In the painful last month of football for Our Beloved Ducks, it’s been tough to see the bright spots in some bleak, bleak team performances. Rotating quarterbacks, disastrous special teams mistakes, losing fumbles and confidence all culminated the season on a dissonant note falling on the collective deaf ears of Oregon fans.
But there were some welcome surprises in these losses as well.
Some players I expected great things of in their first time out on the field for the Ducks (Noah Sewell, for example) as well as some strong upperclassman finishes (Nick Pickett, Jordon Scott) to their Duck careers. But a handful of players that weren’t on my radar for this COVID season really shined bright.
Third year inside linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia was one of them, who quietly led the team in tackles this season and routinely made a strong impact in the passing game as well as the run game. Looking back on his 2019 season, it’s hard to see how I didn’t expect great play from a rising star for Oregon, and although being a leading tackler as an inside backer isn’t surprising, it is surprising to have more than just experience at linebacker and instead a real playmaker for next season. Heading for his senior season in 2021, I’m ready to see Slade-Matautia flourish.
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Second year safety Jamal Hill is also of course worth mentioning given his recent turnover production and strong play on the back end of a very young position group. I know we all would have loved to see Jevon Holland play this year, but Hill has stepped up in a big way to fill that void. I personally can’t wait to see him blossom again in 2021.
Although the lead back job will be Travis Dye’s to lose in 2021, he could have some real competition given the 2020 output in a limited season. Jaylon Redd unfortunately will be moving on after producing some highlight reel catches in the passing game, but Sean Dollars and Cyrus Habibi-Likio will get touches in a running back group that as a whole may be pushing all-time great in 2021. This is also of course assuming CJ Verdell declares for the NFL Draft, but given his split-back role in 2020, is it that crazy to think he could return for one more year?
Habibi-Likio may get more touchdowns, but I was surprised to see the effectiveness of Dollars in his egregiously limited snap count. He certainly looks the part of a lead back for Oregon, and given how highly he was recruited, I can’t imagine him fizzling out before getting a better opportunity, but he may have to wait his turn to be unleashed just a bit longer.
Overall, the season may not have been what we expected, but some players really excelled to greatness under the dim lights of these unfortunate (to say the least) circumstances. I for one feel lucky to be a Duck in 2021 as a student and fan, and despite the results of the Fiesta Bowl, the future feels as bright as ever under the shine of these surprising stars.
Who else surprised in 2020 for Our Beloved Ducks?
Top Photo by UO Athletics
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Alex Heining is a third-year student at the University of Oregon. He’s working towards a bachelor of arts degree as an English major and media studies minor in journalism. Growing up in the Los Angeles area of southern California, Alex ended up a Duck through family ties, a quality football program, and the beautiful green of Lane County. Currently finishing his first science fiction novel, he wants to end up in the sports world of journalism on the west coast. Particularly, covering high school football, recruiting commits, and all things Ducks.
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