Team Thunder beat Team Lightning, 59-34, on Saturday in Oregon’s Spring Game. Though the score is ultimately meaningless in this glorified practice, 27,317 eager Duck fans watched as the Cristobal era began. Here are a few things that caught the eye of Addicted to Quack.
-CJ Verdell May Be Oregon’s Next Great Running Back
Replacing Royce Freeman will be the most difficult challenge in Mario Cristobal’s first season as Oregon’s head coach. Many believe that the mix of experience, size, and skill amongst the Duck’s RBs will lead the new regime towards a running back by committee approach, however, the redshirt freshman CJ Verdell is making his case for the starting position.
During the spring game, Verdell had 44 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, he seemed to best utilize the gaps the offensive line provided. At 5’9, 202 pounds, he has the same frame as Kani Benoit but with the potential of a higher top speed.
-Kaulana Apelu is Scrappy as Hell
One of the most uplifting stories in college football is when a walk-on becomes a starter. Apelu made a name for himself on special teams during the turbulent 2015 season, and finally earned his scholarship right before the 2017 season began. This seems to be the season that he can solidify himself as a regular starter alongside Troy Dye.
Apelu made the most impressive play of the Spring Game when he took a deflected pass 100-plus yards for the pick six. Alongside the interception, he also lead the team in tackles with nine. The senior came to Oregon after playing only two games in his final two years of high school due to injury. He’ll have to once again prove his durability after his 2017 campaign ended with a fractured ankle in the same Cal game that robbed us of Herbert for half the season.
-Daewood Davis Could Be the Receiver We Desperately Need
It’s no secret that Oregon is scary thin at wide receiver. Dillon Mitchell and Johnny Johnson III have the first two positions locked down after fighting through an up-and-down season last year, which leaves the third spot up for grabs.
Although Jaylon Redd has had flashes of greatness throughout his short career, if the decision was solely based on the Spring Game (again, a futile way to predict just about anything) Davis appears to be the top receiver.
The redshirt freshman caught three passes for 75 yards, two of which went for a touchdown. The score that has earned the most attention from Saturday was the 36-yard pass from true freshman Tyler Shough. The ball was underthrown, but Davis was able to adjust and zip up the field past defensive back Haki Woods. Though his first TD was impressive, it was the fourth-down screen pass to the end zone that truly showed Davis’ potential.
-Thomas Graham Jr. is No Longer A Rookie
Many of Oregon’s best players on this year’s roster started as freshman due to Mark Helfrich’s difficulties with recruiting. Justin Herbert, Troy Dye, Dillon Mitchell and Jordon Scott all were thrown into the fire their freshmen seasons, as was the ever-improving Thomas Graham Jr. Now, he is one year wiser, one year more confident in his abilities, and swatting balls like Arrion Springs. The ceiling for Graham Jr. is very high, and we may very well be witnessing the next great cornerback at Oregon.
-Backup QB Situation Seems to be What We All Expected
At most times, the Spring Game felt more like a competition between Braxton Burmeister and Tyler Shough than between Thunder and Lightning. Of course it was exciting to see Justin Herbert again, even when he threw the lowlight of the evening against Apelu. Despite a few overthrown balls and a couple dropped passes, Herbert’s 126 yards and touchdown pass to Davis gave most Duck fans a warm feeling inside.
Braxton Burmeister went for 64 yards, 7-12, and a score. The sophomore is looking to have a breakthrough season after a hellish year of being thrust into a position that a miniscule amount of quarterbacks at the college level can handle. Following Herbert’s injury, Burmeister was forced into the starting role in what was supposed to be his redshirt season due to two QB’s transferring after last year’s Spring Game.
It stands to reason that the best move for the Ducks at backup quarterback would be to stick with the more experienced Burmeister. Although a position should always be earned on merit, Burmeister has definitely proven his resilience by weathering the storm of aggressive attacks against him on social media by a minority of loser Duck fans. Any player is open to criticism and discussion, but there are obvious lines someone shouldn’t cross when you’re talking about a 19 year-old kid who’s done nothing but try to win some football games for your favorite team.
Tyler Shough looked impressive in his first ever “game” as a Duck. The quarterback from Arizona went 5-8 and threw for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Those are numbers that could lead one to believe that Shough has the potential to step up if called on- if this wasn’t a spring game.
Either way, both quarterbacks played with a sense of urgency, possibly due to the realization that they are one bad play away from being thrust into the spotlight.
Although Oregon kept a lot of its starters and a surprising amount of the coaching staff from last year, this Spring Game felt totally different from last year’s. When Willie Taggart began his brief career at Oregon (to put it lightly), fans didn’t know what to expect.
Most fans were eager to see if there was any improvement at all on the defensive side of the ball under newly acquired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. Justin Herbert had an impressive performance, solidifying his role as starter. Two standouts from Taggart’s first and only Spring Game with Oregon, which would prove somewhat ominous, were Darren Carrington and Travis Jonsen.
This year felt different. It wasn’t about starting over from scratch, but establishing consistency. Sure, there is still much to be hammered out in nearly every position group, but the defensive side of the ball will be coached by the same person for the first time in three years, the backup quarterback position will most likely go to someone who played that role all of last year, and both trenches have leadership and experience.
The Taggart era may have started with a bigger splash, but here’s hoping the Cristobal era will make a bigger ripple.
-A Few of Oregon’s Greatest Players Were in Attendance
And finally, this year’s Spring Game once again brought out the stars. It’s always good to see the legends of Duck football together again, and in this case, a picture is worth a thousand words.