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Duck Dive: Oregon Football 2020 Preview

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Going deep with the Ducks’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Portland State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to Adam Chimeo and Aaron Schroeder of the Quack 12 Podcast for putting together this 12-part podcast interview series in which we thoroughly investigated PAC-12 football and had a few laughs along the way. You can check out the corresponding episode of the pod HERE.


NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Oregon finished the 2019 regular season with the #18 offense in SP+ and a similar top-20 ranking in every other advanced statistical system. It was pretty efficient on my tally sheet, generating enough yards given the down & distance to stay ahead of the chains on 55.4% of all plays outside of garbage time (60.6% rushing and 51.1% passing).

The Ducks’ raw offensive stats in 2019 compared to the rest of the Pac-12 are interesting. In all major statistical categories, they’re in the top third of the league: first in rushing yards per carry, second in scoring offense, fourth in passing yards per attempt, fourth in total offense per snap, fourth in sacks allowed per snap, and second in TFLs allowed per snap. Where they were middling is high-stakes plays: seventh in 3rd down conversions, eighth in 4th down conversions, and fifth in redzone touchdown conversions.

From film study, I think this comes down to problems in the intermediate and deep passing game. They were almost 10 percentage points more efficient running than throwing on a per-play basis, the screen component of the passing attack is far more efficient than downfield passing, and there’s a huge disparity in their explosive rushing vs passing league ranks: third for the former, eighth for the latter. Situationally, Oregon was very efficient in every down & distance category, including run vs pass subcategory splits, with the exception of 3rd & medium/long where they passed almost exclusively and had a lousy conversion rate (they also threw too much on 2nd & long, but that’s less severe).

In my opinion, the numbers back up what I’ve been reporting in my film review articles for the last two years: Oregon had an overall very effective offense that revolved around an excellent efficiency run game, and the bottleneck that kept them from having a top-10 offense was that the passing offense was highly inconsistent in clutch situations.

The Ducks are replacing both their two-year offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and their four-year starting quarterback Justin Herbert, and debates about where the credit and blame lie between those two are academic at this point. There’s an extensive discussion on the podcast of how new OC Moorhead steps into this situation, which I based on a film breakdown of his entire playcalling career. I think that Moorhead’s demonstrated adaptability to quarterbacks, teams, and opponents of widely differing strengths and weaknesses means this should be a very smooth transition.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Oregon at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I think last year’s backup QB and presumptive starter next season, #12 QB Shough, has a higher ceiling than previous signal-callers Moorhead has worked with. It’s tough to get good film on him since virtually all his snaps have been in garbage time (only about 50 in total, of which 30 were designed rushes), but I’m impressed with what I’ve seen so far from the former 4-star. Other film reviewers are too; here’s Mike Pawlawski’s review of Shough in the Nevada game and Murf Baldwin’s review of him in the USC game and 2019 Spring game (I’ve queued both links to what I think are the most interesting play breakdowns in each video, but highly recommend watching both in their entirety).

Here are a few of Shough’s plays not covered in the above videos (reminder: you can right-click or long-press any video to watch in ¼ or ½ speed):

  1. :00 - A lot to like on this RPO play. Shough correctly reads the boundary safety coming down on the run, so he pulls the ball to make the throw. It’s a tight window because the power-blocking of the run component is going to lead the linemen downfield, and there’s pressure coming in fast. He quickly gets his feet right and laces the ball behind the safety’s back, then takes the hit like a champ.
  2. :30 - It might seem odd to get excited by a simple screen pass, especially one that goes nowhere because the perimeter blocking was terrible, but from a mechanical perspective this is such a perfect throw that I had to include it. Shough waits a beat to sell the pass rush, shifts his weight, and throws with a textbook base to exactly the right spot so the back can catch it in stride as he’s accelerating. I have been waiting four years to see an Oregon QB throw a pass like this.
  3. :37 - This is a stretch run right with a double-slant tag on the backside. The read is the OLB, who drifts inside so Shough pulls it properly, but that’s a future third-round NFL draft pick so he recognizes it and drops quickly to cover the inside slant. Shough checks out of that, sees the field corner has left a huge cushion for the outside slant, and makes a long, accurate throw to let the receiver make a play in space.
  4. :59 - Another outside run with an RPO tag, this one is to the H-back who fakes the block then dashes around the backer. The reverse angle here is very nice: Shough throws with anticipation to where he’ll be and puts it right on him, and his height allows him a soft, catchable throw over the leaping defenders’ hands.

