Jacob Breeland

How Oregon's offense changes without Jacob Breeland

How Oregon's offense changes without Jacob Breeland

The Ducks have lost their fifth player for the season due to injury. Senior tight end Jacob Breeland’s injury suffered in No. 12 Oregon’s victory over Colorado will sideline him the remainder of the season and leave a gaping hole in the Duck offense.

Without Breeland, the Ducks are without their leading receiver and quarterback Justin Herbert’s go-to guy.

Breeland was off to his best season as a Duck. His reliability has proven to be an asset for Herbert, catching 26 of his 32 targets this season. Breeland has been one of Oregon’s main sources for explosive plays: totaling 24 receptions of 20-plus yards in his career, seven this season already. His 403 receiving yards leads FBS tight ends and his six touchdowns is tied for the lead.

Will the offense change without Breeland?

After Breeland went down in the first quarter, no tight ends caught a pass in UO's win over Colorado. Herbert targeted junior Hunter Kampmoyer in the third quarter but the would-be touchdown pass went through his hands. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal acknowledged that Kampmoyer would "like to have back" that incompletion in the end zone.

Would Oregon consider shifting towards playing more wide receivers? No. Cristobal added that there is no plan to eliminate the tight end position from the offense because that would negatively impact the running game and conflict with the team’s “personality”.

Is depth at tight end going to be an issue?

Next up at tight end is senior Ryan Bay and Kampmoyer, who are both listed as starters. The upperclassmen received a lot of reps leading up to the season when Breeland was rehabbing a previous injury but don’t have much in-game production:

-Kampmoyer has two career catches for 25 yards and a touchdown

-Bay scored his first career touchdown vs. Nevada and has 14 career catches for 129 yards

Redshirt freshman Spencer Webb will move back to tight end from slot receiver, where he moved in August when the wide receiver unit experienced multiple injuries. Remember: Webb delivered as the big-bodied target Herbert desperately needed against Auburn.

[READ: Spencer Webb: a "natural" offensive weapon ready to be cut loose]

Also, Patrick Herbert, who has been with the developmental squad, will get more time with the travel squad.

Oregon previously lost tight end Cam McCormick for the remainder of the season.

“The way we develop, the way we train, we have confidence in the next man up,” Cristobal said. “It showed up Saturday again on both sides of the ball. Complete confidence and trust in our guys and we have to continue to prepare and continue to elevate the way that we prepare.”

How does this impact Saturday’s pivotal game?

Oregon (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) will face a tough defense in rival No. 25 Washington (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday (12:30 p.m., ABC). The Huskies are coming off of a win at Arizona in which the Huskies' defense tallied a season-high four takeaways. UW is currently riding a streak of 63 games of holding opponents to less than 35 points.

The loss of Breeland is significant in the critical Pac-12 North Division show down.

Good and bad injury updates for Oregon vs. Washington

Good and bad injury updates for Oregon vs. Washington

Oregon’s victory over Colorado was bittersweet.

A balanced Duck offense and strong defense = sweet.

Injury to Oregon’s leading receiver = bitter.

Senior Jacob Breeland suffered a left knee injury Friday night against Colorado.

Late in the first quarter, after catching a 22-yard pass from quarterback Justin Herbert, Breeland was tackled out of bounds and immediately grabbed his leg. Breeland did not get up for a few plays and was immediately taken to the medical tent. He did not return to the game.

In No. 12 Oregon’s organization chart for the upcoming rivalry game against No. 25 Washington, Breeland is not listed. Oreogn coach Mario Cristobal announced Breeland will be out for the remainder for the season.

 

His 403 receiving yards leads FBS tight ends and his six touchdowns is tied for the lead.

Breeland was off to his best season as a Duck. His reliability has proven to be an asset for Herbert, catching 26 of his 32 targets this season. Breeland has been one of Oregon’s main sources for explosive plays: totaling 24 receptions of 20-plus yards in his career, seven this season already.

Entering the season, Breeland was projected to go undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft but his performance this season has changed that. Bleacher Report called Breeland one of their biggest risers in the NFL Draft and CBS Sports picked him to be a first round selection.

