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Duck Dive: Oregon Football 2021 Preview

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

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oregon v Iowa State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Special thanks to Adam Chimeo and Aaron Schroeder for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Duck roster. Listen HERE for the defensive review, and HERE for the offensive review.


Syndication: The Register Guard Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Offense

Oregon fans in 2020 saw only a fraction of the extensive playbook that new OC Moorhead has developed over his long career. Some of that was inevitable in a first-year install and a new quarterback, but obviously the lack of Spring practice and the pandemic further stripped down the complexity of his offense. I expect that with those obstacles out of the way in 2021 and the most talented roster top to bottom that Moorhead has ever worked with, this playbook will be in its full flower.

Overall, Oregon’s roster lost about the same number that it brought in, with good positional balance across the board - no position losing too much or overloading with new kids. The net effect on paper is a talent bump across the team - going from a .8973 average in the 24/7 composite in 2020 to a .9086 average in 2021 at the time of publication (.8900 is the 4-star threshold). But the bigger effect is on the offense, which goes from .8955 to .9120, which is one of the most significant single-year squad jumps I’ve seen in all the time I’ve been maintaining a player database for the entire Pac-12.

The Ducks will have a new starting quarterback for the second straight year, albeit one who had taken over the starting job by the end of last year in #13 QB A. Brown. Last year’s starter, Tyler Shough, had been benched in the first half of the bowl game and has since transferred to Texas Tech. Shough’s NCAA passer rating led the league at 160.4 overall in 2020, but it had fallen to below the FBS average in the final two games and it seemed clear from the playcalling and quarterback rotation that he’d lost the confidence of the coaches. Both quarterbacks had some interesting things to say about the competition in a recent interview in the Oregonian, which they gave as they’re both counselors this summer at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana.

I wrote extensively about Brown prior to the season, with plenty of video clips from his three seasons as starter at Boston College before transferring to Oregon. I thought at the time he came in before the pandemic that, given his experience and how highly regarded he was in the advanced statistical community, in a real Spring competition he might have beaten out Shough for the starting job. We’ll never know because covid canceled those practices but in hindsight I think he would have been well suited to the offense and would also have brought the play-action, deep passing game that he excelled at in Boston. In 2020 he only attempted 23 passes, but his passer rating of 153.8 was similar to his 2019 mark of 154.5 at BC.

The backup quarterback situation is intriguing. All three QBs remaining are 4-stars, as 3-star Cale Millen transferred out as well, but none have played a snap for the Ducks. #6 QB Ashford and #9 QB Butterfield came in with the 2020 class, while #13 QB Thompson, a borderline 5-star, was a 2021 recruit who enrolled early in time for Spring practice. We saw all three in the Spring game and while I think Thompson will probably redshirt, I’d be hard pressed to say if Ashford or Butterfield is ahead for the backup spot - that should be an interesting Fall camp battle, and it’s possible Thompson plays his way into the mix as well.

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

Oregon returns both of the top two career rushers in the Pac-12 in #7 RB Verdell and #26 RB Dye, who have over 4,300 yards between them, and average 5.4 and 5.9 ypc respectively. They also return #1 RB Benson, a 4-star from the 2020 class who missed his true freshman season with a broken leg, but fellow returner and 4-star #5 RB Dollars from the 2019 class will miss most of the 2021 season with a leg injury of his own. Possibly the most anticipated addition is Seven McGee, a 4-star who has at long last arrived on campus and has been compared to De’Anthony Thomas’ TZR role.

The running back room lost its short-yardage specialist (and fan favorite) Cyrus Habibi-Likio to transfer, as well as another bigger back in Jayvaun Wilson who hadn’t played since joining in 2019. It will be interesting to see in Fall camp if Benson or 2021 true freshman 4-star Byron Cardwell get that specialist job this season, since they both strike me from their high school film as able to really pound it between the tackles, but we haven’t seen either in a Ducks uniform yet. Another possibility is 2021 walk-on #34 RB A. Smith, who played extensively in the Spring game due to several injuries at the time and looked surprisingly effective in short-yardage situations.

