Spring Game Shows Oregon Ducks Are Legit Contenders

Joshua Whitted Editorials 47 Comments

The Oregon Ducks didn’t unveil a cutting-edge offensive scheme or a groundbreaking defensive strategy during their 2021 spring game. None of the quarterbacks had a Marcus Mariota-esque coming out performance. And nothing took place in the scrimmage that was extraordinary or noteworthy enough to garner much national attention.

Still, one thing was exceedingly clear to those who watched the Ducks take the field for the first time in 2021. Oregon has the build of a National Championship contender, maybe even more so than it did in the Chip Kelly glory days.

The Ducks unveiled a new-look roster that is deeper and more talented than ever before. There wasn’t a single standout because there were too many standouts to list in a 500-word piece.

For the past few years, all fans have been told is to “wait and see,” as Mario Cristobal has continued to stockpile elite recruits. Saturday showed that the days of waiting and seeing are in the rearview. The Oregon Ducks are built to contend for it all.

The Ducks Have Depth for Days

The single most impressive part of Saturday’s action was how much depth the Ducks have built. The teams that win national titles don’t do so because they have the best 22-man rosters in the country. They win because they have elite 50-plus-man rosters that give them the depth to navigate the rigors of a grueling 15-game season.

From Twitter

Clemson saw just how important depth is when Trevor Lawrence was sidelined in 2020.

Oregon has had plenty of individual standouts over the past decade, but hasn’t enjoyed the of depth of its title-winning counterparts. That’s not the case anymore.

The Ducks’ starting units expectedly showcased their skills in the spring game, as familiar stars Kayvon Thibodeaux, Noah Sewell, Travis Dye and Johnny Johnson III looked like they were in midseason form. But the standout performances didn’t stop there.

The wide receiver room is as talented as ever, with rotational players Kris Hutson and Isaah Crocker each putting together impressive performances, and displaying plenty of athleticism and playmaking ability. Early enrollees Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton looked like seasoned veterans, as they both made a handful of explosive plays the passing game has been lacking in years past. Devon Williams, a returning player who is oozing with potential but struggled with inconsistency in 2020, once again showed his superstar potential.

Tom Corno

Williams has been a talented but inconsistent playmaker for the Ducks.

At tight end, a position group that once had to resort to a converted defensive end as its only option, the upgrade in skill and depth is night and day. Spencer Webb looked as healthy and athletic as ever. Patrick Herbert seemed comfortable in the offense, ready to emerge from his older brother’s shadow. Highly anticipated newcomer Moliki Matavao flashed the skills that could make him a future star in Joe Moorhead’s offense.

On defense, the linebackers showed why some expect the group to be among the best in America in 2021. Sewell is a one-man wrecking crew, with unreal sideline-to-sideline speed, but now, he’s joined by a seasoned Isaac Slade Matautia, and of course former five-star Justin Flowe. Flowe was hard to miss on Saturday, as he was involved in just about every disruptive play. He showed no signs of regression from the injury that sidelined him for all of 2020.

From Twitter

Flowe was a monster on Saturday.

Perhaps most importantly, the defensive line, which has been an underwhelming unit as a whole over the past few seasons, was a force to be reckoned with. Kristian Williams, Brandon Dorlus and Keyon Ware-Hudson each showed off their beefed-up frames and took turns making plays in the offense’s backfield.

At times, it was hard to tell which players on the field were starters and which were backups. That’s how much talent Oregon showcased.

No Quarterback Controversy? No Problem

There’s no quarterback controversy at Oregon, and that’s perfectly fine. Anthony Brown will lead the Ducks in 2021, and at the very least, everything we have seen from him so far suggests that he’ll be more consistent — and a better fit within Moorhead’s offense — than Tyler Shough was. Brown was solid in the spring game; he displayed good decision-making and managed the offense well, leading it to a touchdown on the first drive of the game.

UO Athletics

Brown is the clear starter at quarterback.

Right now, Brown is the best quarterback on Oregon’s roster. But it sure is hard not to get excited about the future of the position in Eugene.

