ugo amadi

Ugo Amadi, the Duck who does it all, has something up his sleeve

Ugo Amadi, the Duck who does it all, has something up his sleeve

Senior Ugo Amadi likes sending Oregon fans into a frenzy.

Autzen Stadium roared when Amadi scored the first touchdown of the game against UCLA; a dazzling 56-yard punt return taken to the house.

Last month at California, the ball-hawk stunned with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

He is the only player in the nation with a punt return for a touchdown and a pick-six. After each, he earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors.

So basically, when Amadi scores a touchdown, he gets recognized. However, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal thinks Amadi deserves more acknowledgement.

“I hope that he is further recognized as one of the best players in the country," Cristobal said. "Because what he has brought to the table, the multiple positions he plays on defense, what he has done on special teams, not only as a returner but on coverage units as well, it has changed us. It really has.”

Cristobal laughed and continued to say he would try to talk Amadi into returning kickoffs as well.

Amadi has become Oregon’s main punt returner this season averaging 24.8 yards on eight returns, only after he suggested the new position to coaches in the offseason. He isn’t laughing about the idea of increasing his role to include kickoff returns. On the contrary, he continues to shove his high school film in front of Cristobal to pitch the idea. Will he get his chance this Saturday in Salt Lake City, Utah?

“Not yet. It’s in the works,” Cristobal said. “(Amadi) is very capable. He’s made sure I go back and watch his high school film again, for the 18th time, so that I see that he has the skills to do so. He’d be excellent at it.”

Jury is still out on if Amadi should add the salesman title to his resume. According to nose tackle Jordon Scott, Amadi is most likely to be a magician.

What?

Amadi agreed because he is “always doing something out of the ordinary.”

The senior certainly likes to delight an audience. Amadi put on a show last season against Utah, in perhaps the best play of his junior year. He punched the ball away from former Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington and ran it back 47 yards for the touchdown.  

This week, the Ducks and Amadi face a tough road game at Utah, who is tied for first in the Pac-12 South Division with a 4-3 conference record. The Utes have a run-heavy offense and an NFL-caliber running back in Zack Moss that will challenge Oregon’s front seven. However, a report just came out that Moss is out for the rest of the season. 

Amadi or the “quarterback of the defense” as Cristobal calls him, will be as integral as ever for Oregon. The Ducks will need their leader to halt a two-game road losing streak. 

Will Duck fans explode with noise due to another Amadi sparked play? With just three Pac-12 conference games left in his college career, who knows what else Amadi has up his sleeve.  

One streak that's guaranteed to end: Oregon vs. Utah numbers to know

One streak that's guaranteed to end: Oregon vs. Utah numbers to know

Oregon hits the road for a tough test against Utah, who is tied for first in the Pac-12 South Division with a 4-3 conference record. Want to drop knowledge at the tailgate? Here are seven numbers to know. 

Ducks are going streaking: A victory would be Oregon’s third straight win in Salt Lake City. Remember in 2016 when the Ducks upset then-No. 12 Utah? True freshman quarterback Justin Herbert led Oregon to a game-winning touchdown pass to Darren Carrington with just two seconds to beat the Utes, 30-28.  

Mitchell is leading everyone: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell leads the Pac-12 conference in; receiving yards (833), receiving yards per game (92.6), receptions resulting in a first down (38) and 20-yard grabs (15). The junior is first player in UO program history with six or more receptions in six consecutive games.

A streak that will end: Center Jake Hanson as made 34 consecutive starts at center (every game of career).
 UO’s offensive line will be without Hanson for the first half, due to a targeting call last Saturday.

Nobody like Amadi: Safety Ugo Amadi is the only player in the nation with a punt return for a touchdown and a pick-six. The senior earned Pac-12 Conference Player of the Week for his special teams performance vs. UCLA; returning a punt 56 yards for a touchdown.

QB1: Redshirt freshman Jason Shelley will make his first career start at quarterback after junior Tyler Huntley sustained a season-ending injury. Shelley has played in four games (Weber State, Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State), completing 6-of-14 pass attempts for 99 yards with a long of 40 vs. Weber State.

100: The Utes only allow 100 rushing yards per game, the best rushing defense in the conference and tied for ninth in the nation. Oregon is averaging 177.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks fourth in the Pac-12 and 56th nationally.

Home field advantage: The Utes have sold out 55 straight games in Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,807 capacity) since the 2010) season opener, including 52 standing room-only crowds.

