, Fr., (6-4, 190).

What we know: Oregon, other than during the Las Vegas Bowl, had one of the best offenses in the nation when Herbert was healthy. He will be the unchallenged starter again in 2018 and could find himself in Heisman Trophy contention should he remain in the lineup and the Ducks improve on last year's 7-6 record. 

What we don't know: Can the Ducks survive any length of time without Herbert in 2018? Unless Oregon brings in a transfer quarterback, the backup will either be Burmeister, who struggled greatly during the five games Herbert missed last season (57 percent completions, two touchdown passes and six interceptions), or Shough, a four-star recruit who plans to enroll in time for spring drills.

What must happen for Oregon to contend: Herbert must avoid injury or one of the two youngsters had better become serviceable enough to prevent the offense from imploding upon their insertion into the lineup. 

Oregon went 1-4 minus Herbert last year while scoring about 15 points per game. Herbert missed the toughest part of the team's schedule last season. If he were to miss a weaker stretch of games next year, maybe the Ducks survive his absence in the short term. If he misses any stretch that includes key games against the likes of Washington, UCLA, Stanford or Arizona, the Ducks could be cooked.   

That is, unless Burmeister grows up in a hurry or Shough turns out to be the next Herbert. 

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if...: Tony Brooks-James is ready dominate. 

Mark Helfrich takes intriguing route toward reinvention with the Chicago Bears

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USA Today

Mark Helfrich takes intriguing route toward reinvention with the Chicago Bears

Mark Helfrich's move to the NFL as the Chicago Bears new offensive coordinator hit the sports world today like an unblocked, blindside blitz. 

Bam!

Where did that come from?

Helfrich waited 13 months before jumping back into the coaching world after Oregon fired him in 2016 following a 4-8 season just two years after he had guided the Ducks to the national title game. During his hiatus, according to some close to Helfrich, he received interest from several college teams about becoming their head coach or offensive coordinator. Repeatedly, however, Helfrich rejected inquiries while instead choosing to keep his family in Eugene, take time off from coaching, work in television and consider his future coaching options. 

Now he's back in the coaching game, taking his quarterback developing and offensive coordinating skills to the NFL to work for a team in desperate need of an offensive overhaul.

It's an interesting move for Helfrich and one that smacks of a man attempting to completely reinvent himself as a coach. It's a move that could pay off big time should he find success.

The easy move for Helfrich would have been to join former Oregon coach Chip Kelly at UCLA as the Bruins new offensive coordinator. Kelly hired Helfrich for the same position at Oregon in 2009 and the results were the greatest run of offensive production and victories in program history before it all came crashing down in 2016, four seasons after Kelly departed for the NFL. 

But taking that rout would have placed Helfrich right back under Kelly's shadow. Had they been successful, all of the credit still would have gone to Kelly just as it did while the two were at Oregon. 

By heading to the NFL, however, Helfrich is taking a swing for the fences at the highest level the sport has to offer.  Helfrich will still be in the shadows of an offensive-minded head coach in Matt Nagy, hired by the Bears this week away from Kansas City.

Nagy has said that he will call the plays in Chicago, as Kelly did for Oregon, which means that Helfrich's heavy lifting will be done during the week while game planning, offering play call suggestions during games and, maybe most importantly, assisting in the development of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. 

The irony here, of course, is that one of the more amusing takes from Helfrich haters has been that he failed to develop a quarterback while riding the coattails of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to success for two years post Kelly. Of course, that's a complete contradiction given that Helfrich recruited and developed Mariota.  Helfrich also coached and developed Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas, and he recruited, developed and coached Bryan Bennett and Justin Herbert. 

In the end, Helfrich's starters at Oregon were Masoli, Thomas, Mariota, Vernon Adams, Dakota Prukop and Herbert, a certain future NFL draft pick. That's one hell of a run for any coach, and it's one that current coach Mario Cristobal will be fortunate to duplicate, providing he remains at Oregon long enough to do so.  

But, because Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak didn't work out, Helfrich has somehow labeled by some as having been a failure at developing quarterbacks. 

All of this nonsense also ignores the fact that long ago, while Helfrich was the quarterbacks coach at Boise State, he helped Bart Hendricks earn Big West Conference player of the year in 1999 and 2000. Later, Helfrich coached quarterbacks at Arizona State where he helped Andrew Walter set numerous ASU and Pac-12 record, and become a third-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. 

Both stints were under coach Dirk Koetter, a former Oregon offensive coordinator and the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach (more on that connection later).

In 2006, at the age of 32, Helfrich became the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation at Colorado. That run led to Kelly hiring him at Oregon in order to add Helfrich's pro-style acumen to Kelly's spread attack. 

Now Helfrich finds himself in the NFL as an offensive coordinator. The reality is this: Should he succeed in developing Trubisky and help Nagy turnaround the Bears' offense, Helfrich would then be in position to work his way toward becoming a head coach in the NFL. 

That's typically how these things work. The NFL is all about connections. Helfrich has a few, including Koetter. 

But, at the end of the day, Helfrich must produce. He must develop Trubisky. He must help Chicago's offense rise from its 2017 ranking of 30th in the NFL. Chances are that he will do just that. The guy can coach. He proved as much by going 33-8 over three seasons before that disastrous 2016 mess. He's also proven, despite inane beliefs to the contrary, that he can develop quarterbacks. 

Should Helfrich work that magic again, he could be will on his way to far bigger and better things than Oregon football. 

Oregon's Cristobal momentum goes bust in Las Vegas Bowl

Oregon's Cristobal momentum goes bust in Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon coach Mario Cristobal didn't want to hear about his team possibly having played uninspired football and being distracted during a 38-28 loss to No. 25 Boise State Saturday afternoon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Senior safety Tyree Robinson shook his head and smirked at the mere suggestion that the Ducks (7-6) were impacted at all by the emotional rollercoaster the players endured last week when former coach Willie Taggart bailed for Florida State and three days later Cristobal took over the reigns. 

