Johnny Johnson III

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. 

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson won't play tonight vs. Cal, return date unclear

SOURCES: UO WR Charles Nelson won't play tonight vs. Cal, return date unclear

Oregon senior wide receiver Charles Nelson will not play tonight when the Ducks (3-1) host California (3-1) at Autzen Stadium, according to sources. 

Nelson, who sprained his right ankle two weeks ago during UO's 49-13 win at Wyoming, missed last Saturday's 37-35 loss at Arizona State (2-3, lost today at Stanford) and was seen this week still wearing a walking boot. 

How long Nelson will be sidelined remains unclear, but indications are that his return is not imminent.

Oregon hosts No. 16 Washington State (5-0) next week.  The Cougars upset No. 5 USC last night by the score of 30-27. 

Oregon clearly missed Nelson last week at Arizona State. UO started sophomore Brenden Schooler in place of Nelson and he managed to catch just two passes for 27 yards. Regular starters, sophomore Dillon Mitchell and freshman Johnny Johnson III have been steady but neither has demonstrated the consistency and play-making ability that Nelson has delivered for four seasons with the Ducks. 

Nelson ranks second on the team with 15 receptions and first with 243 yards. 

Mitchell, Johnson and Schooler are not ideal slot receivers in coach Willie Taggart's offense. But freshman Darrian McNeal has struggled thus far and junior Taj Griffin only recently moved to receiver after coming to Oregon as a running back. Both are listed as Nelson's backups on Oregon's depth chart. 

Oregon's young receivers dropped several passes against the Sun Devils and at times ran routes incorrectly or were not aligned properly, all typical mistakes for young receivers. 

Nelson was clearly going to be a go-to receiver for sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert and was on pace for to make roughly 60 receptions this season before his injury.