In 2018, for the first time in 94 years, both the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon St Beavers introduced new head football coaches in the same season. Those coaches enjoyed somewhat different debuts. The goal for Coach Smith in 2019 is to improve on last year’s 2-10 record and show progress to help with buy-in, stability, and recruiting, and I think that’s achievable.
If we pencil in a win against Cal Poly (not the safest assumption with the Beavs, but they are on a five-game win streak against FCS teams), then that just means winning more than one FBS game. Teams like the one I think OSU will be in 2019 -- a solid offense, not much defense -- get their best shot at wins against similar teams, in shootouts where the opponent’s additional investment in offense can’t gain them anything more, and the first team to punt loses. Simply by the law of averages OSU ought to win maybe a third of those, and I count six such teams on their schedule: Oklahoma St, Hawai’i, UCLA, Arizona, and maybe Wazzu and ASU depending on how some new pieces shake out. Plus as we discussed on the podcast, OSU’s matchups against Stanford and Washington both look like big trap games for those teams.
Thanks to Joe Londergan of Building the Dam for his insights into the team. We had an interesting discussion about Coach Smith’s history, a frank assessment of the program, and a few fun stories; check out the podcast for more.
Offense - #73 in S&P+
That’s not a great ranking, but after talking with Joe, I’m even more convinced that the offense wasn’t Oregon St’s problem in 2018. They put up 5,000 yards from scrimmage, which is more than all but three programs in the Pac-12, and those three all had extra games to do it in. It’s more yards than Utah racked up, and the Utes won their division and played two additional games. And how’s this for degree of difficulty - the Beavers were the only team that didn’t get to pad their stats by playing the two worst defenses in the conference: UCLA and … Oregon St.
The only real difficulty OSU’s offense had was that all these yards didn’t translate into as many touchdowns as you’d expect. I don’t think the problem was red zone efficiency – according to S&P+ their success rate is ranked #13 inside the 10-yard line and #2 in 1st-and-goal situations, and that makes sense to me because my film study showed they’re a pretty balanced offense that doesn’t have their bread-and-butter plays eliminated when the defensive field shortens. I think the issue rather was a constant struggle against field position: the defense never helped them out with even the normal amount of shortened fields (they forced just 42 punts on the year, #125 in FBS, and were the only team to earn a turnover count in the single digits), instead making them march all 75 yards almost every drive from constant kickoffs after touchdowns. While the offense did capitalize on nearly every drive that started in opponent territory, there were only eight of those, and no special teams or defensive touchdowns.
Starter #6 QB Luton has struggled with injuries his entire career, and in 2018 left the field after a concussion, returned for a game, left again on an ankle problem, then returned for the final five. His backup was #2 QB Blount, who’s since transferred out of the program, and #12 QB Colletto would come in as his backup as well as for some QB draw packages. The character of the offense changes noticeably with Luton: in games when he’s the primary QB, OSU becomes a pass-first offense, throwing the ball on 59% of 1st downs. When it’s Blount or Colletto, that number drops to 38%.
Even though OSU brought in the transfer #13 QB Gebbia, a 4-star 2017 commit to Nebraska, I expect Luton will win the starting job again -- he’s got a good arm and a strong command of the offense, although not a lot of mobility -- and have Gebbia as the second string.
OSU brings back two of its top three receivers, a trio I was impressed with in last year’s film study: #8 WR Bradford, #18 WR Hernandez, and #17 WR Hodgins. Hernandez has graduated, but OSU got another 4-star 2017 transfer from Nebraska in #15 WR Lindsey, who departed in mid-October after playing only a few games for the Huskers. He’s had a fair share of injuries -- a meniscus tear his senior year of high school, and treatment for rhabdomyolysis early last year -- and we’ve never seen him live up to billing. But between his high ceiling, the extensive use of tailbacks as receivers (45 combined receptions), and bringing back nine additional receivers and tight ends who combined for almost 500 receiving yards last year, I’m reasonably confident the passing game will stay strong.
The returning skill talent in the backfield is even better: a thousand-yard rusher in #22 RB Jefferson, and excellent change-of-pace #21 RB Pierce. Jefferson is the much more reliable every-down back, successful on about half his carries and getting chunk yardage on about a quarter. Pierce is boom-or-bust: at 7.6 ypc on 54 carries, he has by far the best rushing average of any back in the conference, but he only had a successful run about a third of the time, and just ten of his carries went for more than five yards … but five of those went for at least 30.
