The 2019 Oregon Ducks football season has already generated a lot of hype, and it’s only May.
During the offseason, Coach Mario Cristobal was out to secure a top-10 recruiting class, headlined by recruits such as Kayvon Thibodeaux and Mykael Wright. Quarterback Justin Herbert and linebacker Troy Dye are also returning for their senior seasons.
With the returning seniors and fresh talent on Duck fans’ minds, here are three notable returners who lack the fanfare of some of their counterparts, but will play big roles in 2019.
1. Thomas Graham Jr.
Thomas Graham Jr. had a nice start to his Ducks career, carrying a lot of the load on passing downs. The junior cornerback has started in all 25 games over his first two seasons in Eugene.
The skill and statistics are in place for Graham to be one of the top cornerbacks in the Pac-12. There is optimism that he can continue to build upon the success he had in the latter half of 2018, which included an extremely strong performance against Arizona State in late November.
Maybe even more so than in his previous two seasons, Graham is going to have to play a pivotal role on the defensive side of the ball for the Ducks to be title contenders. The offense is full of familiar names and faces, but the defense lost some very productive seniors. With the departure of now Seattle Seahawk Ugo Amadi, Graham is going to have to cover some of the top receivers in the conference while developing chemistry with a new safety over the top. How does Graham Island sound?
2. Jaylon Redd
Similar to Graham, Jaylon Redd saw his role increase throughout his sophomore season, highlighted by a literal toe-tapping touchdown against the Washington Huskies. But he better not get complacent.
One big, gaping hole on the minds of Ducks fans is the curiosity of who could fill the cleats of former UO wide receiver Dillon Mitchell. Redd could be a prime candidate to take on that challenge. Yes, he plays more of an inside slot receiver type game, but there is no reason he couldn’t fill the role Mitchell left behind.
When Herbert got into trouble, Mitchell was always in the right places to bail out his quarterback and turn a lackluster play into positive yardage. Redd, being a small and shifty receiver, has the ability to create space and find the open holes to torch a defense. If he is indeed able to do this, it could also open up the opposing team’s defense, creating options for fellow wide receivers Brenden Schooler and Juwan Johnson.
Looking ahead to the NFL level, many successful teams rely on slot receivers. A few examples include Julian Edelman of the Patriots, Adam Thielen of the Vikings and Cooper Kupp of the Rams. This is a formula that could be translated to the college game, and the Ducks can adopt it featuring Redd.
3. Penei Sewell
This offensive line is going to be fun to watch in the upcoming season. A line that was a bit of a concern four years ago due to its youth is now a seasoned group of redshirt seniors, and one sophomore in Penei Sewell.
Sewell is an absolute stud. Last year, he took on a major responsibility, replacing Terrell Crosby, and he did a fine job while he was healthy. Sewell also has real estate on the most important part of the offensive line: Herbert’s blind side. For this offense to run efficiently, Herbert will need time in the pocket — something that Sewell can provide.
Ducks fans should be excited about this guy because we only saw a glimpse of what he was capable of last season. He suffered an ankle injury during the mid-October matchup against the Huskies, which kept him sidelined for the remainder of the regular season. In the games following his injury, the Ducks had a tough time getting the offense going, with tough losses to Washington State, Utah and Arizona. While he was in the lineup, Sewell made major contributions, which helped the Ducks reach No. 12 in the AP Poll.
Why should I be thinking about these players?
If the Ducks are going to make a run at the College Football Playoff, it’s certainly not going to be easy. They are going to need contributions from all sides of the ball to make it happen. With an offense that retained all major components other than Mitchell, and a defense with huge upside (especially with the addition of defensive coordinator Andy Avalos), the Ducks can make some noise.
The emphasis on stopping the passing game has been duly noted; however, in recent years, we’ve seen a pretty “pass happy” conference headlined by quarterbacks Herbert, Gardner Minshew and Jake Browning. This only makes defending the passing game all the more important. Graham will have to be a catalyst in that regard.
Last year, we saw some instances where the offense looked lost and foreign to what Ducks fans have become accustomed to in previous seasons. With that said, when the offense was healthy, there were times when they looked unstoppable and the only team that could stop them was themselves. A prime example came against Stanford.
To avoid a lapse, Redd, Graham and Sewell are going have to be the epitome of consistency. I believe they are capable of just that, and will be major contributors to a strong and competitive 2019 season.
Eugene, Oregon Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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