Next up at tight end is senior Ryan Bay, junior Hunter Kampmoyer, redshirt freshman Spencer Webb and true freshman Patrick Herbert. Oregon previously lost tight end Cam McCormick for the remainder of the season.

Sophomore safety Jevon Holland and senior linebacker Troy Dye, who also suffered injuries on Friday, are listed on the depth chart. After the game Cristobal said those injuries were “minor” and both are cleared to play at Washington. 
 

With NFL Scouts in the house, Justin Herbert shows why he is the "best quarterback in college football"

With NFL Scouts in the house, Justin Herbert shows why he is the "best quarterback in college football"

Quarterback Justin Herbert gave the people the show that they’ve longed for.

With an astounding amount of NFL scouts present, Herbert provided highlights that won’t soon be forgotten by Oregon fans, Colorado’s defense or the professional teams with a top-10 draft selection.

No. 13 Oregon’s offense exploded to thump Colorado 45-3 on a chilly Friday night game in Autzen Stadium. The chills weren’t caused from the wind, but instead from thrilling throws from the 6-foot-6 240-pound passer with deadly arm.

“The offense was scoring so fast, we would sit down to try to drink some water and the offense had already scored,” junior safety Brady Breeze said. “It’s amazing to see.”

Herbert made it look easy to his leading receiver, senior tight end Jacob Breeland. On the first drive, Herbert connected with Breeland for a seven-yard touchdown to give the Ducks (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) a quick lead. The touchdown extended Herbert’s nation leading touchdown pass streak to 34 straight games. It also marked Breeland’s sixth touchdown of the season, first among tight ends.

RELATED: [Breeland was off to a hot start before suffering an game-ending injury in the first quarter]

Junior wide receiver Jaylon Redd may need to ice his hands after Herbert’s 13 yard touchdown bullet in the third quarter. Redd's diving touchdown grab was his second touchdown of the game and marked his fifth straight game with a receiving touchdown, the longest streak in the country.

“It’s sensational,” said Redd describing catching passes from Herbert.

“Herbert is the best quarterback in college football right now, so anytime I get an opportunity I’m doing whatever I can to please him.”

Then there was the multiple highlights between Herbert and freshman phenom Mycah Pittman. Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal decided to go for it on fourth and five, and the Ducks converted the first down with a crossing route to Pittman, moving the chains and sparking the offense.

The duo shined again to set up a last second touchdown before the half came to a close. Herbert let it fly to Pittman for a 39-yard reception to put the Ducks in the red zone.

He finished 18-32 for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, Herbert’s stunning passes were against a Colorado pass defense that entered the game ranked 124th in the nation.

But, they could have played down to their opponent. They didn’t and the Duck offense gained rhythm and confidence as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Herbert showed up in the spotlight and now he must shine the rest of the way for Oregon to stay atop the North Division through tougher opponents.

Injuries mounting for Oregon Ducks

Injuries mounting for Oregon Ducks

Late in the first quarter, senior tight end Jacob Breeland went down with an injury and did not return to the game.

The tight end caught a 22-yard pass from Justin Herbert, was tackled out of bounds and immediately grabbed his leg. Breeland did not get up for a few plays and was immediately taken to the medical tent.

Breeland, the Ducks’ leading receiver, had a strong start to the game before the injury: three receptions for 53 yards and Oregon’s first touchdown of the game. He leads the nation among tight ends with six touchdowns this season.

This season, Breeland has become Mr. Dependable, with 26 receptions and 405 receiving yards, averaging of 15.6 yards per reception.

Late in the second quarter, senior linebacker Troy Dye and sophomore safety Jevon Holland experienced an unfortunate collision. It appeared Holland's calf hit Dye's helmet as both players dove for the runner. Both Ducks were slow to get up and attended to by medical staff.

Dye walked off the field to the injury tent and returned to the game a few plays later.

Holland was helped to a chair on the sideline before leaving the stadium on a cart. Holland returned to the sideline in the third quarter in a boot. 

Holland is Oregon’s second leading tackler, behind Dye, with 24 tackles and three interceptions this season. He has eight career interceptions, the most by an active Oregon player. Holland is also averaging 24.4 yards per punt return, the highest in the nation.

