Three Questions Lanning Must Answer This Spring

Joshua Whitted Editorials

Nothing beats the energy and excitement of college football’s opening weekend. But for all of us football-deprived fanatics, the start of spring ball comes pretty close.

Optimism is in season; every team has a blank slate. Newcomers make their collegiate debuts, position battles dominate the headlines, and we even get a scrimmage to top it off.

This spring is a significant one for the Oregon Ducks, as it will be their first in four years without Mario Cristobal running the show. Dan Lanning is looking to build upon the solid structure that Cristobal left him with, but first he’ll have to answer some key questions. Here are three of the biggest storylines to keep an eye on as Oregon kicks off spring practice.

1. What Is Oregon’s Offensive Identity?

Under Cristobal, Oregon had a well-defined offensive approach, controversial as it was. The Ducks were built through the trenches, determined to control the line of scrimmage and win on the ground. At times, this system had an awkward marriage with varied tempos, a sporadic downfield passing game and RPOs. But the goal of the offense was clear: win on the ground and use everything else as a changeup.

Cristobal’s offense was run-heavy.

While Cristobal’s offenses weren’t crowd pleasers, his ideology wasn’t horribly misplaced. A number of good college football offenses are run-heavy. His implementation of the strategy, however, was less than ideal.

New offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham’s approach, however, is more of a mystery. Under Mike Norvell at Florida State and Memphis, Dillingham’s offenses did feature the run heavily (albeit with plenty of variety for those who are concerned this will be similar to Cristobal’s offenses), bolstered by a number of current NFL running backs. But Dillingham has also overseen a couple of very impressive passing seasons, specifically when he was Riley Ferguson’s QB coach in 2017. That year, Ferguson was sixth in the FBS, averaging 327 passing yards per game.

Norvell and Dillingham were experts at tailoring their offense to fit the strength of their roster. When Ferguson, a very talented passer, was at the helm, the coaching staff opened up the passing game and let him go to work. Conversely, at Florida State, with talented running backs and an athletic quarterback, Norvell and Dillingham ramped up the run game and featured quarterback Jordan Travis’s legs.

Ferguson was one of the top QBs in the country in 2017.

So, which version of the offense will Dillingham bring with him to Eugene? The two presumptive leaders of the quarterback clubhouse — Bo Nix and Ty Thompson — are both physically gifted passers who theoretically can lead an offense that is built around their arm talents. But Oregon does have a veteran offensive line and a talented, albeit green, group of running backs that should be able to make some plays in the ground game.

By the end of the spring, we should have a better idea of what the next version of the Oregon offense will look like. But heading into practice it’s anyone’s guess.

2. Who Starts at Safety?

An understated but important development this spring will be how Oregon sorts out its safety rotation. The position group was a mixed bag in 2021, but it had a surefire leader in Verone McKinley III. With McKinley gone, the Ducks have a number of veteran players to fill out the lineup, but each had an up and down 2021 for a variety of reasons.

Getting Bennett Williams back for another year was massive for Oregon, both from a talent and depth standpoint. Williams was in the middle of a strong 2021 campaign when an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season just five games into the year. Williams finished with the top PFF coverage grade among Oregon defenders, and he is likely a lock to crack the starting rotation at one of Oregon’s three starting safety positions.

Williams will be the leader in the secondary.

After Williams, the situation gets a bit murkier. Jamal Hill, an on-and-off starter at the nickel position, had a disappointing season after a breakout year in 2020. He’s a physical presence who has flashed playmaking potential during his career, but his struggles in coverage this past season were detrimental.

Steve Stephens IV is a former blue-chip recruit who got his first significant action in 2021 and also saw his season end prematurely due to injury. Stephens never quite settled into his role next to McKinley, but he’s undoubtedly a talented player who might benefit from improved coaching.

Finally, there’s the wildcard, Jeffrey Bassa. Bassa, a player who was classified as a safety as a recruit, was forced to play inside linebacker due to Oregon’s severe lack of depth at the position. Bassa filled in admirably, showcasing his physical nature and impressive toughness, taking on blockers despite being significantly smaller. But Bassa’s gifts will be best utilized at his natural position, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back at safety this spring.

Bassa made his collegiate debut in 2021.

Even beyond the aforementioned players, Bryan Addison is a really intriguing converted wide receiver who could get some serious looks, and Daymon David is another former blue-chip recruit who is oozing potential.

Oregon has some options at safety, but they can’t play all of them. Spring practices should give us a sneak peak at how the depth chart will shape up once the season starts.

3. Bo Nix or Ty Thompson

Of course, we save the best for last. The overwhelming majority of the fan base, the media and frankly, the college football world as a whole, will be checking up on Oregon’s practice reports to get the latest on the Ducks’ quarterback controversy.

Nix, the talented but erratic transfer quarterback from Auburn, has a history with Dillingham. Oregon’s new offensive coordinator was once Auburn’s back in 2019, when Nix infamously engineered a game-winning drive against the Ducks. Nix has plenty of physical tools as a former five-star quarterback. He has a live arm, solid athleticism and an uncanny ability to escape from pressure.

Nix and Dillingham beat the Ducks in 2019.

Unfortunately, some of these skills can often be to his detriment, as he’s far too eager to leave clean pockets and invite pressure, and his decision making is often suspect. Nix is certainly an upgrade from Anthony Brown as a pure passer, but many of Brown’s strengths (his calm composure and ability to play within the offense) are Nix’s weaknesses.

Thompson, meanwhile, is an unknown. He joined the Ducks as their highest-rated quarterback signee ever, and with that comes heightened expectations. Like Nix, Thompson is a physically gifted passer with great size and coveted athleticism.

But no one has any idea how he looks on the field (a half of football against Stony Brook is hardly enough of a sample size to make any sweeping conclusions about his capabilities or lack thereof). Thompson might be the next superstar quarterback in college football, or he might be the next blue-chip bust.

Either way, while we almost certainly won’t know who’s starting at quarterback for Oregon against Gerogia by the end of the spring game, we’ll at least have 15 practice reports worth of data, and a spring game, to give us a better idea of where both of these passers stand.

It’s not quite actual football, but spring practices and scrimmages are the closest thing we’ll get for another six months. So, let’s soak it all in and watch for these storylines as Lanning kicks off his first spring in Eugene.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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