Oregon’s tight end room is perhaps the most talented it’s ever been, and on paper has the best 24/7 ratings in the conference at a .9160 average (second place is USC which for some reason has seven tight ends in an Air Raid offense and average .9039). The only loss is Hunter Kampmoyer to the Chargers, a converted DE who was mostly used as a blocker but occasionally caught passes.

There are four returners each with a story behind him, but the most interesting has to be #89 TE DJ Johnson: he was a high 4-star defensive end who originally went to Miami in 2017, transferred to Oregon and played as a backup in 2019, then converted to tight end in 2020 and at the beginning of the year was the only TE available. Johnson shocked every observer with how well he played and was frequently the lynchpin in Moorhead’s scheme as a slice blocker and RPO receiver. Still, his play in 2020 lacked a lot of polish - some dropped passes and too much eagerness to continue blocking instead of chipping and moving downfield. I think he represents something similar in 2021 as he did last year, which is the safety net at the position, but it’s great insurance to have.

Two 4-stars we saw in 2019, #18 TE Webb and #81 TE Herbert, were out for the 2020 season but should be available again, and reportedly have bulked up a bit and are more capable blockers. Webb’s build reminds me of the receiving-only TE Moorhead had at Penn St, Mike Gesicki, while Herbert is the younger brother of NFL Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. There’s also #84 TE McCormick, whose excellent 2017 film promised to be a future starter, and seemed to have won the job multiple times since then, but has missed the last three seasons with injuries. Oregon also added two highly recruited true freshmen 4-stars at the position, #19 TE Ferguson and #8 TE Matavao, both of whom arrived on campus early and looked ready to be Pac-12 starters in the Spring game.

I really have no idea how to handicap the race at this point - the raw talent from Herbert, Ferguson, and Matavao to be do-everything tight ends is clear but we’ve only seen brief glimpses of them in Ducks uniforms. Johnson and Webb have the most recent experience, but when we last saw them there was something missing in their games — polish for the former and blocking for the latter — and we don’t know how much progress they’ve made at those things. And it’s still entirely possible that McCormick is the best tight end on the team for the fourth year running, and that he miraculously pays off all the waiting by staying healthy and winning the job again.

Oregon has the most talented wide receiver room in the 24/7 composite among Pac-12 teams. Ten of the Ducks’ 11 wideouts are blue chips, and their average rating is .9332 … USC also has 11 wideouts with perhaps a better top end, but only seven are blue chips and their average is .9205.

Oregon v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The inside receiver order seems to be clear going into 2021. Senior returner #6 WR Redd had the most receptions on the team last year, with fellow returners #4 WR Pittman, #14 WR Hutson, and #83 WR Delgado each getting several catches as well. Each of these four are 5’11” or under so I classify them as inside receivers, though we’ve seen them play all over the field in the past.

The outside receivers are facing more change. Both of the departures from the unit are outside guys: Jaron Waters who’d never seen the field and Daewood Davis who’d played as a backup all over including cornerback. The unit returns #2 WR D. Williams, a former USC transfer who led the 2020 team in receiving yards, and #3 WR J. Johnson, a senior veteran who’s the unit’s only 3-star and the shortest of the outside receivers at 6’0”. The two other returning outside guys are #88 WR Crocker and #86 WR Wilhoite, 4-stars from the 2018 and 2019 classes respectively, but we haven’t seen either on the field yet.

I think Johnson and Williams will both retain starting jobs, while Crocker and Wilhoite will likely stay on the bench and might be considering transfers. But the incoming trio of 2021 recruits are so talented that I believe the returners will get heavy competition: #11 WR Franklin and #10 WR Thornton arrived early and looked great in the Spring game, and Isaiah Brevard arrives for Fall camp. All three are 6’2” or over and I believe will play outside. There appears to be enough playable depth at outside receiver for frequent rotation, and the shorter inside guys could be playing outside in some of Moorhead’s unusual formations, so it’s also possible that the “starter” term may be superfluous at X and Z.