For all the hype surrounding early enrollee Ty Thompson — Oregon’s highest-rated quarterback recruit ever — many forget that redshirt freshman Jay Butterfield was once a blue-chip recruit himself. Butterfield looked like a future star on Saturday. He showed off his effortless arm strength from the get-go, flinging a 40-plus-yard dart to Franklin on his first snap of the game. He followed that up with an improvisational touchdown pass later in the drive, demonstrating poise and presence rarely seen at his age.

As a pure passer, Butterfield may have the highest ceiling of any quarterback who took the field. But there’s no doubt that fellow redshirt freshman Robby Ashford brings the most unique skill set to the table. The dual-sport athlete is a phenom, with blazing speed and a rifle for an arm. He’s the type of athlete at the position that keeps defensive coordinators awake at night. He had his share of highlights in the spring game, leading the offense to a last-second victory with a walk-off touchdown pass and a dazzling two-point conversion scramble.

From Twitter

Ashford as a high school prospect

Last but not least, all eyes were on the aforementioned Thompson, and he didn’t disappoint, as he made his debut in green and yellow. After a relatively slow start, Thompson displayed the field vision, accuracy and arm talent that made him one of the top recruits in the country less than a year ago.

The Ducks are loaded at the most important position in the game. It’s Brown’s time to shine in 2021, but when his eligibility expires, it’s safe to say there won’t be a drop off.

The Oregon Ducks have been building something special in the Northwest, and now is the time to show it off. The Ducks are among the most talented teams in all of college football, and that was on full display during the spring game.

Spring is the season of optimism for college football fans, but this isn’t a false hope. The Ducks are for real, and they have their eyes set on a championship.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by University of Oregon Athletics

Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.

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AnotherOD

Interesting comments. Prior to Oregon, one of AB’s strengths appeared to be poise in the pocket and an ability to push the ball downfield vertically. Some highlights:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QtW51BF2B5c

FishIceCream

Technical passing question:

When I watched the game, it seemed to me that a couple of Brown’s passes out to the flat – long passes with a lot of horizontal distance to cover – were nicely thrown and accurate but a little slow.

It had me curling my toes worried that a DB would intercept it just before the completion.

Did anyone else see that, or am I crazy?

I’m sure if I’m right, it’s something that the coaching staff will take into consideration and work on.

Haywarduck

Agree, Herbert’s passes were often too difficult for our college receivers to catch. Browns passes look like I could catch them, which makes me think the DB’s are drooling.

I think the easy passes, we saw last year, will be good for Brown to throw. The tough passes are going to be difficult for Brown to get into the receiver, safely. It isn’t just the curling of the toes, it is the hair I want to keep on my head!

The other 3 qb’s looked like they could make the passes only a receiver can catch, as they develop. The best pass I saw in the spring game was the Butterfield pass, rolling right and tossing to a moving receiver for a touchdown. That was a gamer toss!

Charles Fischer

Hey Fish, (gosh it feels good to be on the other end of that!)

The location and timing (to me) is everything; in the 1980s, Bill Musgrave (now OC at Cal) threw a soft pass, but put it where only the receiver could catch it. That can work….but I hear you. My toes don’t curl, but I pucker up in my chair….

Haywarduck

Over the coming months the question is will there be tidbits spilling out of the inner Oregon sanctum? In the past we heard about how Marcus was developing into the guy, LaMike was killing it in practice.

Now we see small pieces, but hear little from the inside. It seems like Cristobal wants the qb battle to be ultra secret. To me Brown is just a decoy to the true battle beneath, and maybe even above him. Many of the battles seem to lack clarity or really any concrete info. Is this the new Cristobal way of managing what gets out?

FishIceCream

If it were me, I’d keep it as opaque as possible. I’d happily accept a six figure salary to help them do that!

*starts writing resume*

FishIceCream

Thanks for the good analysis Joshua! Mostly took the words out of my brain after having a chance to watch the spring game on YouTube.