8 numbers to know: Oregon vs. Washington rivalry

8 numbers to know: Oregon vs. Washington rivalry

If you want to be the Duck fan with all the facts about the rivalry matchup this Saturday, here are some numbers to know. 

Ranked Opponents Galore: No. 17 Oregon will take on its third consecutive ranked opponent when it hosts No. 7 Washington Saturday at Autzen Stadium at 12:30 p.m. It’s the first time in program history that Oregon has played three consecutive ranked opponents (then No. 7 Stanford, then No. 24 Cal, No. 6 Washington) while also being ranked. If the Ducks win, it’ll be the first time they have back-to-back victories over ranked teams since the 2014 season.

Lopsided Rivalry: Washington has won the past two matchups against Oregon by a combined score of 108-24. Prior to that, the Ducks had a 12 game winning streak that started in 2004 to 2015.

“We don’t ever try to hide, mask or down play going into rivalries,” said UO coach Mario Cristobal in Monday’s press conference.

[READ: Cristobal could earn a major bonus at Oregon; 2018-19 salaries released]

Interception Kings:  Oregon leads the Pac-12 conference and is tied for 12th nationally with eight interceptions. Senior Ugo Amadi and freshman Jevon Holland each have three interceptions.

The Herbert-Mitchell Connection Is Real: Junior wide receiver Dillon Mitchell has 344 receiving yards in the first two Pac-12 games, just five yards short of Oregon’s two-game record. Of Mitchell’s 27 catches this season, 22 have resulted in a first down or a touchdown.


Verdell is Balling: Redshirt freshman running back CJ Verdell is the first Oregon freshman in school history to rush for 100+ yards in his first two career conference games (115 yards vs. Stanford, 106 yards at Cal). Verdell ranks eighth among freshmen nationally with 420 rushing yards.

The Justin Herbert Advantage: The quarterback has completed 76.4 percent (42-of-56) of his passes in Pac-12 games, including 22-of-27 in the first half. His first start came vs. the Huskies in 2016. This season, Herbert ranks sixth in the nation in yards per attempt (10.4 yards per attempt).


Home is where the heart is: Oregon has won 10 of its last 14 games against Top 10 opponents at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks have won 23 of its last 26 at home when nationally ranked.

“It’s no secret Autzen is gonna be quite a scene on Saturday,” said Crisotbal. “It provides such an advantage for us. Intensity for a rivalry like this is through the roof.”

Milestone for Cristobal: A win would be Cristobal’s first Pac-12 Conference win as a head coach at Autzen Stadium.

 

MORE DUCKS:

Surprises and disappointments in Oregon's freshman class

Oregon basketball coach Dana Altman responds to pay-to-play allegations

Mailbag: Will Herbert come back next season?

Cristobal could earn a major bonus at Oregon; 2018-19 salaries released

Rivalry kickoff time set: Oregon vs. Washington

Oregon vs. WSU kickoff time released

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

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

Oregon flexed its resiliency at a crucial time, entering the toughest part of its schedule.The Ducks are now 1-1 in conference play and get a bye week to rest before facing rival No. 10 Washington on Oct. 13.

Did the good outweigh the bad in Oregon’s victory over Cal? You decide.

BEST

Streaks, extended! Oregon has won nine of the last 10 meetings with Cal dating back to 2009. The Ducks have scored 40-plus points in eight straight games against the Bears.

Monkey off the back: Oregon’s victory over Cal marked the team’s first win against a ranked opponent since 2016 at then-No. 11 Utah. After going winless against Pac-12 teams on the road in 2017, the victory also marked Oregon’s first conference road victory since 2016 when they upset then No. 11 Utah.

Playmaker, Ugo Amadi: The senior had seven solo tackles, two interceptions and one pick-six against Cal, earning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. Amadi leads the Ducks in interceptions with eight career interceptions and his three picks in 2018 are tied for the Pac-12 lead and rank tied for second nationally. Fun fact, the safety is the first Oregon player with two interceptions, including a pick-6, in a Pac-12 game since Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in 2012 against Arizona.

Oregon’s offense is soaring: The Ducks lead the conference and rank 10th nationally in scoring (45.6). Oregon’s total offense (503.6) also leads the conference and ranks 15th nationally. The Ducks are also getting it done on third down, leading the conference and ranking 10th in the nation with a 52.1 third down conversion percentage.

Rising in the polls: Oregon moved up to No. 18 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches Poll. The Ducks moved up one spot in the AP Poll and two spots in the Coaches Poll.