Oregon’s coaching staff took the term “offensive line rotation” literally in 2020 - they had six linemen who rotated through on a fixed schedule, switching among four configurations every two drives. One lineman snapped the ball every time, #78 C Forsyth, while three others had two different positions in the rotation: #77 OT Moore played left and right tackle, #56 OG Walk played left and right guard, and #71 OL Aumavae-Laulu played right guard and right tackle. #74 LT S. Jones and #56 LG Bass stayed on the left side whenever they were in. It was clear they were cross-training to deal with the possibility of sudden unavailability - that happened in the bowl game when Aumavae-Laulu was out, who was the only other lineman besides Forsyth who’d otherwise played every snap. The net effect was that Forsyth got 100% of all reps while the other five got around 80% each.

All six return, and with better depth in 2021 (there were several unavailabilities including two eventual medical retirements among the backups in 2020) my guess is that the staff attempts to return to a traditional lineup in which five starters are named and they play every meaningful rep at the same position unless forced to rotate by injuries or for relief. I think the main configuration, from left to right, will be: Jones, Bass, Forsyth, Aumavae-Laulu, and Moore.

I think Walk will continue as a sixth man and rotational player on the interior. In 2019 he was the center throughout garbage time and snapped the ball well, and in 2020 he played both guard spots. He’s a former walk-on and I did note some physical limitations to his play, so I expect if anyone’s playing time is reduced among the returners it’ll be him. For a deeper evaluation of all six, see my review from March of all of Oregon’s new players in 2020, in which I broke down each lineman’s performance and error rates on my tally sheet.

If Jones or Moore is unavailable, I think that Oregon’s first option would be to move Aumavae-Laulu over and bring Walk in to replace him at guard - the primary benefit of cross-training in 2020. I think the other main backup option at tackle will be #70 OT Jaramillo, who was a 4-star recruit in 2018 but hasn’t seen the field other than a tiny number of garbage time reps in 2019. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t have played as a true freshman or displaced any of the Ducks’ Joe Moore finalist line in 2019, but his absence in 2020 is a real mystery given how clearly short-handed they were. It’s possible that he was unavailable for reasons the program won’t disclose, but it’s also possible he just wasn’t ready to play yet. Now that he’s in his fourth year under the same staff and with ideal dimensions, it was a relief to see him playing pretty well at right tackle in the Spring game and I think he should be good to go now.

The seven linemen mentioned so far are the only guys remaining in the unit who started playing college ball prior to 2020, as Chris Randazzo and Jonah Tauanu’u, from the 2018 and 2019 classes respectively, have medically retired, while Sam Poutasi from 2016 has transferred out. The other nine linemen on the roster are divided between five 2020 recruits who mostly look like guards to me and are mostly high 3-stars, and four 2021 recruits who are all blue-chips - three tackles and a center, all of whom enrolled for Spring practice.

Depth at this position is such that I don’t think any of these nine will play. However, if a severe injury situation strikes the line and they need to break into the freshmen, my guess is that the most likely to see the field are #66 C Denis and #55 OG Harper from the 2020 class who looked good in the Spring game, and the borderline 5-star from 2021, #76 OT Suamataia. The rest of the unit is too numerous to name, so I’ll simply note that the other six average .9010 in the 24/7 composite. In fact Oregon’s offensive line room is the most talented in the conference on paper, with a .9005 average overall, beating out Washington’s .8901 and Stanford’s .8810, excluding walk-ons.


Pac 12 Championship - Oregon v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Defense

The defense also enjoys a net talent upgrade in 2021, though a bit more modest than the offense’s - going from a .8992 average last year to .9051 in 2021. Four defensive units at Oregon average the highest 24/7 ratings on paper in the Pac-12, and the other two are second highest - USC edges them out at safety and UW at defensive tackle.

