Cyrus Habibi-Likio

High expectations and laughable goals: WR Mycah Pittman's debut

High expectations and laughable goals: WR Mycah Pittman's debut

Eugene, OR- Mycah Pittman just shined in his Duck debut in No. 13 Oregon’s 17-7 win over California in which he made two spectacular diving catches that awed the sell out crowd of 54,766 in Autzen Stadium. Yet, the freshman walked off the field slowly, with a concerned look on his face that caused senior quarterback Justin Herbert to stop, put his arm around the young receiver and give him some encouragement.

Why so serious?

Because Pittman’s not satisfied.

“If he could, he’d put another hour on the clock and keep playing, that’s the kind of guy that he is,” Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal said. “You see how excitable he is when he touches the ball. Those aren’t easy catches, either… I was very happy that he’s healthy because it means the world to him. Looking forward to more explosive moments from him (and fellow slot receiver Jaylon) Redd.”

His four receptions and 43 yards helped the Ducks grind out the ugly win. The Ducks offense woke up just in time to improve to 2-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time since 2013. Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) remains the only team in the North Division without a conference loss.

But Pittman has higher expectations.

“People tell me that I had a great game, I didn’t have any dropped passes, but at the end of the day I feel like I can do more for this team,” Pittman said. “We got a team win and I’m very grateful for that but personally, I’m very hard on myself… I’m a very competitive guy. If I told you guys my goals, you would laugh at me.”

When pressed, Pittman would only add his goals are “really high."

Since stepping foot on campus, the Pittman hype has been full go. During fall camp, he was the most talked about true freshman, making Oregon fans reel in excitement. A shoulder injury, from (of course) making a diving catch in practice set back his plans, changing course to rehabbing and exercising mental reps.

His first game proved that his athleticism and reliable hands are as good as advertised. The “fire in his belly” is also living up to the hype.

“I’ve always told everyone this, he has amazing hands, the best hands I’ve seen from a receiver,” said corner back Thomas Graham. “He’s very tough on himself and I like that, because I’m tough on myself. If you don’t hold yourself to a higher standard than what standard can you tell people to hold you to?”

Pittman’s ruthless attitude is echoed on the Duck defense, which once again came through to keep Oregon in the game. Oregon forced seven Cal three-and-outs and two turnovers.

Freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux also recorded his first sack, finishing the game with two.

“I was so excited, my blood was going I felt like a shark when there's blood in the water," Thibodeaux said. "I mean it was unbelievable."

The relentlessness is also exemplified in sophomore running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who couldn’t help but stop a rogue fan who ran onto the field during a TV timeout. He was toying with security when Habibi-Likio stepped up to take down the fan, even though strength and conditioning coordinator Aaron Feld told him not to.

“I had no intention to hurt him,” Habibi-Likio said. “It’s a Pac-12 game and we were down and the momentum was slipping away. Cal Coach (Justin) Wilcox seemed frustrated so he was signaling the security to get him and they weren’t able to get him. Coach Feld told me, ‘don’t do it, don’t do it’ because he saw me pacing back and forth but I had to do it.”

Habibi-Likio scored Oregon’s first touchdown late in the third quarter from a situation he is very comfortable with: on the goal line. The Ducks combined for 206 rushing yards, surpassing the rushing total against Stanford (83 yards) in the first quarter alone.

It wasn’t pretty: Travis Dye fumbled the ball twice, Herbert threw his first interception of 2019, Oregon committed eight penalties (four more than their average per game); and CJ Verdell went down an injury (although the X- Ray came back negative, ankle sprain, according to Cristobal).

However, faced with an opportunity to fold, the Ducks stood. Herbert finished 20-for-33 for 214 yards and was able to extend his touchdown streak to 33 games with a one-yard pass to junior wide receiver Jaylon Redd to all but seal the game in the fourth quarter.