Herbert’s pinpoint cannon of an arm: Quarterback Justin Herbert made it rain against one of the nation's top defenses and he did it in big play fashion. His first touchdown pass was a 30-yard bullet to transfer tight end Kano Dillon that made the nine NFL scouts present lick their chops. His second touchdown pass was a picture perfect 36-yard ball to junior wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

The junior threw zero interceptions against a Cal team that lead the Pac-12 with seven interceptions. Herbert finished the game 16-of-22 with 225 passing yards, completing passes to eight different UO receivers.

Fe, Fi, Fo, Fumble! The Duck defense forced five Cal turnovers, two that led to defensive touchdowns. 

WORST

Painful Penalties: The Ducks had seven penalties versus Cal. To be fair, two were purposeful delay of game penalties late in the game to milk the clock.

Oregon is averaging five penalties a game, which is a big improvement from 2017’s 9.4 per game average. However, an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on senior cornerback Haki Woods Jr. in the second quarter was particularly painful.

The Ducks had forced a three-and-out but the penalty extended a drive that ended with a Cal touchdown.

Injuries: The Ducks were without senior running back Tony Brooks-James. Despite playing on special teams, Brooks-James did not receive a carry because of an ankle injury he suffered against Stanford that limited his playing time. It’ll be important for Brooks-James to rehab over the bye week and be healthy in time for the Washington game. Running back Darrian Felix and defensive end Austin Faoliu were also out due to injury.

Freshman CJ Verdell and Travis Dye handled the rushing load, both surpassing 100 rushing yards. 

Where did Oregon’s rush defense go? Oregon entered the Cal game ranked third in the FBS with just 2.13 yards per carry allowed but Cal finished the game with 241 total rush yards on 5.9 yards per carry.

 

MORE DUCKS:

Rivalry kickoff time set: Oregon vs. Washington

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Oregon flexes resiliency, Herbert makes it rain vs. Cal

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Oregon Ducks' loss to Stanford doesn't define them, but their October might

Oregon Ducks fly into conference play on the back of their defense

Oregon Ducks fly into conference play on the back of their defense

No. 20 Oregon remains undefeated heading into Pac-12 conference play with a 35-22 victory over San Jose State (0-3), but the 3-0 Ducks aren't satisfied. 

The closer-than-expected win was marked with inconsistent offensive play and an uncharacteristic performance from quarterback Justin Herbert.

Herbert was intercepted twice by the nation’s second-worst pass defense in San Jose State. He seemed uncomfortable in the pocket while forcing too-tight throws and underthrowing receivers, like Dillon Mitchell on the first play of the game.

"Today we played some inconsistent football," coach Mario Cristobal said.

When asked about Herbert’s performance Crisotbal said, “I’m not disappointed with his play at all. I know he is very critical of himself, and that’s okay. We want our players to have high standards for themselves.”

He finished the game 16-of-34 for 309 passing yards and three touchdowns. 300 passing yards might seem like a good statistic but consider this: In SJSU’s first two games, UC Davis quarterback Jake Meier and Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew each finished with over 425 passing yards.

The tight score kept Herbert in the game until the final minutes, when freshman Tyler Shough took his place. Backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister was on the sideline with crutches after undergoing a minor procedure on his knee. Cristobal expects him to return in two weeks.

[READ: Oregon football most valuable program in Pac-12 conference]

It wasn’t all bad for Herbert and the Oregon offense. The Ducks splashed in some explosive plays that sent the 50,049 fans in Autzen into a frenzy.

A wide-open Jacob Breeland took a pass a career high 66-yards to the end zone for his first touchdown of the season.

Herbert also completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to CJ Verdell, who led Oregon today in rushing (42) and receiving yards (85), totaling 127 all-purpose yards.

Tony Brooks-James took a kickoff return 95 yards to the house, but it was negated by a costly holding penalty. The Ducks committed six penalties for 59 yards, which is still less than last season’s average of nine penalties a game.

But the real bright spot was the Duck run defense. Oregon held the Spartans to 29 rushing yards on 28 carries. So far this season, the Ducks have held opponents to 2.2 yards per carry.

Oregon also had 11 pass breakups and two interceptions, including freshman Jevon Holland’s first career pick.

Senior Ugo Amadi was seemingly everywhere, finishing with a team-high eight tackles and two pass break-ups. He also provided a spark on special teams, returning three punts for 100 yards, including one 57-yard return that was just short of a touchdown.

