Last Saturday, Oregon football traveled to Portland for a practice at Jesuit High School. A week later, the Ducks were scrimmaging at Autzen Stadium. Six days from today, UO will host their annual Spring Game. Ready or not, here they come.
You can’t help but notice the positivity around the program this season.
Head coach Willie Taggart is preaching competition to his team. He wants Oregon players “to compete” at all levels. The word “juice” is being thrown around too. Coach Tag wants more of everything. It’s a completely different mindset from last season and players are responding in a positive manner.
“It’s a learning lesson for everyone. We are all still getting to know one another,” replied Taggart. “It’s been everything we wanted out of our guys from an enthusiasm and competitive standpoint. Our defense is making plays. The offense comes back to make plays. It’s been fun to watch.”
My favorite part about Taggart is his transparency with everyone. He is straight forward, upfront and honest. It's refreshing after suffering through last season with minimal communication or transparency from the coaching staff.
Under the previous regime, there was a lack of discipline and accountability. Not to mention, the conditioning of the team was exploited on a weekly basis. That won’t happen this year.
“We’re getting better,” Taggart stated. “That’s one thing I can say. In the spring, each and every day we’ve gotten better. We’ve had two outstanding practices this week, leading up to this scrimmage.”
Taggart doesn’t play mind games with his kids. Every day, the head coach plasters an updated depth chart on the wall in the locker room. Daily, that depth chart changes. It keeps the competition going around the clock, while bringing out the best in everyone.
He could swing a player from third string to starter after a great scrimmage. But, one lackadaisical effort could send them crashing down the chart a day later. It’s all about not being satisfied with good enough.
The Ducks are fired up for practice every day. That is saying something, coming from a program that was playing in the national championship just a few years ago. The passion for the grind is back.
“We saw guys motivated, ready to compete for the scrimmage,” said Taggart. “That’s what we look for. We’re going to go out and scrimmage like a game. Not a situation scrimmage. We’re going to have coaches in the press box. We’re going to go out and play it like a game. It will be fun to watch these guys compete.”
I would be remiss to not mention the tireless work ethic of Taggart and Jim Leavitt. The duo is making an impression on their players, the UO staff and recruits alike. They don’t focus on the future, but realize their kids must stay present in the moment. It could make all the difference this season.
“Repetition. The more you do things, the better you get,” said Taggart. “When they see our enthusiasm in practice, they feed off it.”
Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert has enjoyed his time with the new coaching staff. Nevertheless, the second-year gunslinger has endured some rocky moments this spring. He is learning a new system with a coach that loves the dual threat option.
Take a peak at “Winky” Flowers from South Florida. Taggart left the Bulls program in great hands, as the QB has drawn comparisons to Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. He is an electric athlete that can beat you with his arm or legs. That is what Taggart is recruiting to Eugene. Herbie is no lock to start all season.
“It’s going to get competitive,” Taggart stated in reference to the QB position.
After being intercepted on the first play in the Portland scrimmage, Herbie was picked off again on the first play from Autzen Stadium on Saturday. Arrion Springs made a nice play to cause the turnover for the defense. However, Herbert calmed himself to finish with 213 yards and three touchdowns.
Travis Jonsen was running the first team offense, as well. The dual threat signal-caller drilled a 43-yard pass to Charles Nelson before scampering in for one of his two rushing TD’s on the afternoon.
Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James look ready to go. The electric backs each housed long runs during the scrimmage.
TBJ scored from 62 yards away, while Benoit had a 39-yard tally amid 19 carries.
Slot receiver star Charles Nelson secured nine balls for 192 yards and a touchdown. He is one of the most exciting players on the planet, as you’ve witnessed during his career. He inhaled a 75-yard score from Herbie on the first play of an individual series.
Whether Nelson is dominating special teams or crushing bones from the safety position, there is literally nothing Nelson can’t do on a football field. He is going to explode in 2017 from the slot.
Don’t forget about the explosive Dillon Mitchell. He can do more than special teams and exhibited this with a 29-yard TD reception.
Jacob Breeland registered two touchdown grabs from Herbert.
The defense has been energetic. They’re flying around the ball this spring, regardless of who is missing from action. Springs has looked phenomenal. The cornerback is intercepting and deflecting passes, alongside recovering fumbles for scores. The secondary seems improved from last season.
“We’re pretty good at competing right now,” Taggart reiterated. “I’m excited about that. Our guys are getting better in every area. It’s hard to say exactly what we are good at right now. I’ll know at the end of spring. The most important thing is them practicing the way we want them to practice. Having fun and competing.”
Tyree Robinson annihilated Benoit on the play that led to Springs’ scoop-and-score.
The main man on the defense, Troy Dye continued doing Troy Dye things. On the first play of the second half, the sophomore linebacker intercepted Herbert. The sophomore quarterback started each half by throwing an interception.
Freshman safety Billy Gibson intercepted a pass on Saturday at Autzen. Then, Elijah George forced a fumble and recovered it in the red zone. It was impressive and very timely for the defense.
“I like that,” said Taggart. “I like seeing guys make plays. That’s what this football team needs, playmakers.”
Kaulana Apelu was everywhere on defense. He was forcing plays away from him, including amassing three tackles in the final four plays of a single drive.
Fotu T. Leiato II is assuming the important “Duck” role, which is an Oregon hybrid linebacker/safety. He’s prepared after playing a similar position in high school.
Ugo Amadi earned a sack when he took down Jonsen before the end of the first half.
Aidan Schneider missed a 42-yard field goal, but made the final one to conclude the scrimmage.
Understandably, Royce Freeman was the only healthy starter held out of action.
One thing is obvious with this team, they are excited to play the game of football again. At times last season, Oregon’s passion was questioned. If practice is any indication, the Ducks are hyped to tell a different story in 2017.