The further removed we get from the 2018 Oregon Duck football season, the more I am convinced that many varied weaknesses raised their ugly heads last year. The team’s struggles and fan frustration resulted not from one or two specific issues, but from the cumulative effects of:
1. New schemes
2. New coaches
3. The cumulative effects, on both players and coaches, of changing coaches, alignments, focus, plays, etc. three times in rapid succession
4. Players recruited by coaches who are no longer at Oregon having lesser roles than anticipated
5. Coaches not in sync during games
6. Player mistakes
7. Changing off-season regimens
All of these factors affected the players and coaches, resulting in Oregon falling short of the well-oiled-machine standard that is necessary at the Power 5 level. Coaching continuity and running the same systems, with more talent on the field and bench, will help the Ducks immensely in 2019.
Justin Herbert no doubt regressed in 2018, falling short of the expectations and hopes of many. Was his performance related to his prior collarbone injury? Was it poor QB coaching (I’m wondering if Marcus Arroyo is as good as advertised with QBs)? Herbert surprisingly failed to recognize open receivers, his timing was often late, and he was fixated on Dillon Mitchell to a fault. Herbert has a high football IQ, he has the arm and can make the throws, and he has the prototype frame and build. But his performance was merely good, not great. Why?
The play of the offensive line in 2018 was disappointing at times, particularly given all the veteran beef up front. On paper they looked good. On the field they got beat too often. They were porous and didn’t have the push required in short-yardage red zone situations.
The Duck defensive backs were young and sometimes played like it. Chunk-yardage conversions on long third-down situations were given up too often. Linebackers were the bright spot on defense and the defensive line improved; both units had some brilliant stops. Still, it was an underwhelming year defensively, especially with some of the talented players on that side of the ball.
This coming season, the Ducks will be stronger at every level of defense when it comes to personnel. I like coaches Joe Salave’a and Andy Avalos. I am lukewarm on Keith Heyward, but he has the horses to do some damage. Granted, they are young studs. Still, I feel confident that Heyward will become a great coach in the near future with a little more seasoning.
But back to the offense. Something was wrong there, as many have said over and over. To the idea of Mario Cristobal holding back or curtailing Arroyo’s play calling, I don’t know. It has been widely discussed, and where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. So, there may be something to that proposition. But it’s all mere speculation.
“Run first” has been a popular strategy for the many years across many college football programs. It takes personnel and power to do that, especially up the middle. I’m of the opinion that using the entire field increases opportunities and sets up more mismatches. Spreading the field creates costly defensive errors by making defenders cover more space. Capitalizing on mismatches was the calling card of Oregon’s former spread schemes, utilizing the zone read and RPO plays. The current Duck offense is more north-south, operating between the tackles. It seems a throwback to the ’80’s, ’90’s and early 2000’s Big 10 and SEC-style playbooks.
I feel like we’re under-utilizing slants, TEs and slot receivers across the middle, and having our running backs run routes out of the slot (New England Patriot style). We’re not calling enough swing passes to running backs slipping out of the backfield into the flat. And in the run game, we don’t run nearly enough sweeps, quick pitches outside the tackles, and draw plays. As mentioned by many, the end result was “predictability,” which is suicide in football.
So, do I think pretty much everyone is ready to put last year’s stench behind us? Yes! Will we run into the same issues again this season? I don’t think so. I hope we regroup to bring offensive fury, and I still believe we have very smart and hardworking coaches. If we see and know these things, so do they; the coaches on staff will lace up their Nike boots and correct the issues.
The Ducks have a stable full of studs in 2019 and more to come in 2020. The coaches are young and modern; they can jack the boys up. The team is deeper than it has ever been on offense and defense, though the special teams unit is suspect.
The jury remains out on Arroyo as OC, QB coach and chief play-caller. However, I think that the coaching on the defensive side of the ball will be great in 2019. I love the hire of Ken Wilson; look for our LBs to excel this year and become a dominant unit moving forward. We are already set for DB talent, so long as Heyward and Donte Williams can coach them up and keep their heads screwed on straight (bad apples can become noxious). Let’s see if the Oregon way and Cristobal’s culture will prevent incidents that can divide locker rooms and interfere with the mission.
That leads us to Cristobal. He’s a stud, he’s smart. He has charisma and leadership traits of a battle-worn, veteran leader. But can he take us to the playoff? Will the Ducks merely be a good team, winning games, league titles here-and-there, and going to good bowl games? Or, will Oregon football become a staple of the College Football Playoff?
Will Cristobal become a good coach, consistently producing top-25 teams? Or will he become a great coach, able to hang inside the top 10, competing with Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State, not to mention consistently beating Washington and USC?
That’s why we follow the games: to get answers to our many questions and validate our opinions. The start of the season is looming, with fall camp just around the corner. I’ve moved on from last season. I’m ready for 2019, wishing the best of luck to the players and coaches for the upcoming season and beyond.
So, Duck fans, are you ready to put last season behind you?
Greenville, South Carolina Top Photo by Tom Corno
Spencer Thomas, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, is an attorney for the Social Security Administration in Atlanta, Georgia, and coaches High School Football for Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs, GA.
Born in Eugene, Brent Pennington grew up along the Siuslaw river in western Lane county competing in four Coast League sports. He attended his first Ducks football game in 1960, and was inside Autzen stadium for its opening game in ’70. Brent attended the UO College of Business Administration from 1969-1975 interrupted by U.S. Army service. He has traveled much of the world in the Lotteries and Gaming industry.
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