The series of injuries that befell the offensive line made it difficult for Joe or I to figure out who the intended starting linemen were. My best guess is that they’re losing three starters off the right side of the line in #52 C Houston, #51 RG Delp, and #67 RT T. Moore, plus a backup who saw a handful of games in #58 OG Demogerontas. They return #73 LT Brandel, who I thought was pretty decent, #63 LG Lavaka, who Joe and I agreed was their best lineman (we both liked his hustle on pulls and screens), and #56 RG Cordasco, an experienced backup who seems set to start at that position. They’ve also brought in a Juco, #58 RT Vanderlaan, who should get that job.
The interesting part about the line is OL coach and Run Game coordinator Michalczik, who, as discussed in my Arizona preview, came over from Tucson and in my opinion is one of best position coaches in the Pac-12. He brought with him #64 C Eldridge, an intriguing prospect from the Wildcats’ 2017 team but who sat out 2018 with injury. I think Michalczik has some talent to work with on the top of the roster and seems to have had his pick of the litter, as it were, from the transfer market, and so should have his five starters ready to play. But looking at the youth, lack of gametime experience, and underwhelming measurables for the rest of the roster, I think depth is a serious concern.
Defense - #126 in S&P+
This defense was world-historically bad, by far the worst Power-5 defense in the 14-year history of S&P+. Indeed it was so awful that, as I said earlier, I think it spilled over and made a decent offense look worse than it really was. I’m tempted to say that it was so comically inept that it’s bound to improve, just by reversion to mediocrity, except I remember saying something similar when Brady Hoke took over as DC after Oregon’s 2015 season.
The key problem is that the defensive line just doesn’t have the bodies to stop anything. Here’s Oregon’s second play of the Civil War to illustrate:
I don’t really think this is a coaching issue. Everybody involved coaching this unit has a pretty respectable resume: DC Tibesar had a lot of relevant success at Wisconsin and in the pros, similar story for LB coach Bray at Nebraska, and while most of DL coach Suiaunoa’s resume is at the lower level, nothing in it screams incompetence. I observed in film study that OSU’s front-seven didn’t seem to be badly coached, either – their players weren’t out of position, and they didn’t appear to be a unit like USC’s o-line where talented players are rendered worthless by using obviously poor technique.
That makes it hard to say if the fact that they’re returning most of their defensive linemen will actually translate into improvement. It explains why they’ve hit the transfer market hard, bringing in three Juco d-linemen in Sandberg, Rawls, and Whittley (none have been assigned jersey numbers yet). It also makes it puzzling that a promising lineman from last year who figured to be a 2019 starter, #72 DT Fifita, left the team in Spring camp. Joe advised us to look for two guys I didn’t see much of in last year’s film: #75 DL Bennett who redshirted, and #91 DL Reichner, who was injured for much of the year.
I think there’s more promise in the linebacking corps. They return almost everyone, including their only truly disruptive player in #9 LB Rashed and two of their better tacklers, #41 LB Smith and #42 LB Taumoelau. They’ve also added a couple of former 4-stars, #15 LB Gumbs from Oklahoma and #34 LB Roberts from Nebraska, though I can’t say much about them as neither recorded significant playing time - the former suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2017, and the latter was criticized by the Huskers’ new staff for conditioning issues. As Joe put it, until the defensive line improves, “It’s the Linebacker Show.”
I’m not sure the credit I extend to the rest of the defensive coaching staff should go to 2018’s DB coach Burns, who was hired away over the offseason by USC (he was a Pete Carroll assistant in the glory days, a gang the Trojans can’t seem to quit trying to get back together). I observed his DBs in film study frequently looking lost and out of position, and Joe said he saw the same thing as well. The good news, such as it is, is that OSU returns six guys with a whole lot of tackles, and has a new DB coach, Blue Adams, who fielded some excellent units at South Florida.
I’m also puzzled by the personnel choices here. Nine different DBs got significant playing time, and this wasn’t a base-nickel defense. Joe tells us that a tenth who only got a few minutes, #13 DB Cotton, was highly recruited but hasn’t lived up to his ceiling. There are also five DBs transferring out of the program, only one of whom got any real playing time. But the most baffling is #29 DB Wallace, who was the ninth-highest ranked recruit in Oregon St history (during the recruiting services era), came in as a running back, got all of two carries in three years, was switched to a DB, and is now transferring out without playing a snap there.
Joe chalks this up to the challenges of winning the locker room with so much coach turnover in recent years, something that Coach Smith, a former walk-on hero in the Beavers’ history, will have to address with some much needed stability and patience.