All in all, it was a victory in Pac-12 play. The biggest win? The Ducks, like Pittman, aren’t satisfied.

Oregon running back Travis Dye’s spin move isn’t his only weapon

Oregon running back Travis Dye’s spin move isn’t his only weapon

As a freshman, Oregon running back Travis Dye quite literally flew onto the scene with his ferocious jump cuts and spin moves. His breakaway speed and agility amounted to 739 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 140 carries.

The 5-foot-10, 192-pound sophomore may be the hardest worker on the team based on the stories his teammates disclose about him.

Wide receiver Jaylon Redd smiled wide when talking about determined Dye. Redd detailed that on multiple occasions, when the defense gets an interception in practice, Dye will be the Duck to sprint all the way down the sideline to keep them from the end zone.

“His effort is there, his heart is there,” Redd said.

Fellow running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio complimented Dye’s integrity. Habibi-Likio was impressed with Dye after he missed a block and linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. got around him. Later that day in film session, coaches missed the play and instead of dodging the error, Dye brought it back up so that the position room could go over it, correct it and learn from it.

His character earned A+ remarks from his team… And so did his on-field development and refined skills.

“He is a lot more physical this year,” Habibi-Likio said. “He’s able to run in between the tackles a lot more… He’s not afraid to put his head down and if there is someone in the way, he’s going to try to get through them instead of get around them.”
Over the past year, the game has slowed down for Dye, he knows the playbook like the back of his hand, his blocking has improved and he’s playing more physically. He’s ready to one-up himself, specifically when it comes to breaking runs of 10-plus yards and 20-plus yards.

“When I get the ball I’m always trying to shoot for touchdowns, not first downs,” Dye said.

The competition with the defense has been no laughing matter during fall camp. As it’s extremely difficult for any defensive Ducks to compliment their offensive teammates, including Travis’ brother, star linebacker Troy Dye.

“Iron sharpens iron, as everyone says,” Troy Dye said of his brother, Travis. “It’s always fun to compete against anybody and it’s a little more fun when it’s Travis.”

The shifty Dye is also an enticing option for the Ducks at punt and kick returner. He’s been one of a few contenders who have been taking reps and getting a shot during fall camp.

Special teams need aside, the Ducks desperately need Dye to help UO’s transition to Cristobal’s hard-pounding vision. The Ducks struggled with the physical, between the tackles rushing attack in 2018, finishing the season with the 191 rushing yards per game, the least amount for this program since 2006.

The good news? The Ducks return the entire starting offensive line and both leading rushers in CJ Verdell and Dye. Better news? Dye is trending upwards, improving rapidly towards the latter half of the season. Dye had 507 rushing yards after mid point of the season. To close out Pac-12 play, he rushed for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games, including his record setting Civil War performance.

This season, Dye is adding physicality to his determination and naturally agility… Which is just what the Ducks need for a reliable run game and success in 2019.

LaMichael James' take on Oregon's Sean Dollars: Dangerous

LaMichael James' take on Oregon's Sean Dollars: Dangerous

The best recruiting class in Oregon football history is in Eugene and preparing for their first collegiate season. Hype surrounds the star-powered 2019 class looking to make an instant impact, including Sean Dollars, who has all the tools to have a stand out freshman season and develop into a starting running back before his time is up at Oregon.

He’s also caught the eye of former Duck running back star and Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James who believes Dollars is already “college ready.”

“I think he will be a special player once he gets his opportunity,” James said. “He’s the highest rated running back to come to Oregon since Jonathan Stewart. You pair that with the best offensive line Oregon probably has ever had and it could be a dangerous combo.”

Dollars is the highest rated running back on Oregon’s 2019 roster and the nation’s No.1 all-purpose back, per 247sports. He is one of three Mater Dei High School players to sign with Oregon in the 2019 class. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound special talent is praised for his versatility to be a workhorse, every-down type of back that can also catch the ball out of the backfield.