Oregon will be replacing at least four longtime offensive line starters — Jake Hanson, Shane Lemieux, Calvin Throckmorton, and Dallas Warmack — plus the extensively used sixth man Brady Aiello. This is the most significant area of turnover on the team, and as such there is a long discussion on the podcast detailing my reasoning about how I handicap this race.

Based on their measurables and how playing time was distributed, I think we can be fairly certain about three returning backups who’ll replace them: #74 OT S. Jones (4-star, 2018 class), #78 LG Forsyth (high 3-star, 2017), and #71 RG Aumavae-Laulu (4-star, 2019 Juco). Each has been in the program for a long time, has gotten quite a bit of playing time — Jones in particular actually started several games in 2018 and 2019 — and has ideal height and weight for the job after years in Oregon’s S&C program.

Snapping duties will almost certainly go to #56 C Bass, a high 3-star 2020 Juco who enrolled early before the lockdown. We’ve only seen his recruitment tape but it’s very encouraging. I’m concerned about depth here, however, because I’m not sure they have a better option to back him up than the walk-on #53 C Walk (no pun intended), who got almost every garbage time snap. I understand from practices that Forsyth might be the backup here, which would make him somewhat like Throckmorton last year in that he’d be able to play guard, tackle, and center, but I’ve never seen him snapping in a live game.

Other than at center, I think the Ducks have good depth options. If #58 LT Sewell elects not to return, then I think his tackle position is a four-way race between #76 OT Tauanu’u (high 4-star, 2019), #77 OT Moore (high 3-star, 2017 Juco), #70 OL Jaramillo (4-star, 2018), and #79 OL Randazzo (mid 3-star, 2018).

I think that Tauanu’u is probably leading that race because he has the highest ceiling and got extensive reps while retaining his redshirt as a first-year. Moore is a veteran backup who recently got his 6th year of eligibility. Jaramillo and Randazzo each only got three snaps last year (the first play in the above clip has them playing center and right tackle, respectively), and I think they’re destined to be backups. However, I think all of these four but Moore could play tackle or guard, and they also have redshirt senior #72 OG Poutasi (who looked pretty good in backup time; I was happy to see him playing after the awful rhabdomyolysis incident in 2017).

In addition to the above video, here are some more clips of all the mentioned linemen run-blocking in backup time (Aiello is the only graduate shown in either video, he’s in a #65 jersey with no nameplate because he was also playing TE against Nevada):

  1. :00 - Tauanu’u at left tackle gets a good pin here while the guards Poutasi and Forsyth pull around nimbly and Moore takes care of the backside. Good hole for the back to cut through.
  2. :14 - Same configuration of linemen as the first clip, this time a counter run. The reverse angle is great here, they’ve completely washed USC’s defensive front aside on combo blocks (and that’s mostly the Trojans’ first-string players, not bench guys).
  3. :32 - Different lineup both here and on the next clip, with Jones and Forsyth on the left and Aumavae-Laulu at right guard. Pretty good blocking by those three, illustrating why I think they’ll be starters at those positions. The somewhat wild snap by Walk is very unusual, virtually every other snap I saw him deliver was pinpoint accurate; I included it just to show off that Shough’s hands are excellent and he whips it into the handoff posture instantly. However, Walk’s poor blocking here that dooms the play is sadly not unusual, and why I’d be concerned if he’s the best backup option.
  4. :48 - Good snap this time, but similar story otherwise - the reverse angle shows this is supposed to be a run through the right A-gap and Aumavae-Laulu opens a tremendous hole there, but Walk gives up his man so the back improvises and cuts outside, right into the arms of the unblocked read defender.

