Spring Game Shows Oregon Ducks Are Legit Contenders

Joshua Whitted Editorials

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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