"Can do it all,” Coach Mario Cristobal said. “Line him up in the slot, line him up in the backfield, empty, wildcat — you name it, he can do it. Excellent as a kick returner, also."

But exactly how can the Ducks’ utilize Dollars and where does he fit on the depth chart?

2018 saw the emergence of Ducks duo CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who will be excellent for years to come. Cyrus Habibi-Likio is poising himself for a breakout season and Darrian Felix had a strong spring showing before being sidelined by illness.

[READ:Underdog Ducks will beat Auburn: Oregon football prediction]

That’s enviable veteran experience, which creates a good problem for UO offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and running back coach Jim Mastro.

Should Dollars enter Oregon’s fall camp in peak physical and mental shape, he could be an elite addition to the backfield. James compared the potential blend of speed and power of the 2019 UO backfield to when he was a Duck (2009-11).

“Verdell is a downhill runner; north and south with force… I love how he runs,” James said.  “Dye is a slasher and a smooth transition from Verdell. Then you have Dollars who can be used in unique ways. (It reminds me of) me, Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff, who were all pretty exchangeable in backfield.”

Undoubtedly, Dollars’ elusiveness and versatility will make him a special player at Oregon. In the right role, Dollars’ could climb the depth chart and start his Duck career right away with a money freshman season.

Oregon Mailbag: Who is really calling plays? What's the deal with the horn?

Oregon Mailbag: Who is really calling plays? What's the deal with the horn?

Each week I will answer five of your best questions from Twitter or Instagram.

Who is really calling plays? Will that screeching horn continue to roar through Autzen Stadium? Which running backs will get the most touches? Plus, a look ahead to the toughest road game and how you can stay informed on all things Duck football related.

Question from Thurios on Twitter: Coach Cristobal has said he reserves the right to change a defensive or offensive play call by the respective coordinators. What criteria must occur to cause him to do that?

Answer: Co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt are Oregon's play callers. With that said, Cristobal meets with Arroyo and Leavitt throughout the week to help game plan, including game day to review and change any schemes and all situations. As head coach, he reserves his veto right. Therefore, the criteria for him to change a play is up to him.

 “I’m always on the headset with both sides because if there is a call that I feel really isn’t the best call for us at the time, then I’ll do whatever necessary to make sure we get the best call,” Cristobal said.

Question from Penny on Twitter: Will that horrible horn sound continue in Autzen?

Answer: According to 247 sports, the loud siren sound you may have heard blaring through Autzen stadium when the Duck defense faced a third down is taken from the horror movie, The Purge.

The idea to have the horn blasted on crucial downs came from the team, specifically defensive lineman Jordon Scott and defensive back Ugo Amadi, to alert the fans to get wild and loud. It also serves as an alert to the Duck defense that it’s time to bear down to get a stop.

I’ve seen the movie (it’s terrifying), so while it might take some getting used to, if the horn riles up the fans and team, I’m all for it. According to Eric Skopil’s report, the horn appears to be staying.

Question from Tyler on Twitter: Who separates themselves from the others at RB before Stanford? Which 3(ish) can we expect to get the majority of touches by month’s end?

Answer: It’s no secret that Oregon flexed its depth by spreading the ball out to all six of its scholarship running backs in its 58-24 victory over Bowling Green. Freshman CJ Verdell led the way with 51 yards, Cyrus Habibi-Likio was the only running back to score, while freshman Travis Dye was the first running back off the bench.

Going forward, will Oregon's stat line show six running back rushers? Not once Pac-12 conference play begins.

Yes, there is a plethora of talent, but expect the old man of the group to be the lead workhorse, “Grandpa” Tony Brooks-James. Behind Brooks-James, each back has a select skill set that could be used differently to game plan for opponents.

If I had to predict who will receive the majority of touches after Brooks-James, I’d say Verdell, Habibi-Likio and sophomore Darrian Felix. Verdell’s strength is his breakaway speed, Habibi-Likio is the largest back on the roster and uses his power to barrel through a defense, and Felix has the experience and explosive lateral quickness.

