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Willie Taggart Era Begins as Oregon Hosts Southern Utah in Opener

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Autzen Stadium is about to fill up once again as the Oregon Ducks kick off the season at home against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. Saturday’s opener will mark the debut of new Oregon Head Coach Willie Taggart as he looks to bring back the swagger.

Optimism is at a peak in Eugene as the Ducks get ready for the opener. Coach Taggart is making noise on the recruiting trail though the time has come to see his team in action. Since his hiring after Mark Helfrich was dismissed, Taggart has brought a breath of fresh air to Oregon.

His enthusiasm is ecstatic, like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. Taggart served as an assistant under Harbaugh at Stanford and has brought the same passion throughout his head coaching stops.

Hope now is for Taggart’s “Do Something” attitude to strike a nerve within Oregon Football and compete this season.

All eyes will be on Oregon’s defense after finishing 126th amongst FBS-teams last season. Injuries took a toll last season though the Ducks could not finish games (Nebraska, Colorado, Oregon State) to become bowl eligible. The Ducks’ defense will have a new scheme as Jim Leavitt will take over as defensive coordinator. Coach Leavitt helped to improve Colorado’s defense last season dramatically and will look for the same success at Oregon.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately for Leavitt, he will see some growing pains under his system with Oregon throughout the season. Results will happen though patience will be needed from Oregon fans until the latest batch of recruits come to Eugene.

Coach Leavitt is transitioning Oregon’s defense to a 3-4 scheme after being a 4-3 scheme under former defensive coordinator Brady Hoke. The Thunderbirds may not pose much of a threat on offense, but the Ducks’ defense needs to look sharp. Returners Henry Mondeaux, Jalen Jelks, and Troy Dye will need to set the tone on the defensive line. Arrion Springs returns at the cornerback position.

Adjustments will likely be made during the game for the defense before conference games open in the coming weeks. The defense should have no problem against a Southern Utah team with only six returners on offense from last season.

Head coach Demario Warren is looking to gain respect for his program. The Thunderbirds have seen good fortunes recently stringing together back-to-back winning seasons. Success has not garnered attention as media experts picked Southern Utah to finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference.

Coach Warren could care less about preseason predictions as he will have his team ready to prove doubters wrong. Southern Utah will have their hands full coming into Eugene facing a revamped Oregon team under Coach Taggart.

With only six returners on offense, the Thunderbirds’ chances will be daunting against the Ducks. Tailbacks James Felila and Janiero Green Jr. have big shoes to fill after last year’s starter, and the backup has departed. In the air, tight end Logan Parker has been a playmaker for the Thunderbirds and will likely be relied on early in the game.

Southern Utah uses an up-tempo offense but may see difficulties getting in rhythm with a young offensive line. Veterans Josh Anderson and Zach Larsen will be anchoring the offensive line while keeping the newcomers from making mistakes.

On the defensive end, Southern Utah has eight returners featuring seniors Mike Needham and Robert Torgerson. Both were chosen to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team. Needham had a team-leading 47 solo tackles while recording five interceptions. Torgerson led the team with 12 tackles for losses including five sacks. In the past two seasons, the Thunderbirds have led the country in takeaways and interceptions combined.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Leadership is a vital role for a quarterback to lead his team. Justin Herbert has worked during the offseason on providing a stronger presence in his second year. As formidable the defense may seem by Southern Utah, Herbert needs to set the tone early on how the Ducks’ season will unfold.

Herbert has plenty of weapons at his disposal which includes running back Royce Freeman who chose to return to play his senior season with Oregon. Behind Freeman are talented returners Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit who can reel off explosive plays.

The receiving corps will be under scrutiny with Charles Nelson as the top returner. The rest of the receivers are young and will have to step up. Perhaps the biggest hit came from the tight end position with no returners. Coach Taggart has said he wants to keep an up-tempo offense for Oregon. Besides the reliable Nelson, another x-factor will have to emerge.

Health will be on the minds of Taggart and the coaching staff as Southern Utah should not be hard to handle at Autzen Stadium. Immediately upon conclusion of the game, Taggart’s biggest test will come the following week against Nebraska.

A new era is about to unfold as Coach Taggart begins the quest of returning Oregon to contenders. Oregon can certainly make a bowl game this season which would be big for Taggart in his first season. The Ducks’ though cannot afford to look ahead and must take one game at a time.