Oregon hired former Cal DC DeRuyter to take over the defense in January, after DC Avalos who’d been in position in 2019 and 2020 left to become the new Boise St head coach. I’ve extensively reviewed DeRuyter’s long career in film study, both his structure and blitz patterns and his methods to try and force turnovers. In terms of how he’ll deploy Oregon’s roster, it’s not a particularly radical change, since DeRuyter, Avalos, and their predecessor Jim Leavitt in 2017 and 2018 (now DC at SMU) all use three down linemen, two inside backers, specialized OLBs for situational roles, and sometimes a nickelback but sometimes just four DBs.

That said, DeRuyter has certainly shown a preference for a massive nose tackle in the middle and bigger defensive ends shaded inside the tackles, with the rush coming from OLBs or a hybrid DE/OLB referred to as the Joker position, which is a change from Avalos’ scheme. I believe this will be the biggest area of transition in 2021 since the roster he inherited at defensive line is more suited to an even than an odd surface. Since another fan favorite, Jordon Scott, signed with the Vikings, Oregon only has one experienced nose tackle, #50 DT Aumavae, plus 310 lbs 4-star #73 DT J. Jones who signed in 2020 but didn’t play last year. As such I predicted this Winter that we would see more 2- and 4-down fronts this coming season, which is exactly what happened in the Spring game. However, #52 DT J. Smith, who was on loan to the offensive line last year due to the depth issues outlined above, appears to be back practicing with the defensive line full time. At 295 lbs I would think Smith could back up Aumavae at nose along with Jones, and the transition could be a pretty smooth one.

It also looks like there have been some weight changes at other defensive line positions - these are officially classified on the roster right now as DTs since that was their position in the previous scheme, but I’ll call them DEs to differentiate them from the noses and Jokers. Oregon lost one player here, Austin Faoliu who signed with the Cowboys, but they return three experienced linemen from the 2019 class who have all added weight to get over 280 lbs: #3 DE Dorlus, #95 DE Ware-Hudson, and #91 DE Kr. Williams. The last two are both 4-stars; Dorlus was only a mid 3-star which was shocking to me because he played like a blue-chip in his true freshman season.

Oregon also returns #94 DE Poti from the 2019 class as well as #97 DE Afaese and #90 DE Shipley from 2020; Afaese and Poti are borderline 4-stars and Shipley a mid 3-star. I don’t believe any have seen the field yet, and their weights are all listed in the 270s. They’ve also added 4-star true freshman #99 DE Ke. Williams who enrolled for Spring practice and got a sack in the Spring game; he’s at 280 lbs. Given their talent level and sizes I think these four represent adequate depth for the position, but they’ll be inexperienced backups in a somewhat new position.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There are two players currently listed as defensive ends on the official roster but I believe will be the Jokers in this scheme, and so I’ll refer to as outside linebackers: #5 OLB Thibodeaux and #44 OLB Swinson. I don’t think Thibodeaux’s career performance needs much explanation to Pac-12 fans but I will note that freeing him up to be a nearly exclusive edge rusher is a far better use of his talents than as a 4i, which DeRuyter has explicitly acknowledged.

We only saw a little of Swinson last season, a high 3-star in the 2020 class, but at 265 lbs he’s the right size for the position and I thought he looked great playing against USC at the end of the season, which was my biggest pleasant surprise of that re-studying that game in the offseason. I think that’ll be adequate depth at the position, since if Thibodeaux is able to play then that’s who you field. But since Isaac Townsend, a 3-star from 2019 with the right dimensions for Joker, transferred to Wisconsin, I wouldn’t be surprised if a different returning OLB or DE cross-trains at the position.

How the rest of the outside backers shake out positionally is where I’m least certain for the entire team, because there are a lot of options here and a few hybrid and situational roles they could specialize in. Former 4-stars #47 OLB Funa and #29 OLB A. Jackson both return, and I like both of their film a lot but in pretty different roles - Funa was a STUD in the previous scheme who’s a big, hard-hitting run stopper with some pass coverage responsibilities, while Jackson is long-bodied edge rusher who had been a passing-down specialist with great results.