Question from NBCSportsNW on Twitter (my employer so I had to include!): Which Oregon football away game will be toughest for the Ducks to win?

Answer: Oregon plays at Cal (9/29), Washington State (10/20), Arizona (10/27), Utah (11/10) and Oregon State (11/23). Of those five away games I think Arizona is the most dangerous. The Ducks take on the Wildcats in Tucson on the second of back-to-back road games.

Yes the Wildcats did lose to BYU in their opener, but the duo of new coach Kevin Sumlin and dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate makes the Wildcats (7-6 last season) an intriguing team to watch this season.

Arizona returns its leading passer and rusher in Tate, who electrified with 1,591 passing yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 1,411 yards (9.2 per carry) and 12 touchdowns.

Question (from multiple people on Twitter): What kind of Duck TV coverage does NBC Sports NW plan on?

Answer: Talkin’ Ducks will be our weekly Oregon show. It airs at 7pm on Friday nights and is hosted by Jordan Kent, with me, Aaron Fentress and Joey Harrington as panelists.

If you are looking for supplemental Oregon coverage, I will be on the Brian Noe Radio show (Rip City Radio 620) at 1:45pm every Friday. Also, our website is jam packed with video and written content.

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

Who will be the next president of Running Backs University, also known as, Oregon Football? 

Turns out, No.24 Oregon (1-0) has a seven-headed monster leading its rushing attack. In the Ducks' 58-24 win over Bowling Green tonight, six running backs played and totaled 212 rushing yards with an average of five yards per rush.

Who makes seven? Quarterback Justin Herbert who finished with 41 rushing yards on six attempts.

Herbert was 10-of-21 for 281 yards passing with five touchdowns (an Oregon season opener record) and two interceptions.

"(Our running backs) are a young group that worked hard this offseason," Herbert said.  "I’ve got confidence in them.” 

Coach Mario Cristobal made a statement today in his first season opener as UO's head coach. The dominant victory removed the unease left by the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State in Crisotbal’s debut and set up the Ducks to dominate their nonconference opponents.

"We wanted to spread the ball out a little bit and give each guy a turn,” Crisotbal said. "For the most part (the running backs) had some pretty good success. Whatever form that works to keep moving the chains and scoring points, is what we are going to do."

Ready for the running back monster break down?

Redshirt freshman CJ Verdell led the Ducks with 51 yards on 13 carries and showed glimpses of his breakaway speed. 

Sophomore Darrian Felix barreled for 38 yards on eight attempts. He did not look afraid of contact, and his explosive lateral quickness makes him an intriguing option.

Freshman Travis Dye, who enrolled early at Oregon for spring football, rushed for 37 yards on seven attempts. He is the younger brother of UO junior linebacker, Troy Dye.

After the game, Troy Dye praised his younger brother’s first college football performance but also poked fun at his sibling. "At the end of the day he's still a bum," Dye said. 

Redshirt Senior Tony Brooks-James, who started the game, finished with 27 on five attempts. He utilized his explosiveness during one 15-yard run and on a 53-yard reception.  

Senior running back Taj Griffin only rushed once for four yards but took a screen pass from Herbert 83 yards for a touchdown. 

“We all know what Taj can do when he has some space," Cristobal said. 

Cyrus Habibi-Likio, a redshirt freshman, scored his first college touchdown and finished the game with five rushing yards on one attempt. 

“(Habibi-Likio) is a big power guy that can make things happen,” Cristobal said.

[WATCH: Cyrus Habibi-Likio, the next LeGarrette Blount?]

Going forward, will Oregon's stat line show seven rushers? Maybe not. But it sure did give reason for optimism for Oregon's power-tempo offense. 

Said Cristobal: “Will it be like that every single game? It’s hard to do that every single game.”

