None of Oregon’s position groups has been criticized as much as the wide receivers.
Players like Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson looked to be in for breakout seasons in 2018, with a healthy Justin Herbert throwing the ball. But those aspirations went out the window, as the unit — outside of Dillon Mitchell — dropped passes, struggled to beat one-on-one coverage, and all too often hamstrung the offense as a whole. With Mitchell off to the NFL, the pressure is on for the returning receivers to deliver.
But Herbert doesn’t seem too worried. At Pac-12 Media Days, according to a story written by Erik Skopil of 247Sports, Herbert praised his pass catchers and spoke highly of the improvements that they’ve made this offseason. Are we really buying that this position group is in good shape when it’s losing its only effective player? Or are Herbert’s rosy comments a bit too good to be true?
Oregon Was a One-Man Show in 2018
Overall, Oregon actually fielded a respectable passing attack in 2018. The Ducks ranked 44th in Passing S&P+, a metric that grades passing offenses based on performance relative to competition. That ranking isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s solid.
However, the majority of Oregon’s passing-game success was due to Mitchell, who was drafted by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings this year. Mitchell was dynamite last season, catching 75 passes for 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns — more yards gained than the rest of the receivers on the roster combined.
Mitchell and Herbert had a special connection, one that will be tough to replace. Still, his leaving wouldn’t be a major problem if Oregon had a group of reliable pass catchers waiting in the wings. Unfortunately, the receivers outside of Mitchell were anything but reliable.
Part of this was due to the fact that Herbert often zeroed in on Mitchell. But many times, Mitchell was the only legitimate option: the rest of the receivers had difficulty getting open, and had a way of dropping the ball when they did. Nobody on the roster outside of Mitchell demonstrated the ability to consistently stretch the defense, make contested catches or separate from tight coverage.
The Ducks did add Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson to the rotation this spring, and his combination of size experience will be a welcome addition. But he hasn’t exactly lit up the stat sheet during his career so far. There’s a reason he left Penn State; he was buried on the depth chart, battling inconsistency and bouts of the “drops.” Ideally, Johnson will be an integral part of the Ducks passing offense, but he’s no sure thing.
And even if he does pan out, he’s just one player, and the unit as a whole is still significantly undermanned.
Herbert’s Pac-12 Media Day Comments
Oregon’s receivers were a popular topic at Pac-12 Media Day. Fans and media members alike were curious as to how the Ducks plan to transform a group of underwhelming receivers into an effective unit. Herbert addressed this subject at the event:
“There was a big void when Dillon left. We spent the first couple practices of spring going ‘Hey, is there a guy that can step up?’ Plenty of guys stepped up: Brenden [Schooler], Johnny [Johnson], Juwan Johnson and even Mycah Pittman … Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of time on our hands. We’ve taken guys out onto the field. We’ve taken Jaylon, Juwan, Johnny and Schooler out. I’m really comfortable with those guys, and I know they’ll get the job done.”
Herbert also referenced the incoming freshmen as players who will have to step up, saying that there is no time to waste. Skopil adds to this, mentioning that the Ducks came into the spring with a nice mix of veteran and younger players. If the veterans don’t step up, there are plenty of eager bodies waiting to take their places.
Not So Fast …
Unfortunately, Herbert’s optimism is misplaced. It’s perfectly understandable for a quarterback to stick up for his receivers and try to encourage them. This time of the year, when a player’s number-one job is staying out of the headlines for saying or doing something controversial, who can blame Herbert for taking the diplomatic approach?
But here are the facts. It will take more than a few spring practices and offseason workouts for the Oregon receivers to improve enough to fill Mitchell’s shoes. Furthermore, it will take a couple more years of elite recruiting at the position before Oregon actually has a rotation that is deep and talented enough to field a dominant passing offense.
Juwan Johnson is a significant acquisition, but his game has some question marks. The incoming freshmen could see some playing time (Pittman looks like a potential breakout candidate), but they have a lot to learn and they’ll have to get acclimated to the college level. That will take time.
Oregon’s receivers are probably making progress — which they ought to during the offseason. That’s encouraging, but the group still has major concerns that only on-field experience and talent acquisition can solve.
This is “sunshine-pumping” season, so take Herbert’s comments with a grain of salt. Oregon’s receivers may be better, but don’t be fooled. They still have a long way to go.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Kevin Cline
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.
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