As for the quarterbacks, I agree that Brown is the one I’d pick right now to play the big game. The freshmen all showed their potential, but also showed why they might not be ready yet.

For what it’s worth, I’d put Butterfield first in terms of passing, Ashford first in terms of a true dual QB, and Thompson in the “get a year of seasoning” category among the backups.

There is nothing wrong with that! I have seen too many people on social media anointing Thompson as the chosen one who should start this year.

He’s a high school senior. Take a breath and wait a year – my response!

I’d also say with the injury/depth issue in the defensive backfield, people should not make too much about how good the receivers looked. It seemed to me that there were more than a few highlight catches where the receiver was wide open and the walk-on defensive backs were sprinting at full speed trying to catch up.

None of this is to say that I didn’t like what I saw by any means. I think there is great potential for next season.

Charles Fischer

We love a good QB discussion, but a voice of reason that you offer resonates as well.

“The most popular player on any football team is the back-up quarterback!”

GODUCKS15

I don’t think the spring game was indicative of the RB talent on the team. It’s my understanding that several young RB’s are either injured or not on campus yet.

I think what we saw Saturday was a prevalent passing game because the only non starter RB was Smith. Had the others been able to play I think we would’ve seen more run plays.

After watching this years spring game I don’t ever remember the Ducks being so talented at most positions. And honestly I think Butterfield is as good or better than Brown but just needs to get College game experience to play smarter. Sorry I’m just not sold on Brown yet.

As far as being a contender goes, yeah I think this could be the year the Ducks get back to the playoffs. I don’t think they can win a playoff game though, but IMO that still makes them a contender.

The Ohio St game could make or break the season as far as the CFP is concerned. Which makes that game all the more nerve racking.

Charles Fischer

Great thought about Butterfield, as it does make you wonder how high his upside is if he played as much as Brown to date. I really do think that Brown can pass more-than-adequate-enough to win with, but a key component is his speed and running ability on the RPOs.

Haywarduck

Not sold on Brown either. What would be interesting to hear is did each qb make the best decision on each play?

What you can’t see on the tv feed is how each receiver was moving through the play. Did the qb make the right read? All we see is the pass and the drop or catch.

What was interesting was to see the previous, months ago, analysis of Shough’s drive where he completely missed an RPO, and the RB coming out of the backfield was wide open, potentially for a touchdown. Shough ran it instead of waiting for the play. This type of analysis is missing with the qb’s now.

It is extremely hard to analyze what is going on with the qb competition. We will have to wait and realize there is so much more than what we are seeing and hearing. I do know we all yearn for more!

Ducks4ever

We’ll reach the next level when these 2 things happen:

  1. We can stop the run (interior DL)
  2. We can establish the run

Unfortunately after the spring game, both of those are question marks. Verdell has a limited ceiling and Dye isn’t an every down back. The starting DL pretty much got owned by the starting OL. Ideally that means the starting OL took a big leap forward from last year. The backup OL also owned the backup DL (walk on RB Smith muscling it in from ~5 yards out…. ouch). All in all, if we can’t get this interior DL figured out, we’re going to struggle against elite teams. KT could be an absolute menace off the edge if there were better interior DL guys and he wouldn’t get double teamed every play.

Ducks4ever

All the rest of the positions look poised to compete at a high level next season. I know the secondary was very very thin, but I’d honestly be surprised if we lose both starting corners and the backup at the same time during the season. Even the Clemson’s and Alabama’s would struggle if that happened to them. This is DBU ;)

Charles Fischer

Agreed, as I am very impressed with some of the newbies at defensive back such as Daymon David, Dontae Manning and Bryan Addison. There is some real talent brewing in the secondary.

Charles Fischer

Contender for wining the conference? Sure. Contender for the Playoffs? Not yet…

Yes we have more talent at so many positions, but compare our roster to Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama….and we are on that path, but not there yet, IMHO.