Oregon's RB situation has reached boy band status

Oregon's RB situation has reached boy band status

Oregon appears to be going with the boy band approach to the running back position. Oregon's depth chart lists redshirt senior Tony Brooks-James as the starter followed by the word, "situational" for the backup position. 

That's because the Ducks, who open the season Saturday at home against Bowling Green, have yet to identify a clear backup. The plan for now is to shuffle up to five other running backs in and out of the game: Redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell, sophomore Darrian Felix, senior Taj Griffin, redshirt freshman Cyris Habibi-Likio and freshman Travis Dye.  

"They all deserve to play," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. 

Adding to the madness is the fact that Brooks-James doesn't appear to have established himself as the clear No. 1 back, but instead he is the best among the group. Consequently, we could see as many as four to six running backs in a given game. 

This isn't good news for Oregon. The most successful boy bands of all time had a clear front man, such as Michael Jackson (Jackson 5) and Justin Timberlake (NSYNC). The same can be said about the most successful Oregon teams. One, maybe two running backs got the job done. Not five or six. You only roll with that many when you don't have a clear leader and maybe a sidekick.  

This is an unusual approach for the Ducks, or any other team for that matter.

For the first time since 2013, Oregon does not have a clear No. 1 running back. Oregon's front man the past four years, Royce Freeman, is now with Denver in the NFL, leaving the Ducks to use a running back by committee until someone emerges. Brooks-James is the starter, but Cristobal didn't make it sound like he is the clear top dog. 

"We've all seen through the years that he has flashed some greatness...," Cristobal said. "When we come off the sideline he deserves to be the first running back out there." 

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for your lead running back. It smacks of being loaded with reservations that Brooks-James is the go-to, 20-carry-per-game guy.

Oregon faced similar questions in 2013. That season, sophomore Byron Marshall rose to the occasion to rush for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. The following season, UO moved Marshall to wide receiver because the Ducks had Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Taj Griffin at running back.

Oregon has been set at the position ever since. Prior to 2013, the Ducks featured Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount, Jeremiah Johnson and Jonathan Stewart, dating back to 2006. 

Oregon would be quite pleased if Brooks-James performed this year as Marshall did in 2013. But it appears that that doesn't prove to be the case, Oregon is prepared to give a ton of players a chance to contribute. 

Having a glut of good running backs is not a bad thing when all is going well. It truly doesn't matter who is carrying the ball when the holes are huge and the offense is rolling. We saw that in 2016 when Royce Freeman went down at Nebraska but the trio of Kani Benoit, Brooks-James and Taj Griffin ran wild for a combined 205 yards.

But when Oregon needed a steady running back to grind out games against tougher opponents in Freeman's absence (or when he returned but was hindered by a bruised sternum), that guy was not to be found and it hurt Oregon.

The easiest part of being a running back is jolting through a huge hole. The toughest part is finding a couple of yards when they don't appear to be available. That's what made Johnson, Stewart, James, Barner and Freeman so great.  

Brooks-James failed to rise to the occasion in 2016 but did show flashes of being a great back. Now, two years older, he could be ready to answer the call. 

"I've never had (a back) that fast before, in my career," new UO running backs coach Jim Mastro said. "That's a strength. Obviously, when you can take the ball and any minute go 100 yards, 90 yards, that's unique. He's being a great leader. He's took on the role of trying to be the guy. He's done some really good thing."

Again, not exactly a clear declaration that Brooks-James is the man. 

Cristobal said he hopes that each running back's unique skills can help the team. Verdell is a good downhill runner. Dye can juke anyone with his jump cuts. Felix is an elite athlete. Habibi-Likio offers size. Griffin is a prove home run hitter. 

Splice them all together in a lab (the one we all know exists in the bowels of the Hattfield-Dowlin Complex) and Oregon would have the perfect running back. Right now, Oregon simply has a glut of talented backs backing up a senior yet to show that he can carry a team's rushing attack. 

