Oregon enters Saturday’s meeting with Utah losers of their last three, including four of their last five. However, not every loss has been entirely useless. The Ducks are learning on the run during the first year of the Willie Taggart era, as they await the return of Justin Herbert.
Practice has been a major emphasis since Herbert went down with a fractured collarbone. The Hatfield-Dowlin Complex is the only place where Oregon quarterbacks can take their reps and work with skill players.
If practice is bad heading into Saturday, clearly things won’t change when the game starts. That is why Coach Tag continues to focus on making things right at practice.
“Had a really, really good practice,” Oregon’s head coach said with a smile. “Very enthusiastic. Very competitive. And really good execution.”
Demetri Burch is back with the quarterback group on a full-time basis. If you remember this summer, Burch was going back and forth between receiver and quarterback before settling down as a skill player.
He has helped the Ducks prepare for the Utes dual-threat quarterback, which they will face on Saturday.
Braxton Burmeister continues to fight through inexperience. He has been better this week, according to his head coach.
“We completed some passes. They were nice and crisp. Some good routes and they were consistent, that’s an improvement by itself,” Taggart stated. “Hopefully, we can do it on Saturday.”
As for Herbert, he was throwing passes last week. This week, the sophomore has been doing a little bit more but he still hasn’t started contact drills. Nevertheless, the Eugene product has NOT been ruled out for the Utah game.
“Justin’s throwing passes. He’s doing whatever Justin wants to do right now,” said Taggart. “It’s pretty cool to watch, too. I told him, ‘don’t tease me,’ but it’s good to have him back out there.”
Obviously, the return of No. 10 to the practice field has the team fired up.
“You could see with him being out there, his teammates were excited to see him,” said UO’s head coach. “It brought some more energy to our football team.”
A great deal of people, media included, are skeptical that this is a tease. Yet, the head coach doesn’t necessarily agree with those assumptions.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a tease,” Taggart replied. “It’s him getting better and continuing to get healthy. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get in the game and help us win some football games.”
If Herbert isn’t fighting through pain, he will continue to actively participate. As for game action, there is a chance.
“Always an option, there is always a chance,” Taggart said with great emphasis. “How much? I can’t tell you that but there’s always a chance. You guys were out there, you saw. He threw the football pretty well.”
As far as his practice workload, Herbert can do whatever he wants. Taggart has enabled him the opportunity to trust his body.
“He’s practicing and throwing seeds out there,” Taggart said. “That’s good to see. Hopefully sooner rather than later he’ll be out there.”
Taggart believes Herbert has done enough in practice. At this stage in his career, Herbert will obviously never take a hit in practice. Therefore, the first time anyone will find out how his injury will react to a hit will be during a game.
“He’s not taking hits now. I don’t think any of us know what he can do until he gets in the game. We will not touch him in practice. Not even breathe on him.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt knows his defense needs to create more turnovers. The defense was flying around, actively trying to take the ball away at practice this week. But, the Ducks haven’t forced one in a game since the Washington State contest.
“For us to be playing better than we have on defense,” Taggart stated. “We haven’t had a turnover in two games. We have to get back to taking the ball away from our opponents and just play good, solid defense. Got to get some takeaways, have to!”
Offensively, the head coach wants to see better overall focus from his young receiving core. The Oregon pass-catchers aren’t getting the opportunities they envisioned, but running the wrong routes can contribute to major issues in the passing game.
Taggart addressed concerns with his receivers running the wrong routes.
“It’s always concerning. First thing you do as a coach, ‘are we doing too much? Am I doing a good job coaching it up?’ If he can’t do it, don’t put him in there. Everybody has to step up and play better. We’re not as talented as we’d like to make those mistakes. We have to continue working on our mental capacity.”
Some media took the opportunity to bring up the play of current Utah wide receiver and former Duck, Darren Carrington. Of course, it’s easy to point out the void on the team without a healthy roster/starting quarterback. Yet, Taggart made the right move.
Oregon’s coach didn't deflect when asked about Carrington’s senior year.
“He’s caught a lot of footballs for them. He’s their leading receiver and they go to him a lot. We just have to play our defense. They got good players other than Darren too. We can’t just focus on Darren. We know what Darren’s capable of. He’s a good football player and he’s doing a good job for them.”
We are just a few days away from the real answer to everyone’s question. Will he or won’t he? We shall find out soon.
Oregon (4-4, 1-4) returns to Autzen Stadium on Saturday for a clash with Utah (4-3, 1-3). Last season, the Ducks upset the No. 12 Utes in Salt Lake City, 30-28. Kickoff is slated for 2:45 p.m. PT from Eugene via the Pac-12 Network.