“(Amadi) was making more plays in the backfield than I was, “ said outside linebacker Justin Hollins. “To have a defensive back like that is tremendous.”

Hollins could have been the MVP of the game. Hollins had a team-high eight tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one interception. He has a tackle for loss in seven straight games and a sack in all three games this season.

“Justin Hollins is always wreaking havoc off the edge, always in the quarterback’s face and applying pressure,” said linebacker Troy Dye. “He finally got a pick, he kind of bobbled it, if he would have dropped it I would have got on him.”

Oregon’s run defense is peaking at the right time, with No. 9 Stanford and running back Bryce Love headed to Eugene to open conference play next Saturday. All eyes will be on the Ducks, as ESPN’s college game day visiting for the prime time 5 p.m. game.

Is Oregon ready for Stanford?

"I think it’s time to go find out," said Cristobal.

 

Career-highs, milestones and streaks: Oregon numbers you need to know

Career-highs, milestones and streaks: Oregon numbers you need to know

On Saturday, No. 23 ranked Oregon is looking to extend its streak of consecutive non-conference home wins to 22 when it hosts Portland State at 11am at Autzen Stadium.

Yes, the Ducks should crush the young Portland State Vikings, but there is still plenty to watch and get excited about. If you want to be the person at the tailgate with all the facts, here are some numbers to know:

High-flying offense: Oregon is 78-0 all-time when scoring 50+ points.

Oh, the good ole days: Oregon hasn’t scored 50 points in back-to-back games since 2014 (Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl). This could change against Portland State on Saturday, if the Ducks amass 50 points. 

Defensive duo: Jalen Jelks and Troy Dye combined for 28.5 tackles for loss in 2017. They are the top returning tackles for loss duo in the Pac-12 conference.

On a roll: Oregon has four defensive touchdowns in its last three games (dating back to last season) with at least one in each contest.

Go Herbie go: Quarterback Justin Herbert’s five touchdown passes in UO’s season opener broke the record for most touchdown passes in an opener in Oregon history. Akili Smith (1998) and Danny O'Neill (1994), previously held the record with four touchdowns each.

Career-highs: In UO’s opener, defensive lineman Jordon Scott set career-highs in tackles (7) and tackles for loss (1.5). Defensive lineman Austin Faoliu set a career-high with five tackles. Wide receiver Jaylon Redd set a career-high with 81 yards receiving
 and scored a 33-yard touchdown, the longest touchdown catch of his career. Defensive lineman Jalen Jelks tatched a career-high with nine tackles (third straight game with six or more).

First game under the lights: A total of 10 true freshmen played in UO’s season opener. (Bryan Addison, Karsten Battles, Travis Dye, Kahlef Hailassee, Jevon Holland, Verone McKinley III, Penei Sewell, Tom Snee and Steve Stephens)

Freshman starter: Right tackle Penei Sewell was the first true freshman offensive lineman to start season opener since 1997 (Last true freshman to start a game on the offensive line was RT Tyrell Crosby in 2014).

Don’t mess with Hollins: Justin Hollins recorded a tackle for loss in UO’s season opener for the fifth straight game dating back to 2017.

Safety Ugo Amadi poised to be a star: Amadi returned his fifth career interception 38 yards for a touchdown on Bowling Green’s first drive of the second half. The senior finished sixth on the team in total tackles with five, but he was tied for the lead with four solo tackles. After his performance in the opener, the Ducks have moved him to the starting punt returner role.

Nose in the books: A first-team Academic All-American as a sophomore, Herbert holds a 4.06 GPA as a biology major.

Run Tony, run: Senior running back Tony Brooks-James surpassed 1,000 all-purpose yards in each of the last two seasons.


UO’s “penalty problem” showed improvement: In 2017, Oregon was the most penalized team in the nation, averaging 9.4 penalties for 88.3 penalty yards per game. Oregon finished with three penalties for 35 yards.

 

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The Good and Bad from Oregon's victory over Bowling Green

In No. 24 Oregon’s 58-24 victory over Bowling green the good outweighed the bad.

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

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Oregon’s unpredictable power/tempo offense brings the "thump"

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

The Good and Bad from Oregon's victory over Bowling Green

The Good and Bad from Oregon's victory over Bowling Green

In No. 24 Oregon’s 58-24 victory over Bowling Green the good outweighed the bad. Coach Mario Cristobal opened up his first season as UO head coach 1-0. 