Cristobal said that UO's up-tempo offense would provide plenty of opportunities (80-90 plays per game) for all of the backs to display their talents. The first three opponents, which includes Portland State and San Jose State, should provide easy victories and plenty of opportunities for Oregon to give all of its running backs a fair look. 

"They are all going to get their touches," Cristobal said. 

But once Pac-12 play starts, Oregon would be better off if the field behind Brooks-James has shrunk and he has established himself as the MJ or JT of the 2018 Oregon running game. 

Dazzling UO running backs: The locks, contenders and long shots

Dazzling UO running backs: The locks, contenders and long shots

Who will be the next president of Running Backs University?

Oregon football has an elite history of dazzling running backs. Jonathan StewartLegarrette BlountLaMichael JamesKenjon Barner and Royce Freeman; all 1,000-yard rushers. If we look even farther back, Reuben Droughns (1998-99) and Derek Loville (1986-89) also should be added to the list of all-time greats.

The past four seasons, Oregon could count on Freeman, who carried the bulk of the rushing load and holds Oregon’s career rushing yards record (5,621) and career touchdowns record (60).

[READ: FREEMAN SCORES AGAIN FOR DENVER BRONCOS]

Those are some pretty big cleats to fill. Here is a look into the locks, contenders and long shots at one of the most important UO positions.

LOCKS

Tony Brooks-James, senior: Enters his senior season with 2,375 career all-purpose yards with 1,557 rushing yards, 399 kick return yards and 319 receiving yards. Brooks-James landed on the Doak Walker award watch list following his second straight year with 1,000 all-purpose yards despite not being a full-time starter.

He’s a weapon on special teams and was the only Pac-12 player with a kickoff return for a touchdown in 2017.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said Brooks-James has bulked up about 12 pounds to 190 this season. He is listed as the second-fastest player in the country, according to both Bleacher Report and NFL.com. His increased size and fierce speed makes him the front-runner to win the starting nod at running back.

"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. 

Taj Griffin, senior: Listed as a running back after spending last season as slot receiver, it’s Griffin’s last UO season to shine. In his last two seasons, he’s had just 55 carries but has shown peeks into his lethal speed and playmaking ability.

In 2015 as a freshman, Griffin was the team's second option at running back and finished the year with 732 all-purpose yards, 570 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

“Taj is healthy, so he is in a real good place now,” Cristobal said. “He has worked his tail off and he’s going to be a significant part of our offense.”

[WATCH: A game of would you rather with UO QB Justin Herbert]

CJ Verdell, redshirt freshman: Coming off a productive offseason, Verdell showed off his breakaway speed in UO’s spring game. The three-star rushed for a team-high 44 yards on eight carries, scoring both of Oregon's two rushing touchdowns during the game.

UO coaches and teammates rave about Verdell’s power and toughness, and if not for an ankle injury, he may not have been redshirted last season. Verdell has been “dinged up” and missed a week of fall camp, but is expected to be available for Oregon’s opener against Bowling Green, according to Cristobal.

Verdell rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns at Mater Dei high school.

CONTENDERS

Cyrus Habibi-Likio, redshirt freshman: The 6-2, freshman is Oregon's tallest and heaviest running back. He’s listed at 207 pounds on the roster but is now weighing in at 215 pounds thanks to Coach Feld’s rigorous strength program. Expect him to be utilized as a heavier, power back and as a weapon on special teams. His goal is to create mismatches in the slot.

“Cyrus has got power, he’s fast and he’s got really good hands,” Cristobal said. “He’s a very instinctive player and he’s played defense so he is all over the field on special teams.”

Habibi-Likio models him game and looks up to former Oregon running back Legarrette Blount.

Darrian Felix, sophomore: Saw action in nine games last season as a true freshman. He carried the ball 30 times for 182 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scored once.

