Dan Lanning has a lot of pressure entering this offseason. Sure, the new year will determine weather the Ducks land a major bowl win, but the offseason is where the pressure really starts to ramp up.
Lanning is the first coach since Mike Bellotti to not win a conference championship in their second season (besides Willie Taggert who only coached one season). That being said, the current Oregon coach has been fantastic in improving his roster and supporting staff.
So leading in to year three, what can Lanning do to get the Oregon Ducks their first championship?
Offensively the Ducks were incredible this year. Bo Nix just wrapped up one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history at QB, and his supporting cast was phenomenal. Bucky Irving was arguably the nations most electric running back, turning short gains into long ones, and long gains into touchdowns on a weekly basis. Troy Franklin just wrapped up the best season a receiver has ever had at the U of O. The offensive line was easily the best unit from top to bottom on the entire roster.
So where does that leave Oregon heading into 2024?
Nix, Irving, Franklin, and center Jackson Powers-Johnson are all NFL bound, so replacing the top tier talent off of the offense is paramount. Keeping the status quo on offense is the goal, with the bar being set so high this season.
It starts with QB, where Oregon will once again field the NCAA’s most experienced player, this time in Dillon Gabriel, who should be able to at lest approximate the production the Ducks saw from Nix. Gabriel is the most important player on the roster heading into next season, as his success will determine the Ducks success.
At running back, Irving is replaced by Jordan James and Noah Wittington, both of whom are star caliber players at the position. While neither player has the speed or elusiveness of Irving, both are physical and fast, fully capable of maintaining a very productive rushing attack.
Oregon may lose Franklin at receiver, but they return Tez Johnson, their second leading receiver from 2023. Johnson doesn’t have the frame that Franklin brought to the field, but he will be among the fastest players in college football next season. Gary Bryant Jr and Traeshon Holden will likely take the majority of the passes thrown to Franklin last season, and both showed an ability to break away from defenses throughout the season this year. The receiving corps also has several young players, all of whom should be able to contribute next season. Overall, the group should be able to produce at a level necessary to win big.
The offensive line is where there starts to be signs of trouble. Powers-Johnson was the best offensive lineman in college football this season. The center of the offensive line is also the second most important player on an offense, responsible for identifying blitzers on the defense, and potentially adjusting coverage depending on the system. Iapani Laloulu got a lot of run in 2023, and looks to replace the All-American at the position. If he can replicate the success of 2023, the offense should be able to perform at the same level to which we are accustomed.
The Oregon defense was solid for most of 2023, but their improvement will be vital if Oregon is going to take a leap heading into next season.
The defensive line was good at times during 2023. Performances against the likes of Colorado and Stanford, among a few others, skewed the statistics. The defensive front was mostly fantastic against bad offensive lines. The problem was that they underperformed against most of the good offensive lines they played. Notably, Washington had their way in both matchups this season. Additionally, the line failed to contain dual threat quarterbacks all season long, with Cam Ward going crazy on the Ducks defense due to his ability to run wild.
If the Ducks are going to succeed in 2024, they must improve at generating consistent pressure while being able to contain running QB’s.
Linebacker play was solid throughout the season for Oregon. Playing well in coverage, tackling soundly, not getting out of position often. Overall, the group played very well. The best of the group, to my eyes, was Jestin Jacobs, who should return after yet another season of college football where he struggled to stay healthy. Jacobs is big, physical, and most importantly: smart. If he returns, with the rest of the returning production, Oregon will continue to have success at linebacker.
Defensive back is perhaps the second biggest concern on the team. Cornerback depth was a massive issue throughout the season, as the starters struggled to stay healthy and the backups weren’t capable of covering the caliber of receiver that Oregon was playing. Khyree Jackson is off to the NFL after being the best DB on the roster this season. The problem was, he wasn’t that good. If Jackson was the second or third best DB, Oregon would have been fantastic, but with him as the best? The Ducks allowed the 64th most passing yards in FBS. That simply isn’t good enough to win big.
Fortunately, Jalil Florence is a bigtime player who, when healthy, is able to impact games with his coverage abilities. Dontae Manning is a former five star who has shown the occasional ability to make plays in coverage. If he can be more consistent, Manning could be a big asset to year three Lanning.
Cover safety was easily the biggest area over concern during the Lanning administration so far, with the Williams brothers being box safeties with limited coverage abilities, and no other player being demonstrably better at downfield coverage. If Oregon wants to beat Washington, they must improve their safety play in coverage.
The defense has some holes, allowing to many broken plays and downfield throws. If they can tune up those areas then they are a championship caliber defense.
This is the biggest area of concern right now. Camden Lewis just wrapped up one of the most confounding careers in Oregon history. He started out horrible, turned into a solid asset, regressed into a player that was borderline unplayable, and finished out without making any major mistakes. Lewis ability to kick the ball through the uprights on kickoffs is matched only by his ability to kick that same ball out of bounds. He struggled to make any kick worth three points, but never missed an extra point.
Anyway, Oregon has to replace him. He had his inconsistencies, but they were at least known. Next season we are looking at a player taking primary kicking duties for the first time in their college career on a team with championship aspirations. The pressure couldn’t be greater.
At punter, Ross James is an absolute weapon, averaging near the top of the FBS in yards per punt.
The problem is the coverage units. They weren’t particularly good, and while kicking out of bounds on kickoffs and punting 50 yards per punt help field position, so does good coverage. If Oregon can improve their coverage they will be less prone to allowing big returns, like during the conference championship game.
Oregon doesn’t need to improve much to be at the top of college football in 2024. In fact, if they simply clean up the defensive categories listed, they will certainly be picked in the top of the conference entering the season.
The only question is: can Lanning pull it off?
Sierra Vista, Arizona
Top Photo By: Gary Breedlove
Ryan Robertson is a defense contractor for the United States Marine Corps. A lifelong Duck fan from Grants Pass, he joined the Army out of high school. After four years as an Intelligence Analyst he decided it was time to further his education and pay more attention to his Ducks. One of Ryan’s first memories is of watching the Ducks, led by Joey Harrington, beating up on the Utah Utes in 2001. His grandfather ran track at Oregon in the ‘50s. He loves the Ducks, and has a passionate interest in reading every scrap of analysis centered around the football team.
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