At tight end, Oregon is replacing Jacob Breeland, who was a longtime starter but missed the second half of his final season with a leg injury, as well as Ryan Bay, a former walk-on used frequently as a run-blocking tight end. They return everybody else: the other run-blocker #48 TE Kampmoyer and the Y-receiver type #18 TE Webb, both of whom played throughout the year and very well at their positions, but I don’t see either one of them playing the valuable in-line blocker who’ll release for pass receptions as Breeland was and Moorhead prefers to have.

Hopefully that job will go to #84 TE McCormick, who won the starting job each of the last two years but then missed almost the entirety of both seasons with injuries. Reportedly he’s back to 100% health and is the best tight end on the roster, and he received an additional year of eligibility as well. I think his backup will be 4-star freshman #81 TE P. Herbert (younger brother of the former QB), who got a lot of playing time in 2019 and looked much better as an in-line blocker than I expected for his first year in the program. He’s blocking in the first clip of the first video, and last two clips of the second one.

The rest of the skill talent is virtually unchanged. Oregon returns 4,850 yards from scrimmage by its skill players from 2019, the most in the conference. Those returning skill players combine for 8,331 career yards, second behind USC.

Oregon returns its top three running backs — #7 RB Verdell, #26 RB Dye, and #33 RB Habibi-Likio — who last year combined for 19 touchdowns and 2,215 rushing yards at 5.71 YPC, by far the most for any three backs in the league. I think 4-star redshirt freshman #5 RB Dollars will get first crack at being the fourth back in the room, although it’ll be interesting to see the competition from high 3-star redshirt freshman #20 RB Wilson and 2020 recruit Trey Benson.

The Ducks effectively played a six-man rotation at wide receiver in 2019 outside of garbage time. One of those players, Juwan Johnson, signed with the Saints, but the other five return - #9 WR Jo. Johnson and #80 WR Addison on the outside, and #30 WR Redd, #4 WR Pittman, and #83 WR Delgado on the inside. They also get back #17 WR Davis, who’s bounced around to different positions over the years and mostly played in garbage time last year, but is a real trouper and I wouldn’t mind seeing him get more meaningful reps as a redshirt junior.

After a brief stop in Corvallis, high 4-star #2 WR D. Williams transferred to Oregon from USC and sat out the 2019 season. He’s 6’5”, 209 lbs and the limited film we have on him from Southern California is dynamite, so it’s pretty easy to just pencil him into Juwan Johnson’s X-receiver role and call it a day. The only tricky question here is backup outside receiver, where Oregon has three young options who haven’t played — #88 WR Crocker and #86 WR Wilhoite, both 4-stars, and #85 WR Waters who’s a high 3-star but I actually like his high school tape the best — and I don’t know how to handicap that race. Inside receiver depth is easier to predict with three experienced players plus 4-star 2020 recruit Kris Hutson.


Pac-12 Championship Game - Oregon v Utah Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Defense

After the Rose Bowl, Oregon’s 2019 defense was ranked #7 in SP+. As I wrote in my review of Oregon’s new defense last year, I think that’s partly because DC Avalos’ scheme is an effective and confusing one that consistently gets pressure without blitzing, but mostly because they returned a ton of production from 2018, and the organic growth in the Ducks’ on-field talent has been impressive since its nadir in 2016.

All three of those conditions obtain next season: Avalos returns, very few starters depart, and the Ducks are bringing online an unprecedented number of defensive blue chips. So it was no surprise to me this week when Oregon got the #2 ranking in the 2020 SP+ predictions.