The only good news is, Oregon responded with a touchdown, a red zone stand and then another touchdown before halftime to extend the lead to 24-3.

10 numbers to know: Oregon vs. Colorado

10 numbers to know: Oregon vs. Colorado

The Ducks have redemption on the mind in their upcoming game against Colorado on Friday night in Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal’s 20th game as head coach. No. 13 Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) is looking to win its seventh of the last eight matchups against Colorado (3-2,1-1) at 7 p.m. Friday October 11 at Autzen Stadium.

Here are 10 stats and numbers you need to know to be the fan-dropping knowledge at the tailgate:

REDEMPTION ON THE MIND

The last time the two teams met on the field, Colorado came into Autzen and shocked the Ducks with a 41-38 victory in 2016. The Ducks haven’t forgotten that defeat. It was the first-career start for Colorado quarterback Steven Montez, who is still the Buffalo’s starting quarterback. Montez had a record-setting day in the game, throwing for 333 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 135 yards and another score to become the first player in CU history to have 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game.

DOMINATING DUCK DEFENSE

Oregon's defense is yielding just 9.8 points per game, best in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation. UO has held its last four opponents to single digits, the first Power 5 team to do so since Michigan in 2015. Oregon has allowed just one touchdown over its opponents' last 51 drives and has forced 17 three-and-outs over that span.  

BETTING LINE

The Ducks opened as 20.5-point favorites over Colorado. The over/under has been set at 57 total points.

[READ: Is Oregon's offense boring? Maybe. But here's why it doesn't matter]
THIBODEAUX TIME

Gus Cumberlander will miss the remainder of the season, according to Coach Mario Cristobal. True freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux is being called into the starting role. Thibodeaux is coming off his best performance yet as a Duck, which earned him Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. Against Cal he provided major highlights, recording his first sack and finishing the game with two. It’s time for the 6-foot-5, 242-pound defensive end to unleash his ability.

BUFFALOS VS. RANKED FOES

The No. 13 Ducks will be Colorado's third ranked opponent this season. The Buffaloes are 2-0 in those games, beating both No. 25 Nebraska and No. 24 Arizona State in September.

A WIN WOULD…

Improve Oregon to 3-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time since 2013.

HOLLAND DOES IT ALL

Safety Jevon Holland is Oregon’s second leading tackler, behind Troy Dye, with 24 tackles and three interceptions this season. He has eight career interceptions, the most by an active Oregon player. Holland is also averaging 24.4 yards per punt return, the highest in the nation.

DEPENDABLE, EXPLOSIVE BREELAND

Senior Jacob Breeland has caught 23 of his 28 targets this season. His five touchdown catches rank second in the nation among tight ends. Breeland has been one of Oregon’s main sources for explosive plays: Five of Oregon’s 34 plays of 20-plus yards were to Breeland, two of which were touchdowns. Currently, Breeland has 22 receptions of 20-plus yards in his career.

BURNED REDSHIRTS IN 2019 CLASS

Now that Oregon has played five games, there are eight Ducks from the 2019 class that have burned their redshirt eligibility. If you aren’t familiar with the new redshirt rule established in 2018 by the NCAA, college football players can play up to four games in a season and still redshirt without burning a year of eligibility.

True freshman who have played in all five games and can no longer redshirt: wide receiver Josh Delgado, linebacker Mase Funa, defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, cornerback Mykael Wright, defensive back DJ James, defensive back Jamal Hill, linebacker Ge’Mon Eaford and kicker Camden Lewis.

HERBERT MAKING HISTORY

In Oregon’s most recent win over Cal, quarterback Justin Herbert moved into second at Oregon in career passing yards with 8,411, behind only Marcus Mariota.
 The senior’s 15 touchdown passes in the last five games are the most over that span in school history.


Oregon vs. California: 10 numbers to know

Oregon vs. California: 10 numbers to know

The well-rested Oregon Ducks will will face California in their Pac-12 Conference home opener on Saturday at 5 p.m.