We’ve also seen a bit of #48 OLB Ma’ae, a high 3-star from 2019, and #9 OLB Navarrette, a 4-star from 2020, on the field and playing well in the Spring game, but it’s too early to say how they’ll be used. They’ve lost one OLB to transfer, Andrew Faoliu, younger brother of the former d-lineman now in Dallas. Oregon took three recruits in the 2021 cycle who weren’t on campus for Spring practice but I believe will wind up in this unit: Jonathan Flowe is a 4-star and younger brother of 5-star inside backer Justin from the previous cycle, and Brandon Buckner and Terrell Tillmon are mid 3-stars. This group of players and possible specializations will be interesting to watch in Fall camp; they probably should be thought of as situational weapons rather than structural necessities and the usual questions about depth don’t really apply here, although there are certainly plenty of bodies with seven and it’s possible one or two may be loaned out to other jobs like Joker or nickel.

The most significant transfer out on the defense was Isaac Slade-Matautia — now at SMU, rejoining Leavitt — who’d been a starter and leading tackler last year. He’d beaten out returner and true freshman 5-star #1 ILB Sewell by just one tackle, however, and Oregon has a number of good options to replace Slade-Matautia. The most obvious is #10 ILB Ju. Flowe, a fellow 2020 5-star who’d only gotten a few reps before injuring his knee - reportedly he’s undergone knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus and seems to be better than ever. The most experienced in the room is #54 ILB Mathis, a Juco who enrolled at Oregon in 2019 and got a start that year due to an injury, and was the primary backup in 2020.

There are four more options for depth - #42 ILB LaDuke is a high 3-star who also came in with Flowe and Sewell in 2020 and was repeatedly singled out for praise by the staff during that cycle when asked about the backers, and #21 ILB K. Brown is a high 4-star recruit this year who enrolled early and I thought looked ready to play in the Spring game. Jabril McNeill, another 2021 recruit and a high 3-star, will join in the Fall, and last season former Juco #46 ILB Heaukulani earned a scholarship. I think they should be pretty solid depth at the position given the talent level, which they’ll need since this unit has been hardest hit by departures on the team: in addition to Slade-Matautia they also lost MJ Cunningham and Andrew Johnson to transfer and Sampson Niu to medical retirement.

Ranking the talent of defensive back rooms in the Pac-12 on paper is tricky, because it’s not clear how different schools split up corners and safeties, and because there are several transfer DBs at top schools for whom 24/7 assigned very different ratings as a prep recruit and as a transfer. Using whichever is highest and my best guess at positional splits, the rankings of their averages are:

  • All DBs - #1 USC at .9179, #2 UO at .9062, #3 UW at .8958
  • Corners - #1 UO at .9281, #2 USC at .9124, #3 UW at .9028
  • Safeties - #1 USC at .9219, #2-Tie UO/UW at .8842

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Oregon vs Iowa State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The starting cornerbacks look to be set, with #2 CB Wright pushing UW’s Trent McDuffie hard for best corner in the league, and #0 CB James playing well as a backup in frequent rotation last year with starter Deommodore Lenoir drafted by the 49ers.

The backups for the unit are an open question, however, since injuries made film tough to evaluate in 2020 and most of these guys were unavailable in the Spring game (there were three different walk-on corners playing that afternoon). The two highest rated are #8 CB Manning, a 5-star in 2020 but who missed last season with injury, and 4-star true freshman #6 CB Davies who enrolled early and looked good in the Spring game. Those two are my guesses for the primary backups at the position.

The rest of the cornerback room is pretty interesting, though tough to parse. #11 CB Bridges was a borderline 4-star in 2019 but we haven’t seen much since, and #13 CB Addison was a high 4-star wide receiver in 2018 who switched to the defense last year to help with depth and has played pretty well when we’ve seen him, including some memorable reps in the Spring game. They’ve also taken two more corners in the 2021 cycle, 4-star Avante Dickerson and mid 3-star Darren Barkins, who’ll arrive in Fall.