The defensive line loses Drayton Carlberg, my candidate for most improved Duck his senior season, and backup nose tackle Gary Baker. But they return all three starters: #34 NT Scott, #99 DT Au. Faoliu, and #5 DE Thibodeaux. They also get back #50 DT Aumavae, who I think will rotate as backup 0-tech and otherwise play inside a 2i. This was an excellent line in 2019, and came in first in the conference in sacks per snap, TFLs per snap, and redzone touchdowns surrendered.

They return two 2019 recruits who got significant play as true freshmen, 4-star #95 DL Ware-Hudson and #97 DT Dorlus. I was particularly impressed with Dorlus late in the season and in the Rose Bowl - he was only rated a mid 3-star in high school but the staff consistently said they felt that was a misevaluation and he’d be a staple of the Ducks’ d-line for years, and I think they had the right of that argument. Oregon brought in six more DL recruits over the last two cycles all of whom are high 3-stars or borderline 4-stars, and based on the high hit rate of DL coach Salave’a so far, I expect he’ll find more than a few of those who play better than their ranking.

The outside linebackers lost Bryson Young midseason last year to a leg injury, and he’s since signed with the Falcons. His backup, high 4-star #47 STUD Funa, played very well last year as a true freshman, and I expect him to take the typical sophomore jump in performance, especially in underneath coverage.

Figuring out the backups here is a little tricky because Oregon doesn’t label them separately on the roster, but I think that 2018 4-star #29 OLB Jackson, who missed last year with an injury, will take on the strongside role replacing graduated senior La’Mar Winston (who’s always been a favorite of mine), and 2020 4-star Jaden Navarrette will back up Funa at STUD. There are a few other options as well: high 3-stars from the 2019 cycle #48 OLB Ma’ae and #85 OLB Townsend didn’t play last year so I’m not sure where they slot in, it looks like #52 OLB An. Faoliu will be moving from the d-line where his older brother plays to the outside, and I believe the 2020 backer Jackson LaDuke will play outside but I don’t know where or whether he’ll redshirt. That’s probably good depth of talent but not a ton of experience, so it’s worth keeping an eye on this position, maybe more than any other on the defense.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

At the inside, Oregon has to replace four-year starter and fan favorite Troy Dye. But the Ducks bring back #41 ILB Slade-Matautia, a former 4-star who’d been in the program since 2017 and finally got the start in 2019, which was quite a relief since he’s a far more reliable tackler than the injury-riddled horrorshow that was a real weak spot in the middle of Oregon’s defense in the previous two seasons.

Dye’s replacement and the backup order is probably the biggest and most interesting battle on the entire team. There are four returning rotational players: #55 ILB Niu, #54 ILB Mathis, #39 ILB Cunningham, and #28 ILB A. Johnson, all of whom are mid-to-high 3-stars. Niu’s a senior and I wasn’t thrilled with him as a backup a couple of years ago, but he’s grown up quite a bit lately and I think Oregon would be just fine if he wins the spot. Mathis is a Juco who came in last season, so he’s a senior as well, and he got a start against Wazzu in place of Dye after his thumb injury. Cunningham will be a redshirt sophomore; I haven’t seen a ton out of him. Johnson has been battling injuries his whole career and I was surprised he didn’t get more play outside of special teams last year; DC Avalos hinted in May that he might move outside to the strongside spot.

But I must admit I’m hoping that the decks clear for Justin Flowe and/or #1. ILB N. Sewell, the two 2020 5-star recruits, the latter of whom enrolled early before the lockdown. I believe both will be ready to play right away, and the 2019 film makes very clear that Avalos is not shy about playing highly talented true freshman immediately and to great effect.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary ostensibly returns everybody and was very good last year, with the Ducks finishing second or third in the conference in every major raw stat that reflects on them: scoring, passing, and total defense, 3rd and 4th down conversions, and both explosive pass and rush defense.