There are so many things yet needed, and the first three that come to mind:

–An offense that averages 45 points a game like the Big-3 mentioned above.
–Beating the teams you should; no more losses to ASU, OSU and Cal, for crying out loud.
–Recruiting a game-breaking running back, someone who makes people miss and creates explosion plays.

As I said, we could be on that path if Cristobal shores up the three items above, IMHO, and I’d like to think he will. (But not in one year)

David Marsh

The offense will have to really show out this year… Though one of the things that really stood out to me looking at the Spring Game is really how comfortable all the quarterbacks looked in the offense. Mistakes were made, sure… but no one looked completely lost out there.

I do think Oregon is a couple years off of having the same fire power as Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama. Though the playoff sits at four teams and I do believe that Oregon could steal that spot from Oklahoma, Notre Dame or a second SEC team.

So I making the playoff I think is entirely possible though winning in the playoff is a different story. Though you are completely right… no more bad losses. Oregon should have at least 11 wins this upcoming season with the ONLY acceptable loss being to Ohio State game two. Everyone else Oregon should beat.

Charles Fischer

Amen my Duck-Brother….your last two sentences laid down the challenge; can Cristobal achieve it? For all the talk about culture–Chip Kelly was better at the “Face-less Opponent” by a mile. This is an important part of the culture that Mario needs to create.

(A topic to write and ponder further for you?)

Phil Anderson

With Mykael Wright, DJ James and Tricky Bridges out, the receivers and qb’s should’ve shown out. They did, and they looked good doing it. Terrance Ferguson not only made some nice catches but also passed the eye test: that’s a big athletic kid.

I still don’t know that we have elite, disruptive interior D linemen, but we do have solid solid depth there. And we are stacked at every other position. I was really impressed with Bryan Addisson’s aggressive play at safety; his high school tape shows some serious skill at free safety. Even the kicking game might be shored up with the Kattlemonster, who pulverized that 52-yarder.

Too bad 7 McGee wasnt able to enroll for spring. He would’ve had a nice opportunity.

Charles Fischer

I think you nailed our defensive line; good, but not like the Big-3 yet. Kristian Williams did a wonderful swim move to force a quick throw by Butterfield on 3rd and goal that went awry.

ptdduck

We’ll see how good we are against Ohio State. This is Cristobal’s 4th year as HC and 5th with the program so he owns it. Last year was disappointing but Covid was a major obstacle.

Notalot

Maybe we will play to win, and not play “not to lose”.

David Marsh

Good article Joshua

Though you forgot to mention Terrance Ferguson who also had some nice grabs as a tight end.

The only tight end we didn’t see was DJ Johnson and it would be a shocker if he falls off from last season.

So much talent at Oregon it is mind boggling.

UtahDuck

Johnson was injured and unable to play the spring scrimmage. We also didn’t see Cam McCormick, but I honestly don’t know what his injury status is.

At this point it will be interesting to see how guys like Webb as well as Moliki and TFerg are used. In the past under CMC the first and most important factor was runblocking and passpro. This is why Kamp got a lot of play time, he was arguably the best in these situations even with his brick hands and 2 ft vert. It’ll be interesting to see if we start getting TE’s out and in space more frequently. Our TE group could be a real mismatch for the conference.

I would love to see more 12 personnel where we actually swing the RB out and then Defenses have to try and figure out which TE is staying behind in protection and which is an eligible receiver. We should have the depth for that and If the defenses make the wrong decision you could have TE’s wide open or Dye picking the ball up in space for some good distance.

Charles Fischer

I am going to delve into it in a later analysis article, but I could not believe the superb blocking by Moliki Matavao on a touchdown play. He caved in his man and more, and the RB followed him!

You rarely ever see that from a freshman in his first major action….

Santa Rosa Duck

Terrance Ferguson looked good at tight end as well. Mario has some real problems to deal with this summer. Who plays and who sits? The wide receivers depth is unbelievable. If I were JJIII I would be looking over my shoulder.

As to our quarterbacks, I liked the look of Butterfield and it is probably no accident that he was the second QB up. Lots to think about and with fall practice starting in early August, football is just around the corner. GO DUCKS!

