The success of the 2019-2020 season has jacked up the stoke level for Oregon football, and yet many questions loom.
The Ducks replace four starters on the offensive line, a four-year starter at quarterback, and an offensive coordinator who left to be head coach at UNLV. Sure, there’s a stable of young studs returning, and we can expect them to continue to improve and contribute to the Ducks’ success. But the difference between good and great often depends on the emergence of unexpected “dark horse” talent, such as Brady Breeze in 2019-20.
Who are this year’s dark horses? Allow me to offer up some candidates.
Running Back: Cyrus Habibi-Likio
We can expect Oregon to continue its emphasis on a physical running attack under new OC Joe Moorhead and return an experienced backfield with CJ Verdell, Travis Dye, and Cyrus Habibi-Likio. Habibi-Likio, considered the most physical of the backs, took huge steps forward this past season. His progression was evident in Oregon’s comeback win over Washington, where he rushed 14 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. Said Head Coach Mario Cristobal,
“He’s a big guy. But I don’t think people realize how agile he is. He was able to jump cut himself out of a couple that looked like sure tackles, also broke several tackles at the second level. I never knew he could jump that high, that was a phenomenal display of athleticism.”
While mired in a crowded backfield, Habibi-Likio possesses the size to be effective in short yardage and pass-blocking and the athleticism to be effective in Moorhead’s RPO-based offense. This versatility could provide added value in a Moorhead offense less inclined to substitute players. Mark Habibi-Likio down as a dark horse for 2020.
Wide Receiver: Devon Williams
Oregon has always been identified as a program with athletes at the skill positions, and next season may boast Oregon’s most athletic group since 2014. Devon Williams is the highest-rated recruit of the bunch and provides length and athleticism on the perimeter. Williams was a late add out of the transfer portal and ended up burning his red shirt in 2019. Along with Bryan Addison, Williams is the leading candidate to take over for for the departed Juwan Johnson, who enjoyed increasing productivity toward the end of last season. Look for the talented Williams to take over where Johnson left off and emerge as a dark horse offensive contributor in 2020.
Quarterback: Tyler Shough
Tyler Shough enters his third season as a redshirt sophomore for the Ducks. His primary competition for the starting job will come from Cale Millen, who will be a redshirt freshman, and incoming four-star recruits Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford. Shough, Millen, and Butterfield fit the “pro-style” type of quarterback, while Ashford was recruited as a “dual-threat” guy. The introduction of a new(ish) offense may level the playing field somewhat, but Shough’s experience and serviceable athleticism make him the leading candidate to line up behind center on opening day.
While Shough is the expected starter, it’s his potential to contribute at an unexpected level that qualifies him as a “dark horse.” While ’tis the season for “sunshine pumping” with regard to our prodigal son Justin Herbert, there is no shortage of fans and critics who believe Marcus Arroyo‘s offense limited Herbert’s potential. An anonymous NFL executive was quoted recently as saying that Arroyo’s offense “didn’t give [Herbert] any help schematically. It was a s*%t offense to watch.” Ouch. Moorhead’s balanced, RPO-based offense, with 10-15 QB carries, presents an opportunity for the Ducks’ offense to improve substantially in 2020 and for Shough to surpass Herbert in productivity.
Dark Horse To Be Named Later?
And then there’s the transfer portal, which in the past has yielded dark horses along the lines of Vernon Adams, Dallas Warmack, and Juwan Johnson. Johnson was a key contributor in Oregon’s wins over Washington State and USC before sealing the Ducks’ Rose Bowl win with a 28-yard reception on 3rd and 1 with a minute left in the game. Coach Cristobal likes to keep a scholarship or two open to accommodate a transfer.
A lot can change between now and September 5th. Who’s your “dark horse” for 2020?
Coach Jeremy Mosier
Geneseo, IllinoisTop Photo by Tom Corno
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