EUGENE — Oregon was explosive on offense when Justin Herbert was healthy and improved on defense during Jim Leavitt’s first season as coordinator.
But the Ducks, who finished 7-5 during Willie Taggart’s one-and-done season as head coach and are coming off a disappointing loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, have one glaring issue to clean up from the 2017 season:
Dirty (yellow) laundry.
Oregon ranked dead last (130th) in the FBS in penalties, averaging 13 accepted penalties and an average of 88.3 penalty yards per game.
First-year coach Mario Cristobal and the revamped staff are hoping to coach some of the mistakes out of the Ducks during spring practice, which began Wednesday.
“No. 1 would be discipline,” Cristobal said of the focus for the 15 on-field sessions. “I think you saw it last year, we really hurt ourselves with the amount of penalties that we had. And that’s on us. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching guys, we’ve got to do a better job of emphasizing and creating scenarios that put our players in situations that allow them to practice that. I think film study is really important as well.”
Oregon’s two-deep released Tuesday features some star power at key positions — most notably Herbert at quarterback and Troy Dye at middle linebacker.
“I expect these guys to be much better at the end of spring than they are going into spring,” Cristobal said of Herbert and Dye, who are both juniors entering their third year as starters. “They’re just scratching the surface, in our opinion. Both these guys have their best days ahead of them. They’re certainly students of the game, they work on their craft constantly, and we expect them to take that next step.
“Good players must eventually become great players and dominant players, and that’s what these guys need to become.”
Fifth-year senior Tony Brooks-James will replace Royce Freeman, the program’s all-time leading rusher, as the starting running back.
Cristobal said junior receiver Dillon Mitchell has been one of the standouts during the offseason as Oregon’s “Fourth Quarter” strength and conditioning program was implemented.
Brenden Schooler and Johnny Johnson are listed as the other starting wide receivers. Jacob Breeland remains the No. 1 tight end; Cam McCormick, a graduate of Bend’s Summit High School who will be a redshirt sophomore, is listed as the No. 2 tight end.
Brady Aiello, who started at left tackle in 2016 after Tyrell Crosby was injured, is penciled back in as Herbert’s blindside protector.
With Jake Hanson out indefinitely with an injury, the offensive line shuffle also includes Calvin Throckmorton at center, 6-foot-6, 312-pound George Moore at right tackle, and 6-5, 315-pound Jacob Capra at right guard.
“We have to breed competition,” Cristobal said. “We have to make that a very welcoming aspect of our program.”
The defense at a glance
Another player who caught Cristobal’s eye over the winter was sophomore Deommodore Lenoir, who is projected as a starting cornerback opposite classmate Thomas Graham. Seniors Mattrell McGraw and Ugochukwu Amadi are listed as the starting safeties, but a lot of competition is expected in the secondary this spring and then in preseason practice with an influx of new talent.
Redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia is the starting inside linebacker opposite Dye in Leavitt’s 3-4 defense. Junior La’Mar Winston and senior Justin Hollins return at the outside linebacker positions.
Senior Fotu Leiato is the starter at the hybrid “Duck” position.
Oregon’s defensive line returns starters Austin Faoliu, Jordon Scott and Jalen Jelks.
“We’d like to be the most fundamentally sound team that we can be,” Cristobal said. “You can never be good enough at technique, you can never have enough polish on your craft, and we certainly want to be that team that technically is on point 100 percent of the time. So that being said, the amount of individual periods and technical work periods will increase.
“We’ll even start practice with a turnover period and a ball-security tackling period a lot like the New England Patriots use. Good team to kind of mimic, right? They do a pretty decent job.”
And on special teams
With the graduation of Aidan Schneider, sophomore Adam Stack is listed atop the depth chart at place-kicker and punter. Schneider is backed at both positions by Zach Emerson, a redshirt sophomore out of Bend’s Mountain View High. The Ducks also have a new long snapper (Devin Melendez) and holder (Blake Maimone) after four years of continuity between Schneider, Tanner Carew and Taylor Alie.
One of Cristobal’s new assistants, Bobby Williams, is a full-time special teams coach.
“We expect that to pay major dividends,” Cristobal said.
In addition to Hanson, linebacker Sampson Niu and safety Nick Pickett are out with injuries. Defensive tackle Rex Manu, who missed the 2017 season, has medically retired.
“Overall, we’re relatively healthy,” Cristobal said. “This time of year you never have enough guys. You’d like to have 125, but you don’t. We have enough to practice and get better. We do feel a couple guys that are a little nicked up will come back in the second half of spring.”
The Ducks will conduct five practices over the next week and nine practices in April ahead of the spring game April 21 at Autzen Stadium. Cristobal moved spring practice up, in part, so the players could show off their improved physiques after embracing the strength and conditioning program.
“They’re ready to kind of reap the rewards and the benefits of having worked this hard,” Cristobal said. “They’re champing at the bit. Certainly when you move up spring ball you also afford yourself the opportunity, if there was an injury, that on the back end you have a couple extra weeks to heal up.”
Six members of Oregon’s 2018 recruiting class — quarterback Tyler Shough, safety Steve Stephens, running backs Travis Dye and Jamal Elliott and cornerbacks Haki Woods and Verone McKinley — are already enrolled and will participate in spring practice.
Miami transfer D.J. Williams has also been on campus during the winter term and will compete at outside linebacker.
“They smell opportunity, that this is a big opportunity for them,” Cristobal said of the newcomers. “I think if you asked them they’d tell you right now the tremendous advantage it is to be here in January. It really changes their dynamic from a development standpoint. Great guys. I think they’re going to be great teammates and honestly expect every single one of them to play and contribute.”