The GOOD:

Oregon's rushing attack is led by seven-headed monster: 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. Here is a breakdown of how each running back performed.

UO’s “penalty problem” showed improvement: In 2017, Oregon was the most penalized team in the nation, averaging 9.4 penalties for 88.3 penalty yards per game. Oregon finished with three penalties for 35 yards.

Cristobal focused on the Ducks’ sense of discipline, plus a culture of accountability and attention to detail, by bringing referees in to practice to call penalties and then watch film with the coaches and players to help correct those bad habits. “We are pleased with progress but we want to cut it down even more,” Cristobal said.

Safety Ugo Amadi poised to be a star: Amadi returned his fifth career interception 38 yards for a touchdown on Bowling Green’s first drive of the second half.

The senior finished sixth on the team in total tackles with five, but he was tied for the lead with four solo tackles. After his performance in the opener, the Ducks have moved him to the starting punt returner role.

Justin Herbert reaches two milestones: Herbert was 10-of-21 for 281 yards passing with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He surpassed 4,000 career passing yards, tying Marcus Mariota as the fastest UO quarterback to do so in 18 games. His five touchdown passes are the most by an Oregon quarterback in a season opener in program history, beating Akili Smith (1998) and Danny O'Neill (1994), who both tossed four touchdowns.

 

The BAD:

Injuries: Oregon tight end Cam McCormick broke his fibula during the Ducks' season opener against Bowling Green and is out for the rest of the 2018 season

The only other injuries to come out of Saturday were concussions to linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir during strong collisions. Cristobal said they are both being "checked out" in Oregon's "strict and regimented" concussion protocol. 

The cringe-worthy start: Both the offense and defense got off to a sloppy start. The duck defense missed tackles and misread plays. The offense dropped passes and mishandled snaps. Communication was off, the coaching staff had to call timeouts when the right players weren’t on the field. Bowling Green took a 10-0 lead over Oregon before the Ducks finally got a defensive stop and found their rhythm to rattle off 37 unanswered points.  

Braxton Burmeister: The sophomore quarterback completed one of four passes. The offense came to a sudden halt and Cristobal made the decision to put Herbert back in the game. The backup quarterback position is still a giant question mark for the Ducks.

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. 

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Young DBs must develop

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Young DBs must develop

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 5)...: A young secondary develops.

Key losses: Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson completed their careers. 

Projected 2017 starters: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., So., (5-10, 189); cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, So., (5-11, 190); safety Ugochukwu Amadi, Sr., (5-9, 197); safety Brady Breeze, RSo., (6-0, 194).

Key backups: Nick Pickett, So., (6-1, 198); Mattrell McGraw, RSr., (5-10, 193); Billy Gibson, So., (6-1, 179). 

What we know: Graham played well enough as a freshman to indicate that he has true star power. Amadi is versatile enough to start at wither cornerback or safety. Breeze, Pickett and Lenoir showed flashes but mostly performed like the young players that they were. 

What we don't know:  Breeze and Pickett both had strong moments last year but injuries and inconsistent play prevented them from having a huge impact. At least one will be needed to elevate his game to start alongside Amadi, or, should he return to cornerback, both Pickett and Breeze could end up starting. 

How that would work out is a mystery, as would be the results of starting Lenoir opposite Graham, which would give the Ducks two very young starting cornerbacks in a strong passing conference. 

The Ducks could very well be better off with Amadi back at cornerback and rolling the dice on Breeze and Pickett at safety. Both are extremely athletic and have star potential. 

McGraw shouldn't be forgotten. He began last season as the starter but ended up as a backup. At the very least, he provides veteran leadership to a defensive backfield in desperate need of experience. 

What must happen for Oregon to contend:  Graham, Lenoir, Pickett and Breeze could very well make up the starting secondary in 2019 and 2020. But they will be desperately needed to perform at a high level in 2018 if the Duck are going to contend now. 

Having an inexperienced secondary in the Pac-12 is a recipe for disaster, as we all saw in 2015 when Springs (sophomore) and Amadi (freshman) both started at cornerback. 

Some help and depth could be on the way. Freshman four-star recruits, Verone McKinley II and junior college transfer Haki Woods could push for playing time. But they shouldn't be counted on to help create a contending-caliber secondary in their first season in the Pac-12. 

That will require rapid development of the four aforementioned defensive backs that could be a year away from truly blossoming as a group.  

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Troy Dye gets some help. 

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards.