There was something different about the 2019 Oregon spring football game.
The spring scrimmage finale provided the expected excitement about the potential of next season and appreciation for the United States military. However, Coach Mario Cristobal laid out the red carpet and invites to elevate the usual big alumni weekend to “something bigger."
“So important for our players to learn more about our past,” Cristobal said. “To grow as a football team understanding that for us, upholding the legacy requires a lot and seeing (alumni) face-to-face and eye-to-eye.”
The support for the present squad was insane; surrounded by former Ducks and future Ducks alike. The Autzen Stadium sideline was bursting with Oregon legends and chockfull of a deep collection of talented recruits.
In front of Pro Football Hall of Fame member Dan Fouts, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the nation’s top quarterback recruit D.J. Uiagalelei, Mighty Oregon (first team offense/second team defense) beat the Fighting Ducks (second team offense/first team defense), 20-13.
It’s a good sign when the only moment of contention came at the end of the third quarter when the sound system experienced major difficulties during the “Shout!” song and dance; fans could barely hear the Autzen Stadium tradition and made their displeasure known. But that doesn’t mean the 35,100 fans in attendance weren’t electrified by what they saw.
Quarterback Justin Herbert is still elite, throwing a pair of touchdown passes and making zero errors. However, back-up quarterback Tyler Shough stole the show. Oregon fans can breathe easy knowing the Ducks have a reliable backup quarterback. After not attempting a pass last season, the redshirt freshman made effective short throws and looked poised with quick decision making. He’s added 10 pounds of muscle and is looking every bit the fit of a Pac-12 starting quarterback.
"It definitely felt good,” said Shough. “At this point, it's just executing the game plan and executing the plays and having fun out there. I know we have good players around me so just feeding them the ball the best I can."
Shough finished with 178 receiving yards on 18-of-31 passing with one interception and 12 rushing yards.
The battle to replace former leading receiver Dillon Mitchell’s production was on full display and it appears Herbert will have plenty of offensive weapons in 2019. With large-and-in-charge graduate transfer Juwan Johnson, freshmen Mycah Pittman and Josh Delgado plus improved veterans Jaylon Redd, Brenden Schooler and Johnny Johnson III, Oregon’s wide receiver room is deep.
After an up-and-down 2018 season, Schooler showcased his development with the highlight catch of the day; a 26-yard sideline fade grab with Thomas Graham draped all over him. Pittman led all receivers with seven receptions. Johnson snagged three catches, one for a touchdown. His 6-foot-4, 230-pound size advantage will be a constant goal line threat.
Maybe the best news? Zero dropped passes from the wide receivers. Although, a few catchable balls hit the turf from Oregon’s tight ends.
According to Cristobal, Oregon running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio has earned a larger role in 2019. Habibi-Likio had 12 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown and three catches for 24 yards.
The defense showed they haven’t missed a beat under new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. La’Mar Winston Jr. looks to be the top candidate to play Avalos’ “STUD” position. It’s clear Kayvon Thibodeaux will make an instant impact. The nation’s top recruit generated consistent pressure and recorded a sack.
“The best part about it is his expectation for himself is as big or bigger as we have for him,” Cristobal said. “I don’t want to be a cliché guy, but he’s got a five-star heart and five-star talent.”
Of the 10 early enrollees of UO’s 2019 recruiting class, four are defensive players and Thibodeaux wasn’t the only one to shine in the spring game. Cornerback Mykael Wright led the team with five tackles, three pass break-ups and a game-sealing interception in the end zone.
UO now enters its offseason strength and conditioning program while the coaches hit the recruiting trail. On a beautiful spring day and the blooming of a spring tradition that puts emphasis on alumni and legacy, it was a good day to be a Duck.