Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 18 Oregon.
After the way Oregon opened and closed its season in 2015, the Ducks will be looking for more consistency—and a defense that can actually function above a high-school level—as they attempt to rebound this season.
The opening six weeks of the 2015 season likely felt like a slow-motion train wreck to those in Eugene. The Ducks couldn’t come back against Michigan State, falling 31-28, and then proceeded to watch the offenses of Utah and Washington State combine for 106 points in ugly defeats in Weeks 4 and 6. The loss to the Utes, a 62-20 ass-beating at Nike U., was particularly ugly, though it was somehow better than what happened to Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
Oregon lost starting quarterback Vernon Adams prior to halftime in that game, but by the midway point, the Ducks had amassed a 31-0 lead against TCU. Following the insertion of Jeff Lockie under center, Oregon’s offense went comatose in the second half, while the defense allowed the Horned Frogs to waltz their way back into the game. TCU tied the score at 31-all with under two minutes left in regulation and went on to win 47-41 in triple-overtime. It probably goes without saying, but Lockie isn’t in the running for this year’s quarterback race; as a matter of fact, Oregon no longer uses him as a quarterback.
Instead, it’s another year, another graduate transfer at quarterback. Just two years ago, the Ducks had nothing but quarterback stability, with Marcus Mariota capping one of the finest runs in the history of the position. But for the past two years, no undergraduate Oregon-recruited quarterback has developed to the point of being trusted with the vaunted high-speed offense; as a result, Oregon will turn to a fifth-year player for the second straight year.
While the starting quarterback won’t officially be named until Thursday, Dakota Prukop, formerly of Montana State, seems to have the job locked up. Considering he has a full two years of experience on the other Oregon options—and the fact programs like Michigan, Texas, and Alabama were all interested in signing the former Big Sky star—Prukop’s selection seemed inevitable ever since the Ducks signed him. The Texas product is a larger running threat than Adams, and has the arm to make full use of his weapons on the outside.
And if Ducks fans are worried about future stability at the position, I’d urge you to relax: Justin Herbert is apparently progressing better than expected—the 6-foot-6 true freshman is now challenging Travis Jonsen for the backup role after joining Oregon this summer, according to OregonLive. Come next year, Herbert may be able to take his crack at becoming the program’s next long-term solution.
Luckily for both Prukop and Herbert, the Ducks will have a wealth of talent at the skill positions for the foreseeable future. This season, Oregon brings back Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington as its top two options out wide. With Bralon Addison gone from the roster, the Ducks will need both players to step up their production, which, given the fact Carrington totaled 609 yards and six scores in just seven games last year, won’t be an issue. Prukop will also have the added benefit of welcoming back tight end Pharaoh Brown, who returns after missing 2015 with a leg injury.
Outside of the team’s top-tier receivers, the Ducks still maintain ridiculous speed and athleticism in their ranks. Receiver Devon Allen doubles as an Olympian; he is currently making the trip back from Rio, where he notched fifth-place finish in the 110-meter hurdles, and will join his team some time later in the week. Charles Nelson, though not a near-Olympic medalist, may challenge Allen for the title of Oregon’s most versatile athlete—last year, he started eight games at safety, returned kicks, and also managed to tally 270 receiving yards and three scores in three games at receiver. The Ducks’ new offensive coordinator, Matt Lubick, will now have Nelson on his side of the field, presumably for the entire season.
While the Oregon offense managed to be just fine with Adams taking snaps, the defense, ravaged by graduation, took a major hit in 2015—the Ducks were putrid. They ranked 116th in the nation after allowing 37.5 points per game, a school record that earned defensive coordinator Don Pellum a demotion to linebackers coach. To calm their defensive concerns, the Ducks brought in ... Brady Hoke. No shit! The guy who wouldn’t own up to allowing his clearly-concussed quarterback to continue competing will now once again be in charge of directing colliding athletes—this time it’ll just be strictly defense, where he’ll be implementing his 4-3 scheme in place of Oregon’s normal 3-4 set. Hoke inherits a squad returning just five starters, though considering how poorly the defense performed in 2015, tossing a few fresh faces in the mix, like linebackers A.J. Hotchkins and Jonah Moi, a pair of junior college transfers, can’t hurt.
Royce Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and if Prukop wants a chance to make his sole year in Eugene count, he and Lubick will dial up plenty of plays that end with the ball in Freeman’s hands. He’s a stout runner whose acceleration and tight footwork allows him to exploit even the smallest of openings granted to him by a defense, and his open-field speed, while not the fastest on the team, still allows him to separate from the majority of secondaries in the nation. The 5-foot-11 running back isn’t just good with space, though.
In addition to being able to gash a defense for 6.49 yards per carry, Freeman proved to be an effective weapon in the red zone—he finished tied for 10th in the nation with 14 touchdowns scored from 20 yards in. Out of the backfield, the then-sophomore also totaled 348 receiving yards and two scores. Freeman is far and away this team’s top offensive weapon; considering this team’s depth at the skill positions, that’s no small feat.
Probably not. I’m not saying there doesn’t exist a universe in which this team uses its newcomer quarterback and marches to an unexpected Pac-12 title and playoff consideration, it’s just not this one. The Ducks have far too much to answer for on defense after last year’s pathetic performances; while the offense will likely run up 40 points without breaking a sweat, the onus will once again be on the defense to prevent the Pac-12's other explosive attacks from dropping 62 points on their ass. While things—“things” here meaning defensive production, not player safety—will probably improve under Hoke, I don’t foresee this unit turning it all around in one year and downing Nebraska, Washington, Stanford, or USC.
Mark Helfrich, as far as I can tell, is still not a dick. Good on him!
Sept. 3: Cal Davis
Sept. 10: Virginia
Sept. 17: @ Nebraska
Sept. 24: Colorado
Oct. 1: @ Washington State
Oct. 8: Washington
Oct. 21: @ Cal
Oct. 29: Arizona State
Nov. 5: @ USC
Nov. 12: Stanford
Nov. 19: @ Utah
Nov. 26: @ Oregon State