Why Coach Mario Cristobal Won’t Outsmart Anybody

Predicting the number of wins for Ducks football this year is a tough call.

One thing I can’t buy is that there’s an issue of whether Oregon’s coaches can game-day coach or not. First of all, if you’ve got a Mario Cristobal-coached offensive line, a Jim Leavitt-coached defense, and a Heisman-candidate quarterback–you’ve got some options that can make you look smart.

But outsmarting other coaches on game day really doesn’t seem to have much to do with Coach Cristobal’s strategy.

Cristobal laid out his plan and shed some light on the penalty-laden performance of last year’s offensive line in a press interview first published on Goducks.com. The half-hour interview is toward the bottom of the story, and it’s worth taking the time to listen to. For those who don’t have half an hour to indulge, here are some of the highlights.

At 1:50, Cristobal says, “We’re obviously a high-tempo offense.” Then he turns to talk about the six freshmen offensive linemen and says that they are all in play to get playing time.

Eric Evans for GoDucks.com

Justin Johnson might be the biggest human being ever for Oregon at 6’7″ 382 lbs.

At 5:23, Cristobal fields a question about up-tempo vs. line-of-scrimmage physicality and basically says he expects both.

At 14:38, he addresses the issue that last year, the starters on the offensive line played 96% of the snaps. This, according to Cristobal, was a mandate imposed by the former head coach, he-who-shall-not-be-named. Cristobal went on to say that his philosophy is different, making the analogy that if you have more than one car, you don’t just take one of them out and drive it into the ground.

He went so far as to say,

“We do feel like we’ve got eight, nine, ten guys who can help us win championships and we’re going to play them all.”

Then at 18:45, he suggested that he might bring a jumbo defensive lineman over as an extra blocker in special situations, or bring in a sixth or seventh offensive lineman. (As Coach Eric Boles of FishDuck.com suggested may happen in a recent analysis.)

All in all, it sounded like Cristobal is lining up to run the offensive line relay I wrote about in my last article.

It’s obvious that the plan is to wear down opposing defenses, but another benefit is that it should also contribute to reducing penalties. The tired and over-worked tend to get sloppy, and that part of the program will thankfully be missing with this year’s offensive line.

I have to wonder, though, if Cristobal is understating the number of linemen he plans on playing. If all six freshmen (who, by the way, average about 370 pounds each) are in for playing time, I come up with as many as thirteen who may contribute: the six freshmen, the four returning starters from last year (Calvin Throckmorton, Jake Hansen, Brady Aiello and Shane Lemieux), Jacob Capra (who played six games last year, with one start), JC transfer George Moore and Alabama transfer Dallas Warmack.

These guys all look tough. They are big, and they play mean. That’s thirteen guys who average nearly 340 pounds. Suffice to say, we haven’t seen the likes of this. And nobody on the Ducks’ schedule has either.

The really good news here — if you’re a Ducks fan — is that not one of the thirteen is a senior. So barring early retirement, they will all be back next year. By next year — if not this year — Oregon could very well be platooning O-lines like hockey lines. How else can you go tempo and large for an entire game? And if you’ve got the talent, why not use it?

This is not an “Out-Stanford, Stanford” idea, because Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo both plan to move fast, and that’s not Stanford. And the only way it will work is to have lots of strength, talent and depth on the O-line.

It is going to be a major challenge for anyone — especially in the Pac-12 — to replicate Cristobal’s strategy. He has an unquestioned reputation as one of the best O-line coaches in the country, and he’s a great recruiter.

Among other things, Oregon football is the Cristobal/Nike Future NFL O-Lineman Academy. And it took Cristobal only two months after being named head coach to line up the recruits to make it work.

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New Oregon verbal, Jonah Tauanu’u is a highly coveted offensive lineman who turned down Oklahoma, USC, and the Huskies.

At the same time, we may be seeing that other coaches in the conference — most notably Washington’s Chris Petersen and (now) UCLA’s Chip Kelly — have reached their ceiling, leaving an opportunity open for Cristobal and the Ducks. It’s not that Petersen and Kelly are any less coaches than they’ve been before. But If they can’t recruit top-10, they will never become national champs.

Rivals currently has Oregon’s recruiting ranked No. 2 and Washington at No. 5. The problem here for the Huskies is that Oregon’s No. 2 is the national ranking, and Washington’s No. 5 is its conference ranking.

Petersen’s 2019 class is currently No. 35 nationally, in a year where they should be killing it in recruiting if they expect to make the next upward step as a program. Kelly, by the way, has UCLA sitting at No. 76, without a single recruit with more than three stars.

It has to be incredibly frustrating for UW to be in the second year after making the final four, picked to win the conference, and to be be watching an Oregon coach with a record of 0-1 take recruit after recruit away from them. According to Rivals.com, Washington’s current recruiting class has four 4-star players, compared to Oregon’s fifteen. (The Huskies have offered seven 4-star players and one three-star who have since committed to Oregon.)

Eric Evans for GoDucks.com

Steven Jones is 6’7″ and 375 lbs. and the OLB above is 6’4″!

But that’s just the recruiting, and it’s barely August. This is where 2018 becomes a tough guess for the number of wins for the Oregon Ducks. It would take some pretty purple sunglasses to deny that Cristobal and his assistants are putting it together. The only question is: how long will it take? There are a lot of pieces in place to make a run as early as this year.

Of course the Ducks are unproven at running back and wide receiver. But the running backs have a user-friendly O-line and the receivers have a user-friendly quarterback. That’s got to be worth something.

I would really love to see what 2019 would be like with QB Justin Herbert surprising everybody and returning. Because by next year, Cristobal’s O-line is going to be off the charts, and most likely talent at running back and receiver will have emerged.

This year will be a major step up from last year. It’s the second year in this program for Cristobal and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, and their first year without Slick. So they’ve really had a year to get their systems in place, and it has to be a relief for them to have Slick’s theatrics and lack of discipline out the door. I don’t know how many wins it will mean, but they will have the team ready to kick some butt.

Overall, the X-factor for this year might be strength & conditioning. From all indications, Cristobal has no intention of outsmarting other coaches; he’s just recruiting and grooming his players to pound the other teams into the ground. And this is football, not chess.

If the Ducks are as much stronger this year as it sounds, they just might be ready to do it.

Mike Merrell
Sandpoint, Idaho

Top Photo from GoDucks.com Video

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