Oregon (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) is the only remaining team in the North Division without a loss and looking to stay atop of the North standings. The No. 13 Ducks have won nine of their last 10 games against Cal (4-1, 1-1) and scored 40 or more points in the last eight matchups vs. the Golden Bears.

Here are 10 stats and numbers you need to know to be the fan dropping knowledge at the tailgate:

BAD NEWS FOR THE BEARS

Cal’s first defeat of the season came with a major blow. Starting quarterback Chase Garbers suffered a right shoulder injury during Cal’s 27-17 loss to Arizona State Friday night. Bears coach Justin Wilcox announced Monday night that the sophomore is out indefinitely.

BETTING LINE

The Ducks opened as 14-point favorites over the Bears. The line has since shifted to -18 with a 46 total points over/under.

[READ: Oregon football's depth chart has exciting additions]

NEXT MAN UP

Bears backup quarterback Devon Modster will likely be in command vs. Oregon. Modster transferred to Cal this past offseason after leaving the UCLA program in 2018. Last Friday in relief, he completed just five of his 12 passes for 23 yards with one interception in the Arizona State end zone. “Honest, I think I played terrible. I could have played a lot better,” Modster told reporters.

DUCK DEFENSE IS DOMINATING

For the first time since 1933, Oregon hasn’t allowed a touchdown in three consecutive games. The Duck defense has kept opponents out of the end zone for 38 consecutive drives.

HERBERT VS. CAL

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert has nine career touchdown passes vs. Cal, tied for his most against one opponent. The senior looks to extend two nation leading streaks on Saturday: 32 consecutive games with a touchdown pass and 174 attempts without an interception.

QUICK STARTS

Oregon is one of two FBS teams (Wisconsin) that hasn't allowed a first half touchdown this season, while outscoring its opponents 84-15 in the first half through the first four games.

A WIN WOULD…

Improve Oregon to 2-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time since 2013.

BREELAND ALL BUSINESS

Senior Jacob Breeland is the national leader among tight ends with five touchdowns this season. He is fourth in career receiving yards among Oregon tight ends all-time with 1,085. Breeland’s reliability has been crucial, catching 18 of his 21 targets this season.

WATCH OUT FOR HOLLAND

Safety Jevon Holland is coming off a career-high eight tackles and recorded his second interception of the season against Stanford. His seven career interceptions rank second most career interceptions among sophomores in the nation (Syracuse’s Andre Cisco has 9).

CRISTOBAL ON FIRE AT HOME

Oregon looking to improve to 9-1 at home under coach Cristobal against Cal. 

How Juwan Johnson, Mycah Pittman and Brenden Schooler's return changes the Oregon offense

How Juwan Johnson, Mycah Pittman and Brenden Schooler's return changes the Oregon offense

Oregon’s offense and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s play calling have largely been criticized through four games of the 2019 season. While the lack of an established running game is extremely concerning, the continuously improving passing game is about to get even better.

Oregon’s passing attack could have three more weapons for quarterback Justin Herbert in the Ducks’ Pac-12 home opener against No. 15 California on Saturday, Oct. 5.

The No. 13 Oregon Ducks (3-1, 1,0 Pac-12) have nearly doubled their opponents in passing yards, 1,216 to 640, while scoring 16 passing touchdowns compared to two scored against. Herbert’s perfectly placed throws have often been jaw dropping and his numbers show it. Herbert has completed 74.4 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception through four games, a 14-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His quarterback rating is seventh in the country at 183.61 and that’s with five scholarship receivers out with injuries.

The Ducks receiving corps took hard injury hits before the season. Three of the hardest hits were losing graduate transfer Juwan Johnson (soft tissue injury), Mycah Pittman (shoulder injury) and Brenden Schooler (foot injury).

"The guys that we lost, they’re legitimate not only intermediate threats, quick game threats, they’re guys that can stretch the field," Oregon Coach Mario Cristobal said. "We certainly look forward to having those guys back and when you have guys like that back you feel like you can enhance a lot of the things that you do."

Pittman, who was expected to contribute or possibly start this season, practiced for the first time with the team on Wednesday in pads but wearing a non-contact jersey. The true freshman’s initial 6-8 weeks projection would mark Pittman healthy as early as Oregon’s game against the Golden Bears. Pittman implied a sooner rather than later return when he tweeted “2 more weekkksss!” on September 8.

Before the injury, he was turning heads and splitting first team reps at slot receiver. Pittman has strong hands, a running back body and excels at getting separation.

The best case scenario for Schooler’s initial rehab projection would also be vs. Cal. Cristobal expects the senior to practice for the first time on Thursday this week in Oregon’s second full-pad practice of the bye week. Schooler’s return will impact the offense, special teams and the intangibles through his veteran leadership.

Juwan Johnson, who has been practicing off and on throughout the season, has yet to play a down in an Oregon uniform. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound receiver with an advantage in size and experience, is “day-to-day”, according to Cristobal, who says his injury has not worsened.

Juwan Johnson and Herbert’s connection intensified throughout spring and summer. Johnson brings needed experience to the position: playing in 16 more games than the Ducks’ most veteran wide receiver, Schooler (21 games). Plus, his large, powerful, physical frame is unlike the other receivers currently on Oregon’s roster along with his ability to power through and over defensive backs.

The return of these three explosive targets adds options for Herbert and will undoubtedly enhance the passing attack in short, intermediate routes and down the field. The biggest area of improvement I expect will come in offensive plays of 20 or more yards. The Ducks’ 14 passing plays of 20-plus yards currently ranks 47th nationally. Herbert’s arm is capable plus Arroyo laments not attempting more downfield passes to Oregon’s inexperienced receivers in the Ducks’ loss to Auburn in week one. Since the defeat, the Ducks’ explosion plays have increased, in particular to tight end Jacob Breeland and wide receiver Johnny Johnson III.

Johnny Johnson III is leading the Ducks with 22 receptions, already a season-high in his UO career. After an up and down Oregon career, Johnson III said,  ‘Enough is enough. It’s my time,’ and has proved to be a reliable target this season. Breeland, who currently leads the Ducks in yards, totaling 265 yards on 18 receptions and five touchdowns, is a constant goal line threat.

Cristobal isn’t going to stray from his run-first, win the battle in the trenches, physical offense. Through four games, the Ducks are at a 50/50 pass to run ratio and the passing yardage (1,216) close to doubles the rushing yards (619). Yes, it’s been rough to watch the Ducks pound the ball time and time again with often limited success but the efficient passing game provides some relief.

With Juwan Johnson’s size, Pittman’s hands and Schooler’s speed, expect a more explosive and exciting Oregon offense that will stretch the field when the three targets return.

Oregon’s home opener marked with momentous firsts and lasts

Oregon’s home opener marked with momentous firsts and lasts

EUGENE - It's been 294 days since Shout has echoed through Autzen Stadium. As the sun set, the third quarter closed and Oregon led by more than 50 points, the familiar tune sounded extra loud as the Ducks sideline grooved and gestured to the stands to “get a little bit louder now.”

In his final home opener, smiling senior linebacker Troy Dye danced alone to the Autzen Stadium tradition on the 15-yard line, pumping up the rowdy 50,920 fans that watched Oregon dominate Nevada, 77-6.

Teammate Brady Breeze was happy to see Dye let loose.

“He was just having fun, today was a day to have fun,” Breeze said. “Sometimes when you are playing football, you are so focused on making a call or the next play, that you don’t enjoy that you are playing in front of thousands of people and living your dream.”

It’d be an understatement to say that loads of fun was had by many Oregon players. Fourteen different Ducks recorded a reception and all 11 touchdowns were scored by different players. The offense rolled to make a strong statement that dates back a decade. The win marked the 10th straight home opener that Oregon scored 50 or more points. The Ducks’ 77 points tied a program modern era record and the Autzen Stadium scoring record.

The game didn’t start as rosy as it finished. Quarterback Justin Herbert’s first two drives were marked with a few uncharacteristic missed throws. However, the senior regained his composure after the underwhelming start with an explosive 66-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Breeland. The score extended the quarterback’s nation-leading streak of 30 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

Herbert caught fire after that first quarter touchdown, darting throws over the middle and commanding the offense to complete his next 10 of 11 passes. Herbert finished with 310 passing yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions in his 30th career start.

