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. 17 Oregon.
There are plenty of reactions one can have to the Oregon Ducks’ 2016 season, but “oof” is all I can really come up with that captures all of them simultaneously.
Heading into the 2016 season, the prevailing thought regarding the future status of Mark Helfrich’s Oregon program was that the previous year’s 9-4 finish was a random dip, an irregularity that would be straightened out or at least matched the following year with the addition of yet another transfer quarterback who would supposedly be an improvement on the prior year’s model. In addition to the retry under center, I wrote that the defense would have to “actually function above a high-school level” should the team wish to return to the Pac-12's mountaintop; hoping to accomplish this very feat, Helfrich spared no expense, going out and signing Brady Hoke to coach the defense. Naturally, Oregon tumbled, landing with a deadening thud next to new friends that also gunned for the Shittiest Division I Defense crown, resulting in a 4-8 record, Helfrich’s firing, and Oregon’s decision to take its business outside the Chip Kelly family.
Now, the Ducks are under the purview of Willie Taggart. The former South Florida coach has been on the job for seven months, and for the most part, things have been pretty quiet...
Yeah, not the smoothest transition to Power Five football. In addition to all this, Taggart went out and hired another former South Florida head coach, stealing Jim Leavitt away from Colorado on Dec. 14, six days after the president of the university, Michael Schill, publicly instructed him to simply, “Go find a great defensive coordinator.”
From both a business and strategic viewpoint, one could say the defense is now finally in safe hands and that Taggart followed orders to a T; one could also say that the notion of Leavitt climbing the coaching ranks might not be such a comforting prospect for at least one of his former South Florida players. College football, ever the forgiving industry, has since moved on from the slapping scandal, though, with Leavitt’s work for the Buffaloes leading to his rebranding as one of the game’s most gifted defensive gurus.
Maybe the fact he was out of the game for all of 2010 was enough time for some to count that as justice. Maybe the $2.75 million he picked up in a settlement with South Florida—$750,000 of which was paid specifically for “acknowledging Coach Leavitt’s contributions to building USF’s nationally respected football program”—and the $1 million-per-year contract he signed with Oregon were proof of the opposite. After all, these decisions were made after the South Florida investigation verified the account of him grabbing a walk-on player by the throat and slapping him twice during halftime of a 2009 game (and then forcing the athlete to meet in a church parking lot to get Leavitt’s doomed lie straight.)
Fast forward seven years and the abused player is jobless, thanks to the fact that real-life employers actually care about what comes up during routine background searches, and Leavitt is about to bag the one trophy that will induce just enough amnesia among aging athletic directors to give the 60-year-old one last crack at helming a college football team.
He’ll have a decent shot at pulling it off, too, given Oregon’s recent last-minute recruiting victories. The defensive line is still awaiting the full presence of two defensive tackle transfers that will presumably step in and play right away—Clemson transfer Scott Pagano has been stuck in a boot while rehabbing from a foot injury, and JuCo transfer Malik Young, who was forced by SEC transfer rules to spurn Missouri and join the Ducks, will be ready to go as soon as he passes his physical. Both Pagano and Young are hulks; Pagano comes in at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, while Young rocks a 6-foot-2, 280-pound frame. Until they’re ready to suit up, freshman Jordan Scott will hold down the fort, but expect both transfers to step in and start as soon as they’re ready.
Behind them, senior Jonah Moi and junior Justin Hollins will occupy the outside linebacker slots while sophomore Troy Dye and junior Kaulana Apelu hold it down inside. Dye led the team with 91 tackles in his first college season from one of the outside positions; this year, Oregon’s shifted him inside, where he figures to be both the team’s best and most important defensive figure—Leavitt’s said he never wants him to leave the field. Having someone, anyone, that can tackle is a luxury, not a given, for the Ducks; best to have him in the middle of the action.
Oregon’s defense will also make use of what Leavitt’s calling a “Duck” position—essentially, it’s the same position a ton of college programs have implemented, in which they take a player that can fit the linebacker-safety hybrid mold and name it something unique to mask its regularity. It’s a guy who can lay the wood and not get totally embarrassed covering someone out of the backfield or the slot. Khalil Oliver was slated to start here before being moved solely to safety; now, it seems La’Mar Winston might take over as the Leavitt’s new Big Safety. As far as normal-sized secondary players go, rookie Thomas Graham, Jr. made a splash throughout the spring and summer, one big enough to earn him a starting spot opposite Ugochukwu Amadi—chances are the duo will improve upon the 2016 Oregon corners’ interception total of zero. They’ll be backed up Khalil Oliver and Mattrell McGraw at safety.