Over the years I’ve had some harsh things to say about all these guys - back in 2017 as true freshman starters, I found the defensive structure to be baffling in that it kept putting #4 CB Graham and #6 CB Lenoir on islands when they couldn’t cover sideline routes, in the 2019 offseason I thought that #23 DB McKinley and #16 DB Pickett’s starting safety spots were in danger, and for much of the year I felt #25 DB Breeze was an afterthought. But all those guys really shut me up by the end of the year, especially Breeze who won the Rose Bowl defensive MVP (there’s an amusing discussion of his future career prospects on the podcast).

But the most enticing to the NFL is doubtlessly the nickelback, #8 DB Holland, who’s been excellent from the first time he set foot on the field as a true freshman in 2018. So much so that, depending on how next season plays out, he might skip playing and go pro. If that happens, there are some interesting options to replace him, although I’m not sure how to handicap that race because Holland has been so reliable we haven’t seen much of anyone else. It may be that one of the three of Breeze, Pickett, or McKinley just slide over and that’s that.

But there are some intriguing new defensive backs to the program: #7 DB Stephens was a 4-star in 2018 and #19 DB Hill was a high 3-star in 2019, both got some garbage time reps last year; we haven’t seen Juco #15 DB B. Williams or freshmen #11 DB Bridges or #24 DB Greenfield yet, all high 3-stars; and 5-star 2020 recruit Dontae Manning is so obviously talented it may be best to play him at nickel right away instead of backing up an outside corner or redshirting.

On the podcast, Adam asked what would happen if Graham and Lenoir decided to opt out, which I hadn’t given much thought since they were very vocal in their January press conference about forgoing the NFL. I think the Ducks are in very good shape in terms of depth if they return, with the phenomenal true-freshman performance of #2 CB Wright and the promising backup play of #12 CB James, plus the aforementioned Bridges and Manning. That’s more than enough talent to spell the starters, and it’s possible exhaustion from having to play every single snap in 2017 and 2018 — and then getting good relief last year — was why I saw such a difference in Graham and Lenoir’s performances. It would obviously get dicier at corner if either or both left early … we’d find out real quick which guys are ready or not because it would be the obvious strategy to pick on them early, given the strength at every other position of the Ducks’ defense.


Washington State v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

Last summer, Adam forced all ATQ writers to give predictions on Oregon’s season, but then in what I’m sure was a prudent editorial decision, didn’t actually publish the article. So I screengrabbed my email and reader, I pledge to you on my sacred honor that it is not doctored in any way:

On most advanced stats predictions, Oregon is heavily favored in 10 games and a coin flip in two. There really is a scenario where they run the table, it’s not unrealistic ... but it’s also bad luck to predict that, and there’s enough risk of loss in about half the schedule that it’d be foolish to expect it. Working through the schedule, there are:

* Five home games where Oregon will be the prohibitive favorite: Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon St. A loss to any of these means something catastrophic has happened and all bets are off, so that’s 5-0.

* Two more home games that Oregon should win, Cal and Wazzu, based on simply having way more returning production on one side of the ball or the other, but these games have a history of being weird and if either gets really excellent play out of their QB competitions they could be trouble. But I’ll bet that won’t happen and the magic of Autzen will see the Ducks through, so 7-0.

* Three road games where, based on my previews, I believe Oregon will be the better team: Stanford, Arizona St, and USC. The Ducks have been pretty bad on the road, but unless something truly crazy happens they won’t lose all three games to inferior teams, so best case 10-0, worst case 8-2.

* That leaves Auburn and Washington, both toss-ups by most metrics. I think that reflects how much both programs are replacing from 2018, but also that they’ve recruited very well the last couple of cycles. Both are teams that, if they hit on most of their new players, will be very tough opponents, and while whiffs are certainly possible, I’m not going to say that both teams are going to filled with them. Let’s go with the law of averages and say a split.

So, barring miracles or devilry, the range is therefore 11 wins at best, 9 wins at worst. Average those out and I’ll say 10-2.

I think I did alright.


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