The 5-11, 191-pound sophomore is the only running back besides Brooks-James and Griffin with on-field experience. His explosive lateral quickness makes him an intriguing option. Felix has been practicing with a a non-contact red uniform but should be cleared in time for the opener.

LONGSHOTS

Travis Dye, freshman: Enrolled early at Oregon for spring football after rushing for 2,383 yards and 34 touchdowns as a high school senior at Norco High school in California. In the UO spring game, he rushed for 12 yards on five carries.

Dye has four older brothers that have played (or are playing) college football, including star Duck linebacker, Troy.

Dye has recently returned from injury and is full-go, he has seen some practice reps with the No.1 offense.

[READ: How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon]

Noah Dahl, sophomore: A walk-on from Silverton high school in Oregon. He led Silverton to the 5A state title game as a junior while being named to the All-State first team as a defensive back and kicker. As a senior running back he was named to the Class 5A All-State second team and the Mid-Willamette Conference first team.

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

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

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

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 backs; LinebackersDefensive line.   

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Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges. 

Key departures: Senior Royce Freeman moved on to the NFL after breaking nearly every school record imaginable.  Versatile senior backup Kani Benoit is also gone.  

Projected 2017 starter: Tony Brooks-James, RSr., (5-9, 175),

Key backups: Darrian Felix, Soph., (5-11, 178); C.J. Verdell, RFr., (5-8, 192); Taj Griffin, Sr., (5-11, 178); Cyrus Habibi-Likio, RFr., (6-0, 208). 

What we know: Freeman is gone. Let's all take a moment to reflect on his greatness.

Now, let's take a moment to reflect on what his absence could mean for Oregon.

Yikes!

Then toss in the loss of Benoit. 

Double yikes!

Oregon hasn't lost this much running back talent in one offseason since maybe ever. But, in typical Oregon tradition, there is a potentially great running back waiting in the wings. 

Brooks-James has rushed for 1,557 yards in his career on 226 carries (5.9 per carry) and has scored 14 rushing touchdowns. If he managed to put up those same numbers in one season, the Ducks will be in business. 

Essentially, Oregon needs Brooks-James to become the next Kenjon Barner, who after backing up LaMichael James for three seasons, rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior in 2012. 

What we don't know: Can Brooks-James be that guy? And, will he truly need to?

At a listed 178 pounds, it might be a lot to ask of James to carry the ball 20 times per game and survive the season. If he isn't up to the task, the Ducks do have options, albeit of the unproven variety. 

Felix saw minimal time as a freshman and gained 182 yards. The real wild card is Verdell, who by all accounts is the next great UO running back in waiting. He redshirted in 2017 due to injuries and ample depth already in place. 

We can't ignore Griffin, who was moved to wide receiver last season but still received some carries. He has 848 career rushing yards in his career on 6.1 yards per carry. 

Habibi-Likio has a lot of ground to make up on the depth chart in order to crash the rotation next season. But he does offer more bulk at 208 pounds than every other running back, except maybe Verdell, who packs 192 pounds on his 5-8 frame.  

What must happen for Oregon to contend: Clearly, Oregon must be able to run the ball well in order to succeed. Ideally, the Ducks will have a clear No. 1 back, and that man should be Brooks-James. But he doesn't have to match the level of play displayed in the past by the likes of Jonathan Stewart, James, Barner or Freeman. Brooks-James could simply be what Byron Marshall was in 2013 when he rushed for 1,068 yards and 14 touchdowns while Thomas Tyner chipped in 711 rushing yards and De'Anthony Thomas went for 594. 

If Oregon gets that type of production out of its top three running backs in 2018, the Ducks will be just fine. 

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 3)...: Someone compliments WR Dillon Mitchell. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: LBs - Tough competition ahead

How Oregon's recruits fit in: LBs - Tough competition ahead

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsWide receivers/tight endsOffensive line, Defensive line, Defensive backs.