David Marsh

Off Topic but really interesting… Former Five Star Players Who Were Not Drafted

USC and Stanford own the list. This can be great recruiting fodder for the Oregon staff. Come to Oregon young 5-star and get developed AND drafted, unlike at USC.

UtahDuck

I was going to say that it is interesting that the pac owns 4 of the 9 players on this list. Inevitably players will fall well short of being their talent level. Even Bama had a player on this list but they signed a total of 11- 5 stars during that three year period.

Haywarduck

There are also those who were drafted, but way lower than their talent level. Can you imagine where Talanoa, or his cousin Marlon would have been drafted had he been in a program with the discipline Cristobal’s teams provide?

Not only get drafted but reach your potential as a man. If I was a parent of an elite talent, one of the last places I would want my son to go would be sc.

Charles Fischer

Great stuff David. So right about it being a recruiting sales point!

Another element is so many players that were good, and languished on a team where they could have been the final piece for Oregon to win a championship.

Logger29

Nice article Josh. Lots of talent, at all positions. That is the biggest take away for me from the spring game. Sure wish I could have been there in person. Watching on tv denies the viewer freedom of vision. You only see what the camera is pointed at.

Having said that I’m left to ponder: did the receivers get open due to poor coverage or great separation skill?; what was the base defense, where were the safeties before the snap?

My take on the QB play is mostly a hash of impressions, each had a brilliant moment or two. Brown seemed steady, Butterfield had some nice throws, Thompson has the tools but looked a little green. Ashford caught my attention. He reminds me of Tyler Murray from Oklahoma . Now wouldn’t it be something if Ashford were to emerge as the trigger man?

Charles Fischer

I think the receivers benefited enormously from the lack of starters; if the defensive backfield of 2019 had been playing, (of which all four were drafted) the passing game would have been quite different.

But this does give the newbies confidence….

Quackanadian

How right you are, Josh. So much talent on both sides of the ball, it’s going to be extra disappointing when the transfers start happening. I hope MC can still sell the “Saban model” of compete compete compete, and if you transfer and shy away from competition, coaches and pro mangers will see this and see you as mentally weak. I mean look at the 4 Alabama receivers this year? Good lawrd.

I hope the Ducks can pull off the same on the West Coast! I cannot wait to stay up late in the Eastern Time Zone to watch these guys!

And Flowe won the genetic lottery! Jeebuzzz!!!!

UtahDuck

At what point has the Transfer portal hurt oregon under Mario Cristobal?

2019: List of every transfer I’d argue oregon got better in 19 and the 9 transfers out allowed for better players to commit.

2020: List A lot less than 9 transfers this year and arguably improved the team.

2021: List again not a single player on this was guaranteed quality starting or backup playing time this year. The only players to transfer in the three years that may have some effect is CHL Who was a TD Machine but honestly wasn’t breaking up the Verdell and Dye tandem and so I don’t blame him for trying to get more tape and a third string albeit very talented Townsend who at best will be have playing time in 2022.

Cristobal has done a lot to keep his starters and backups in the fold.

Charles Fischer

Whew!

Outstanding research and post Utah, as I had not read the line-ups quite like this and you make great points. Oregon has traded well in the transfer portal, and this was superb seeing it. My thanks!

Haywarduck

It may be Brown’s time to get some sunshine from the sideline by the time the season starts. I think the coaching staff is brilliant in letting the 3 underlings fight it out while putting Brown in the pilots seat. The copilots will be moving over sooner than many believe. There is too much talent at qb, and their talent ceilings provide a much better view than Browns ceiling height.

The one item nobody commented on was Kingsley’s catch. The kid has some feet, and looked more nimble than Penei when he was used as a TE. He was better with the ball in his hands, will he become even close to Pinei’s talent level on the line, stay tuned.

Charles Fischer

Great point about Kingsley’s talent, as it could have a very high ceiling. He is still relatively light, but that will change with Coach Feld!