EUGENE — Oregon is only three years removed from playing in college football’s national championship game.
But outside linebacker Justin Hollins, a member of the kickoff coverage team as a true freshman, is the lone Duck on the current roster who actually got on the field in the 2014 season.
Three other fifth-year seniors — running back Tony Brooks-James, defensive end Jalen Jelks and safety Mattrell McGraw — redshirted during the historic season when Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and led the program to the College Football Playoff.
Mario Cristobal is planning to put the 2018 Ducks through a rigorous reminder of what it takes to compete at that level after watching Monday’s national championship game between Alabama and Georgia with the team.
“I think it’s important for our players to understand there’s a reason those teams got there,” Cristobal said. “It didn’t happen in October or November. It happened in January of last year, which is how it has to happen for us to achieve our goal. It’s now, it really is, and it’s daily.”
Oregon made progress in the weight room last winter, then improved from 4-8 during Mark Helfrich’s final season as head coach to 7-5 in Willie Taggart’s only season at the helm.
Still, the Ducks were pushed around at the line of scrimmage during the 38-28 loss to Boise State last month in the Las Vegas Bowl.
That did not sit well with Cristobal, who is in the process of hiring a new strength coach. The former Alabama assistant head coach wants Oregon’s offseason regimen to be modeled after the Crimson Tide’s famed Fourth Quarter Program.
“You look at us as a team, there was improvement, but there’s so much more there to be had, to get better at,” Cristobal said. “These two teams that are playing on Monday night, well guess what they do in the offseason? The exact same thing. So what does that tell me? This (strength) program has stood the test of time.”
Cristobal tried to hire Scott Cochran, Alabama’s celebrated director of strength and conditioning, when he was the coach at Florida International.
When Kirby Smart left his position as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator to become the Georgia coach, he tried to take Cochran with him. Alabama showed Cochran, whose 2017 salary was $535,000, enough money to keep him in Tuscaloosa.
Saban has no interest in finishing second, which Cochran made clear by slamming Alabama’s runner-up trophy from last year’s title game on the locker room floor and then smashing it with a sledgehammer in front of this year’s team.
Cristobal wants to set a similar bar at Oregon. He points out that Saban’s approach actually dates back to his days as a young assistant at Kent State under Don James, who later had a long and successful run at Washington.
“This is a 42-year-old offseason program. Some people might think, well, this is a little bit outdated,” Cristobal explained. “OK, those championship trophies aren’t outdated. They’re not. I think it’s something our players are really going to love. To me, if you don’t present that to your players, if you don’t grant them the opportunity to be involved in that type of setting and program, you’re cheating them.
“It’s our obligation to give them the opportunity to create the mindset of mental toughness, physical hardness, to be able to get to a level to compete for championships consistently. Of course, that requires a reset button every single offseason.”
Oregon will have a new head coach, as well as a new strength coach, for the third consecutive season.
Taggart replaced longtime UO strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe with Irele Oderinde, who had previously worked for Taggart at South Florida and will reportedly be his strength coach at Florida State.
Last year’s offseason program got off to a rough start when three Oregon players were hospitalized last January with exercise-related injuries. Oderinde was suspended for one month without pay and had to report directly to Andrew Murray, Oregon’s director of performance and sports science, instead of Taggart.
Cristobal said he has interviewed some “impressive” candidates to safely implement the gritty Fourth Quarter Program inside Oregon’s posh facilities.
“It’s going to be a difficult choice, it really is,” Cristobal said. “But the good thing is we’re being extremely thorough.”
Strength coaches actually spend more time with players than the head coach and the other assistants. The tone for Cristobal’s first season at Oregon will be set during demanding winter workouts.
“That Fourth Quarter offseason program is going to be the backbone of what we do,” Cristobal said. “Because it’s challenging, it will test you, it will push you. It forces unselfishness on you. It totally teaches you discipline in very difficult times. It’s an offseason program that pushes back.
“Wind sprints and cones and whistles don’t really push back. This program pushes back.”
Cochran has not reinvented the wheel. Alabama does many of the same fundamental conditioning drills and weight training as most programs, but he brings an unrelenting intensity to the workouts, and the emphasis is on proper technique over heavy weight.
All players start at a modest baseline and put the time in to be bigger, stronger and faster than opponents late in games.
“There is no rocket science behind it, it’s just hard work,” Cochran said in an interview with stack.com. “Coach Saban wants us to be a fast, physical, dominant team. He wants us to be in better shape than the opposition in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the way he coaches — intensely focusing on being perfect in every way — so we have to get the (players) ready for that.”
The way Cristobal sees it, the all-SEC national championship game is not an accident. Not many teams and programs are as dedicated to ascending the mountain as Alabama and Georgia.
So far, Oregon’s players — who successfully lobbied for Cristobal to replace Taggart when Taggart was hired at Florida State — are on board with the new coach.
Now comes the hard part.
“It’s not for everybody, it really isn’t,” Cristobal said. “And it wasn’t for everybody at Alabama, just like it’s not for everybody at Georgia. It’s for people that are high achievers that want to be high-level competitors.
“And it requires and demands things of you that are not common and not comfortable. You owe that to your players. Because if you don’t and they’re faced with a juggernaut, the price to pay is kind of ugly.”