On the whole, this defense is fast, fairly talented, and absolute shit at tackling. The Ducks allowed 41.4 points per game; three years ago, they were holding teams to 23.6 and in the midst of a seven-year stretch during which Oregon won a minimum of 10 games a year. Giving Leavitt a full offseason to work his magic will help the bunch patch up the idiotic mistakes that lead to six opponents scoring at least 40 points, but I don’t think this is a one-season, zero-to-hero type deal.
Away from the anchor that is this defense, there are actually some aspects of the Oregon program that are pleasant and not scandal-ridden; most of them stem from the offensive side, with the brightest coming in the form of an exciting new prospect at quarterback.
Last season’s offense was the first time in eight years that the Ducks haven’t finished among the top-10 scoring offenses—they still weren’t anything to scoff at, scoring 35.4 points per game, but with a defense that regularly allowed teams to hang 40, it didn’t much matter for the sake of their record. They were led by Dakota Prukop, a grad transfer from an NAIA school looking to log a season at a contender to his résumé before hitting the big leagues—while his numbers were fine, the end result, 2-3 through five weeks, was enough to make Helfrich panic and pull experience for a home-grown future.
Sophomore Justin Herbert, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound Eugene native, took over for Prukop five games into the 2016 campaign. While damn near every other position group looked lost, the rookie was the single sliver of light illuminating the abyss, finishing with a 63.5 completion percentage, 1,936 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Even with his youth and the background noise that comes with coaching turnover, Herbert’s got all the potential to join the growing ranks of great Pac-12 quarterbacks. Herbert will be backed up by freshman Braxton Burmeister and senior Taylor Alie, though if Taggart’s a lucky man, neither will need to play much this season.
The offensive line will feature two seniors in left tackle Tyrell Crosby and right guard Jake Pisarcik, with the remaining slots taken up by sophomores. They’ll hold the line for a trio of talented upperclassmen running backs—senior Royce Freeman returns, who will be backed up by junior Tony Brooks-James and senior Kani Benoit. While Freeman posted a career-low 945 yards, the group as a whole combined for 2,016 rushing yards last season, a number it can improve upon if given more time to actually curate drives and less attempting to simply score on every play out of necessity.
Sophomore Dillon Mitchell and senior Charles Nelson are two locks at receiver; they’ll be joined on the starting rotation by freshman Johnny Johnson III—keep an eye out for this one, because he seems prepped to fall in line as yet another speedster-turned-god by the Oregon offense.
Justin Herbert is about the only thing I really actually like about this year’s Oregon offense. Yes, they have a fast, strong running back; yes, they have some speedy fuckers out wide; no, they don’t have anyone actually worth tuning in for on defense—who cares, just gimme the good, tall quarterback.
Herbert was forced to sink or swim last season after Prukop turned out to not be the entire issue, and, for the most part, he swam. He only threw picks in three of eight games and progressively looked more comfortable creating out-of-pocket plays as the season went on. He’s got an arm big enough to effortlessly make 40-yard tosses and the wheels and downfield vision to create when he’s in trouble; when the towering Oregonian peers over the arms of oncoming defenders collapsing his pocket and proceeds to drop a spot-on dart in the red zone, you start to see the 30-touchdown mark as this season’s floor.
No, Oregon, can’t make the playoff, win the Pac-12, or even challenge for the Pac-12 North—I don’t see Washington showing up in the playoff either, but the Huskies, let alone Stanford, ain’t losing this thing to the fucking Ducks. At least not this year. But Oregon can at least go bowling because, well, its nonconference schedule is light and fluffy and its cross-division lineup isn’t all that tough, either; let’s revisit the playoff question in a few years, when Oregon’s proved it’s found some solid footing.
As Power Five coach, you get no wiggle room in this category, you either is, or you ain’t; Taggart—made clear by his dogged attempt to prove as much—definitely is. Also, never trust a man that owns himself this hard.
Sept. 2: Southern Utah
Sept. 9: Nebraska
Sept. 16: @ Wyoming
Sept. 23: @ Arizona State
Sept. 30: Cal
Oct. 7: Washington State
Oct. 14: @ Stanford
Oct. 21: @ UCLA
Oct. 28: Utah
Nov. 4: @ Washington
Nov. 18: Arizona
Nov. 25: Oregon State