It is always interesting how something “sits” with you after the immediacy of an event passes and you have a day to let it all sink in. I am referring to the 2019 Oregon Spring Game, and my overall reaction is one of being-surprised-at-being-surprised. I had questions to be answered, but frankly expected “more of the same” of what I had witnessed last fall. Now, I know we can’t take too much from Spring Games, and being of Greybeard age and having been a season ticket holder for 32 years and writing online comments for 21 years — this was not my first rodeo.
Yet this was different.
Keep in mind that there were some things I saw in the Hillsboro scrimmage that I did not write about, and were not present on the field at Autzen on Saturday; I will keep those observations in my back pocket until we see them in a game this fall. (No need to help opponent scouting!) I do believe that one comparison that others like Platypus who went to both events would confirm is how the new Andy Avalos defense was more robust in Hillsboro, more varied — with many more blitzes. The quarterbacks were not allowed to be comfortable in Hillsboro, and that scrimmage resembled the bowl game against Boise State in 2017, where Justin Herbert never got into a rhythm, and the passes attempted were often forced into quick throws.
We did not see much of that at Autzen on Saturday. The pass rush was pedestrian by comparison, and if anything, this Spring Game revealed far less about the new Oregon defense than the offense. I was surprised at that, as obtaining film of the last three years of Boise State defenses is easy enough and can give Auburn coaches a good feel for what to expect. Not only did we not see much of the new defense in terms of potential, but I think we were a little snookered in terms of the personnel and how they will be used.
The massive amount of stemming (movement pre-snap by the defensive line) is yet to be seen, and the frequency of slanting by the defensive line was also minuscule, compared to what we saw competing with Boise State in 2017. I do not feel the linebacker group is settled at all. Avalos is doing what Dana Altman does in November and December: he finds out which combination of players works the best. We are a ways from seeing the final result, IMHO.
Yet as bland as that defense was … they held the first team offense to only 20 points? I was surprised that such a benign defense as the one shown could hold down 10 returning offensive starters so well. That is something to ponder further: is that the result of the defense or an under-performing offense? I lean toward the latter; how do you feel about that?
Bottom line for me is that I was surprised at how this defense, with five defensive backs present most of the time, could still tamp down the rushing yardage. Oregon’s new defense may be an emerging power, because if the Duck defense can hold up to the ground-pounding with five defensive backs in this new 3-3-5 defense, then Oregon will be in great shape defensively. I love how with five defensive backs we are better suited to defend the many spread offenses and sophisticated passing attacks of the Pac-12.
In the telecast Yogi Roth mentioned often how the offensive line had over 150 starts among them, was one of the best in the nation and needed to establish the line of scrimmage as theirs in this Spring Game and for the 2019 season. Did they achieve that goal? Considering how the defense was restricted in what they could do — shouldn’t the offensive line have simply taken over and imposed their will? Thirty-three points is all by both offenses for a paltry average of not even 17 points per offense? How do you feel about that? Is that going to take us to the promised land? This result was not a surprise to me, but many others on offense were.
We had heard how we had an emerging quarterback in spring camp, and it was clear that when Tyler Shough can set his feet and throw unimpeded he can be an excellent quarterback for the Ducks. I was surprised at how poised he was, and how he really could throw all the different passes needed and could win games for Our Beloved Ducks if needed. He was much better than expected, and yet it is clear he has a much higher upside. This result would imply good quarterback coaching, and yet I cannot explain the barely 50% completion rate for the senior quarterback. Can you?
For the last two years I’ve been harping about how the starting receivers at Oregon are the worst in my memory. It’s a pleasant surprise to me that I am now feeling adequate about this position group now. I am not going to repeat the same stuff you’ve read about Juwan Johnson, except to say that he is precisely what the Ducks needed and his impact will be well beyond his stats. In fact I am feeling fine with three starters being Juwan, Jaylon Redd and Mycah Pittman.
I don’t mind a freshman starting, as you always want some newbies learning while in the presence of other experienced WRs for upcoming years. I recall how Tony Hartley dropped his first pass as a freshman over 20 years ago at Fresno State (a potential TD!) and he turned out pretty good. Pittman reminds me of a young Damon Griffin, and that catch on the sideline to bail out a scrambling Shough made me jump out of my seat. The drops on Saturday primarily came from the freshman Josh Delgado (who flashed superb potential as well), and by Cam McCormick knocking off the year-old rust. No sweat, as that is a big surprise as well.
Throw in the experience at tight end with McCormick, Ryan Bay, Jacob Breeland and a very interesting 6-6 Spencer Webb, and suddenly the passing attack looks threatening to opponents again. I was very surprised at my gut-confidence in this position group after two years of grousing. Does this bode well for more scoring this fall?
Coach Eric Boles nailed an observation from the game that I noted as well: the offensive staff is taking advantage of the receiving skills of this running back group. All of them — CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and now Cyrus Habibi-Likio — made big chunks of yardage on short passes where they could use their speed and elusiveness in the open field. It was the replacement for running outside as I only noted one Outside Zone Read, and a couple of stretch plays that effectively ended up inside the tackles. The flare passes in the flat can achieve the same objective, and with all three running backs catching the ball so well — the Ducks don’t tip off when they are about to pop those plays with player rotation clues.
A disappointment was the coaching of the running backs in how they look for the holes or gaps to attack. I noticed often through the 2018 season that massive cut-back lanes were ignored and the RB would simply plow into a pile for two yards (as the play above did), not even looking for a cut-back lane that could create an explosive play. I have three examples from the spring game alone, of which two would have scored TDs since they occurred in the red zone.
Above we see how the backside cut-back lane is wide open and a 40-yard play is shouting with opportunity. It is a recurring issue, and one of many reasons for the lack of explosive plays in 2018. Will this change in this upcoming season?
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