For the second consecutive season the Ducks are being led not by someone recruited to Oregon, but by a transfer. Not by someone who came in as a 17 or 18-year-old who learned the system from the ground up. Not by someone who’s knowledge of the Oregon offense was built systematically, step-by-step, day-by-day, little-by-little, until it became second nature. No, the Ducks are once again being led by a 5th-year FCS transfer.
Following in the footsteps of Vernon Adams is not going to be easy. Vernon was outstanding. Although the offense was initially limited for him because he only had two weeks to learn it before the first game, he nevertheless still excelled. What he lacked in knowledge of the playbook he made up for in gumption. Can Dakota Prukop match Vernon’s success? We probably won’t know until we play Nebraska, and not even then for their defense is questionable. See, watching tape of Prukop’s FCS career is not like watching him over a year or two developing in Eugene, practice after practice. Of course, we never really know how any player will perform until they meet the fire of stiff competition, but right now, when it comes to Prukop, we really have no idea what to expect against the top tier of Pac-12 football.
Don’t get me wrong, he played great against UC Davis. High completion rate, multiple touchdowns, used his legs at the right time and in the right way. It was a good start, but it was against UC Davis, a team that is now 4-19 over the last three seasons. A team entirely made up of players from California, a team with 22 fewer scholarship positions when compared to Oregon. Prukop did what was expected against UC Davis.
So what if this year, instead of bringing in another FCS transfer, the Oregon coaching staff had said “enough is enough, we need to do this the right way, we need to develop our own talent from within.” What if the Oregon coaches had said that more losses were an acceptable tradeoff for developing a QB, for finding the next Dixon, or Thomas or even Mariota? What if the Oregon coaching staff were willing to forfeit our 10th consecutive season of nine wins or more, our 12th consecutive bowl appearance, and maybe, even a winning season period?
Would it be worth it? If through that season of adversity and perhaps more losses than wins, we developed the next great Oregon quarterback. A quarterback that could really learn the complete Oregon offense, the nuance, the subtlety. Someone who knows the read-option to such a degree that they see the opposing defense in slow motion, when every play is like a memory of one that already happened.
Last year Coach Helfrich admitted that the Oregon coaching staff had not spent adequate time developing the younger quarterbacks. Despite that knowledge, that hard lesson learned, Oregon has once again failed to develop a quarterback from within. As usual Oregon has a four-star dual threat quarterback recruit waiting in the wings, Travis Jonsen. Unfortunately, as usual, this quarterback is a candidate to transfer. And that is because for whatever reason he’s fourth on the depth chart, behind two true freshman. This is not a sustainable practice. Morgan Mahalak, Jake Rodriguez, Damion Hobbs, Bryan Bennett. Sound familiar? All quarterbacks who transferred out of Oregon. Will we add another quarterback name to that list in the near future? We can’t go year to year hoping to find an FCS transfer. What if we don’t find one? Then what?
Then we end up with a potentially painful season, one I described above. The Oregon coaches could have chosen to take that path this year. They could have let Prukop go to Alabama or somewhere else. They could have decided we will focus on developing our quarterbacks that are already here, in this system, and cement a better stronger future. For whatever reason, or reasons, the coaching staff chose another FCS transfer over internal development and a potentially difficult season.
What would that look like? Choosing to build rather than win. Choosing to focus on the quarterbacks as a whole. Well, let’s assume it would result in more losses. Last season we were 9-4 so let’s assume we match that with Prukop. With Justin Herbert leading the offense surely the playbook would be somewhat limited, the mistakes would be more frequent. More incompletions, more interceptions, more mis-reads, more handoff issues in the backfield. A couple of close wins with Prukop become losses with Herbert. Instead of 9-4 we’re 7-6. Not an unlikely scenario.
But, by the end of the year the offense is humming. The offense has been learned and learned well, defenses are being read and dissected. Oregon State is annihilated in the Civil War and we steamroll some hapless opponent in some horribly named bowl game. And the talking heads who have bemoaned the great fall of Oregon all season long are now talking about how the Oregon coaching staff made a decision to do things the right way and that it’s paid off.
They’re talking about how Oregon will once again compete for the Pac-12 title. That with an experienced 4-3 defense and a returning quarterback who can dynamically run the Oregon offense there is perhaps no expectation too high for Oregon next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Think about it. Herbert is a true Freshman. That means potentially one development year and then three more years after that.
We’ll never know. The Oregon coaches chose to go the route of the transfer once again, and once again we’ll start next year not knowing who will start at quarterback. Perhaps next year the coaches won’t have a choice, there won’t be a viable transfer out there who’s willing to come to Oregon. Perhaps next year we’ll finally be forced to suffer loss to produce a foundation from which we can once again find dominance in the Pac-12 and compete for a playoff spot.
Perhaps next year Herbert will be ready, the coaches having spent adequate time with him this year while Prukop runs the show. But he won’t be nearly as developed as he would be if he’d be given the reins this year, not even close. Nothing compares to game snaps, to real adversity. No matter how many snaps Herbert gets in practice this year, and in spring ball, and in fall camp, it won’t come close to playing for a season.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Prukop, I hope he excels and leads Oregon back to ten or more wins. I hope he matches Vernon Adams’ play of last year and stays healthy and we challenge Stanford once again for the Pac-12 North title, and play for the Pac-12 championship. I don’t even have a beef with the coaching staff, despite the 1,100 words before this sentence. But I do believe it’s worth questioning. It’s worth wondering “what if.” It’s worth discussing if it would be worth it to perhaps sacrifice a couple of wins and struggle for a year to produce a longer-term answer at quarterback.
To create a pipeline visible to recruits that speaks to them of the Oregon process in developing quarterbacks, where they will know that the coaches will take the time to develop them and that they will have to compete and perhaps won’t have to worry about a 5th year senior transfer every year adding to the pool of competition. It’s worth wondering if the Oregon coaching staff should focus on creating a system that recruits, retains and trains a steady stream of top-notch quarterbacks, who know the Oregon offense in a way no transfer will ever be able to.
Top Photo Credit: Gary Breedlove