Yet, to pretend that none of that madness contributed to the uncharacteristically bad showing by Oregon against BSU (11-3) on Saturday defies logic. 

"I don't think our guys were uninspired," Cristobal said. "We just didn't play well."

Not playing well equates to making some mistakes here and there that cost you a game. Simply not playing well does not explain away rushing for just 47 net yards after gaining 268 per game during the regular season or why an offense that averaged 52 points per game with sophomore Justin Herbert at quarterback didn't find the end zone until the third quarter against Boise State. 

"We just wanted to do whatever we can, lay our bodies on the line for (Cristobal)," Robinson said when pressed further about the team's emotional state during the game. "We're not worried about the decision that coach Taggart decided to make. We were playing for this coach now and that's all that matters."

Truthfully, it would be more comforting to know that the Ducks were indeed distracted. Otherwise, the alternative is that they simply got out-coached, out-worked and smacked around by what amounts to an inferior opponent on paper. What exactly would that mean for Oregon's future?

The team we saw go 6-1 with Herbert at quarterback (he missed five games with a broken collarbone) and stop cold a rising Arizona team before destroying a bad Oregon State team to close out the season appeared headed for a 10-win season in 2018. The team we saw on Saturday would be lucky to become bowl eligible again. 

The Ducks played conservative football in the first half with a lot of short passes as if freshman Braxton Burmeister were still filling in for Herbert. The offense line, coached by Cristobal, played awful football. 

Not only couldn't Oregon run well, but the Ducks offered mostly shaky protection for Herbert, who was sacked four times and harassed into two uncharacteristically badly thrown interceptions, one resulting in a 53-yard touchdown return that gave the Broncos a 24-0 lead in the second quarter.  

"We just didn't execute," said Herbert, who also lost a fumble. "We didn't move the ball when we needed to. We didn't hold up our end of the bargain."

The defense didn't play particularly well, either, but did keep Oregon in the game with two defensive scores within the final minute of the first half thanks to some horrible decisions by the Broncos. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye recovered a fumble off of a botched Statue of Liberty play and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown. Later, Robinson intercepted a horrifically thrown pass route into the end zone and ran it back for an Oregon record 100 yard touchdown return that make the score 24-14 at halftime.  

Those two miracles only delayed the inevitable. The Ducks simply didn't have it on this day. And who really could blame the team for coming out flat. There is simply no way that this team was not impacted by the entire goings on over the previous two weeks. Let's recap:

  • Taggart on Dec. 1 informs team that he would listen to Florida State, which upsets many players.  
  • Taggart goes on a recruiting trip on Dec. 4 in which he also interviews with Florida State. 
  • Taggart returns that same day, and according to some players, sends mixed messages about his intentions. 
  • Taggart tells the team on Dec. 5 that he is leaving after one season, which leads to some players taking to Twitter to essentially call him a liar. 
  • Taggart is introduced at FSU on Dec. 6 while some of Oregon recruits from its top-five ranked recruiting class begin decommitting. 
  • Oregon begins a coaching search while players wonder who will be their third head coach in a year. 
  • Cristobal is named interim coach, which upsets defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. 
  • The players sign a petition asking the administration to make Cristobal the permanent head coach, which probably didn't make Leavitt feel too grand. 
  • Rumors start to swirl about Leavitt leaving and some of the rest of the coaching staff moving on, as well. 
  • Cristobal is officially named head coach on Dec. 8.  
  • The Ducks coaching staff begins the process of trying to salvage the recruiting class while also preparing for a quick turnaround to play Boise State in just eight days.
  • Senior running back Royce Freeman announces that he will not play in the bowl game, news that senior running back Kani Benoit said after the game that the team already knew was coming. 
  • The Ducks take the field against a team with inferior overall physical talent but plenty of determination and stability, and not contending with major distractions.
  • Oregon falls behind 24-0 and never recovers. 

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When you list it all out like that it what we saw on Saturday makes perfect sense. There is a fine line between being great and being mediocre. Oregon, when it had that swag, looked amazing at times. Mix in the nine-day stretch they experienced prior to the Las Vegas Bowl and you get what you saw on Saturday. 

It would be easy to point the fingers at Cristobal's coaching. But he, like his team, was also placed into an unfair situation. He went from orchestrating the running game as the co-offensive coordinator and line coach to running the team. Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo went from coordinating the passing game for Taggart, who called plays, to calling the plays himself.

Saturday's game shouldn't be given too much credence in terms of predicting the Ducks' future under Cristobal. Oregon will have eight months to get things situated before next season, which begins with three cupcake games. 

Plus, it's not as if we don't have two somewhat recent examples from the past to back up the idea that Saturday was just a bad day not a prelude to disaster. And it just so happens that one example involves Boise State while the other includes the Las Vegas Bowl. 

In 2006, the Ducks looked even worse than they did Saturday during a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl (Oregon should never return to this game) during a 7-6 season only to bounce back the following year and contend for the national title before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down for the season with a knee injury. 

In 2009, Chip Kelly made his debut as Oregon's coach at Boise State and lost 19-8 before righting the ship to lead UO to the Pac-10 championship in 2009. 

Maybe Oregon, under Cristobal, could make a similar rebound from Saturday to find great success. 

"We've got to get back to work once we come back off the break and re-establish ourselves and recognize the good things that were accomplished this year, and the things that have to be made better," Cristobal said. "And we will. We will focus on that and go forward."

Time will allow the Ducks to do so with a much clearer focus.