Today: Linebackers.

New Ducks: Inside linebackers Sampson Niu (6-1, 217, Madison, H.S., San Diego, Calif.) and Isaac Slade-Matautia (6-1, 206, St. Louis High School, Honolulu, Hawaii), and athlete Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis H.S., Mountain View, Calif.). 

Projected starters (3-4 defense): Outside linebacker Troy Dye, Soph., (6-4, 225), inside linebacker A.J. Hotchkins Sr., (5-11, 230), inside linebacker Jimmie Swain, Sr., (6-2, 235) and outside linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr., Soph., (6-3, 220).

Key backups: Inside linebackers - Danny Mattingly, RSr., (6-5, 245) and Keith Simms, Soph., (6-3, 235). Outside linebackers - Eric Briscoe, RFr., (6-3, 225), Justin Hollins, RJr., (6-6, 235) and Kaulana Apelu, Jr., (5-11, 200).

The situation: Oregon has plenty of young talent to work with here. Dye is a star. Simms and Winston were 4-star recruits in 2016. Hollins could be an interesting option if he moves to linebacker from defensive end. 

Only Dye is untouchable in the starting lineup with Swain and Hotchkins as the front-runners to start inside. However, they will have to fend off Simms and two very talented inside linebackers, four star recruits Niu and Slade-Matautia. 

Niu, ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 12 inside linebacker in the nation, has a chance to play right away assuming he adds some weight. Playing inside at 217 pounds likely won't cut it.  Slade-Matautia was rated No. 11 in the nation. He is listed at 206 pounds and must add bulk. 

If they live up to their billing, Niu and Slade-Matautia could have an impact in 2017. But that's a big if. 

There's reason to believe that the young outside linebackers, Winston and Briscoe, will take the next step and compete for playing time. They will be joined in that race by Habibi-Likio should he start off his career at linebacker. He could play safety, or even running back.  

The verdict: This competition should be wild. Oregon has seven linebackers that are freshmen or sophomores. Something has to give. On the inside, Swain came on strong late last year but Hotchkins was wildly inconsistent. Expect at least one of the two freshmen inside linebackers to play in 2017. Habibi-Likio might have a tougher battle in front of him on the outside because of the potential of Briscoe and Winston. But only Dye has established himself there. In other words, who truly knows what's going to happen? This could be the Ducks' most interesting position group to watch. 

Next up: Defensive backs

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: Quarterbacks, Wide receivers/Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive lineLinebackersDefensive backs.

Today: Running backs.

New Ducks: Darrian Felix (5-11, 194, Fort Myers High School, Fort Myers, Fla.),  C.J. Verdell (5-9, 195,Mater Dei Catholic High School, Chula Vista, Calif.) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis High School, Mountain View, Calif.).

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210) and Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

The situation: Oregon is set to return four running backs that combined for nearly 2,200 yards rushing last season.

For that reason, finding playing time for any of the three incoming freshmen could prove to be impossible.

None of them has a chance to beat out Freeman for the starting job. Chances are that Brooks-James is too experienced and talented to be unseated at No. 2.

The only way one freshman would have a chance to rise into the rotation would be if Benoit transfers and/or Griffin is slowed in his return from the knee injury he suffered late last season.

While all three incoming freshmen were three-star recruits, Verdell is the highest-rated among them. Rivals.com had him as the 26th-ranked running back in the nation. He rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns on 9.2 yards per carry as a senior.

Habibi-Likio, who says he also hopes to play linebacker or safety, wasn't quite as productive as Verdell but brings more size and power to the party. 

Felix is a burner with more size than Griffin. 

The verdict: Unless something gives, Oregon will have seven scholarship running backs on the roster next fall. That means the three freshmen will redshirt if all four returning backs are healthy and ready to go. If not, one of the freshmen could make a mark as a backup or on special teams. But figure that at least two freshmen running backs will redshirt in 2017.