Herbert joined Marcus Mariota and Joey Harrington as the only quarterbacks in program history with multiple games with five passing touchdowns.

The quarterback wasn’t the only Duck to shine in their final season opener.

Breeland led the Ducks with 112 receiving yards on four catches. The 6-foot-5 senior tight end set a career-high in yards and reached his first career 100-yard receiving game. In the post game press conference, Breeland was caught off guard when realizing that it was his last season opener as a Duck.

Aside from the “lasts” the victory showcased many “firsts” that are a peek into Oregon’s not-so-far-off future.

Backup quarterback Tyler Shough took control of the offense half way through the third quarter. Shough’s first career completion was also his first career touchdown: A seven-yard pass to wide receiver Jaylon Redd.

An astounding five Ducks scored their first-career touchdowns.

"We found a whole bunch of guys that want to make plays and are able to, so we put them in today,” Herbert said. “I'm really happy for them that they stepped up big-time. It's fun to watch."

Daewood Davis, who coaches moved from cornerback to receiver to help with depth in the depleted unit, scored on a tight rope 16-yard pass from Herbert.

Wide receiver Bryan Addison, who earned the start, scored a 24-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left in the first half.

Ryan Bay, a 6-foot-3 senior tight end who walked on to the team as a freshman, scored his first career touchdown with a 16-yard grab in the second quarter.

Hunter Kampmoyer, a tight end who began his career as a defensive end, scored on a 21 yard pass from Shough.

Safety Brady Breeze recovered a DJ Johnson forced fumbled and took it to the house.

The biggest tight end on the field was offensive lineman Brady Aiello wearing a number 82 jersey. Aiello got to do what most linemen only dream about: catch a touchdown pass from the quarterback they usually protect.

 “I’m very jealous of him,” Oregon coach and former offensive lineman Mario Cristobal said. “It’s what I wanted my entire life.”

On defense, inside linebacker Sampson Niu came away with first career interception and forced his first career fumble.

Not to be overshadowed is the “firsts” from the true freshman from UO’s highest-ever rated 2019 recruiting class. A total of 14 true freshmen saw action in the game.  Outside linebacker Mase Funa’s got his first career sack, the first of many for the highly-touted four-star prospect. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux provided a highlight, tackling the Nevada punter for an 11-yard loss after a bad snap. Tight end Patrick Herbert made his first appearance under the college football lights. Running back Sean Dollars recorded his first carry, finishing with 12 yards on four carries.

The blend of the firsts and lasts with the veterans and newcomers meshing cohesively together, is enough to make Dye (and the Oregon fan base) want to shout.

Bye week good timing for Oregon injuries

Bye week good timing for Oregon injuries

 

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal gave a bye week injury update on the Pac-12 coaches conference call, as the No. 18 Ducks prepare for No. 10 Washington. 

 

Senior running back Tony Brooks-James: Suffered an ankle injury during the loss to Stanford, played only on special teams at Cal. According to Cristobal, Brooks-James "practiced full-go" on Tuesday and is healthy.

Defensive end Austin Faoliu: After being held out of last week's game, Faoliu is close to fully healthy and Cristobal expects him to be "full go" by Wednesday or Thursday. 

Tight end Jacob Breeland: Traveled to Cal but did not play. According to Cristobal, Breeland "practiced full-go" on Tuesday and is healthy.

Backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister: Still rehabbing a minor procedure on his knee. Cristobal expects him to be practicing late next week.

Running back CJ Verdell: Reportedly had a minor knee injury which caused him to miss some of the second half. Cristobal called it "a scare" but that he could have gone back in the game. Verdell is 100 percent healthy and already practicing this week. 

Running back Darrian Felix: A bruised foot has limited his playing time but Cristobal expects him to practice this week.

 

MORE DUCKS:

Oregon basketball mentioned in basketball corruption trial

Best and Worst from Oregon vs. Cal: Did the good outweigh the bad?

Rivalry kickoff time set: Oregon vs. Washington

Ducks win, rise in AP Poll

Oregon flexes resiliency, Herbert makes it rain vs. Cal

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.