Safety is the only unit on the entire team that averages under a 4-star, though just barely at .8842. They return the starting field safety for the last two seasons in #23 DB McKinley, and last year’s starting nickel in #19 DB Hill. Nick Pickett, the starting boundary safety for the last two years, signed with the Lions and is the only departure from the 2020 lineup.

It should be quite a fight for Pickett’s spot. My preference would be #15 DB B. Williams, who transferred in last season and has had very impressive film at his previous stops. But then he was my preference last year, and he was instead relegated to a dime specialist with Boise St transfer #32 DB Happle playing much more frequently, and in my opinion, ineffectively. That may have been related to frequent unavailabilities from targeting penalties, injuries, and possibly covid protocol, which limited how often we saw 4-star #7 DB Stephens and true freshman #24 DB Greenfield (though the latter had a great punt block against USC). They’ve also taken two 4-stars, #20 DB Bassa and #4 DB David, who enrolled early and played well in the Spring game.

There’s plenty of experience and talent in the safety unit, their average rating notwithstanding as it’s pulled down by a former 2-star. I’ve thought it was the biggest vulnerability on the team for a few years now, and the covid-related poor tackling that plagued the team (and all teams that I reviewed, really) was especially damaging coming from safeties because that’s what allowed some explosive plays we weren’t used to seeing Oregon give up lately. I’ll be watching this unit closely in Fall camp since DeRuyter turned around one of the worst secondaries in the country into one of the best when he took over at Cal, and I think better coaching performance — and personnel choices — could transform Oregon’s as well.


Syndication: Arizona Republic Patrick Breen/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Accountability Corner

I think all of last year’s previews, including Oregon’s, were too optimistic about resuming normal play after missing Spring practice and Summer conditioning during the pandemic, and systematically underestimated how much randomness would be injected into the altered season. I suppose it’s a valuable lesson about just how necessary year-round training is for this sport, though I’m not sure what to do with it - I certainly hope we never have to go through this again in our lifetimes!

The offensive predictions played out pretty accurately. I thought that Shough was clearly selected in advance and his tape to date made me (and other film reviewers) think he was pretty promising, but that also we ultimately didn’t know too much about him in the long run, and I think that was reflected in his actual performance. I got the basic personnel on the offensive line all correct, which wasn’t easy given that they replaced everybody including their sixth man … I didn’t see Taunanu’u’s medical retirement coming but I did have Moore penciled in as the other tackle option. I got Bass and Forsyth flipped in terms of who would be center and guard, though in hindsight it still doesn’t make any sense that Forsyth got zero garbage time snaps in 2019 if he was going to get 100% of them in 2020. I didn’t forsee DJ Johnson being the only tight end for several games, though I don’t think anybody did. The rest of the skill players I got perfect though I can’t take much credit since Oregon was stacked with returners and Williams was the obvious pick to replace the single departure at X receiver.

Every prediction I made on the defense turned out to be accurate. The defensive line picks to replace Carlberg and Baker with Ware-Hudson and Aumavae were spot on, as well as the backup and situational OLB rotation behind Funa. I correctly surmised that the decks would be cleared of several experienced ILBs (who ultimately left the program) to allow true freshmen Sewell and Flowe to start, though of course I couldn’t predict Flowe’s injury. I got the secondary choices all correct except one, which required making guesses about what would happen in different scenarios of DBs opting out that hadn’t yet happened. The miss was in how the transfers into the program at safety would play out; I essentially got them backwards in terms of playing time, though there may have been some reasoning I’m not privy to involving the newly introduced dime package which I also didn’t see coming. I don’t know what to do with that data - I think my process was logical and my film study of the involved players was adequately predictive of their relative levels of play, and unless I start getting leaks from inside I’m probably always going to miss on seemingly unreasonable choices like this.


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