2015: 9-4 OVERALL (7-2 Pac-12 North)
2017 NFL Draft Prospects: TE Evan Baylis, TE Pharaoh Brown, WR Darren Carrington, OT Tyrell Crosby, RB Royce Freeman, OG Cameron Hunt, QB Dakota Prukop
Make no mistake about it, 2015 was a down year for the Oregon Ducks. Losing four games for the first time since Mike Bellotti’s second to last season in 2007 was simply disappointing, especially when you consider the team hadn’t finished worse than first in the Pac-12 North division since conference expansion, and had won the Pac-1o in each of the two years prior.
Injuries at the quarterback position and a lackluster defense held the Ducks down early on in the season before things got rolling down the stretch run of the conference schedule before succumbing to TCU in the Alamo Bowl.
It’s safe to say Mark Helfrich understands the expectations in Eugene and quickly went about re-shuffling his coaching staff in the off-season, hiring Brady Hoke to install a more attack-oriented 4-3 scheme while promoting Matt Lubick to offensive coordinator as the Ducks will be naming their third starting quarterback in as many years.
As a result of all these new parts in motion, Oregon failed to rank inside the AP pre-season top ten teams for the first time in five years.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE DUCKS ON OFFENSE
2015 S&P+ Offense: 6th in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Offense: 7
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 63% (76th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 60 (66th in FBS)
After Scott Frost was hired to become the next head coach at Central Florida, Lubick was promoted to his new position before the Alamo Bowl, his first coordinator job. Suffice to say he has some big shoes to fill as the offense has finished no worse than seventh in Football Outsiders’ Offensive S&P+ since Helfrich took over for Chip Kelly in 2013.
The Ducks are third Pac-12 team Lubick has worked for, and he has followed the same path as his predecessor quickly moving up the ranks of the Oregon staff. Armed with great talent at the other skill positions on offense, much like Frost, he’ll be challenged at quarterback.
The Ducks will once again go through some growing pains with their signal callers as they try to steer through the season with a talented FCS transfer in Dakota Prukop, and highly touted roster holdover in redshsirt freshman Travis Jonsen. Prukop is thought to be more polished of the two, while Jonsen looks to have the higher ceiling. The good news is that Standford, their arch rivals in the North division will be breaking in a new quarterback of their own this season.
An all-american at Montana State, Prukop has been slower to take to the up-tempo Ducks offense than Vernon Adams was at this time a year ago, according to Helfrich. But after laboring through spring ball, it looks as if Prukop has separated himself from Jonsen as the Ducks head into their home opener against UC Davis to kickoff the 2016 season.
What stability Lubick’s offense lacks at the quarterback position, could be made up at running back. The Ducks return perhaps the third best running back in the country behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christen McCaffrey. Be it vision, tackle-breaking ability, and his improving results as a pass-catcher, junior running back Royce Freeman has been one of the keys to the Ducks offense since starting as true freshman early on in his freshman season, and its most consistent performer after Marcus Marriotta left for NFL glory two seasons ago.
Top-graded returning Pac-12 RBs:
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 23, 2016
Freeman does a little bit of everything in a power back’s frame at 5-foot-11, 230-pounds. According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman ranks second among all returning running backs in 89 missed tackles and 1,067 yards after contact. So not only can he make defenders miss, he has the strength to push on through would-be tacklers at the point of contact. After accumulating 3,201 career rushing yards, he needs 1,882 to break LaMichael James as the top rusher in school history. A milestone attainable if he produces like he did in his sophomore season when he totaled 1,836 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, finishing fourth in the nation averaging 141 rushing yards per game.
Running backs coach Gary Campbell is Oregon’s longest-tenured football coach and is the current record holder in the BCS for longest continuous full-time service at one school. But there’s more to this position group than just the man coaching it and his star pupil as Oregon boasts two other four-star running backs in sophomore Taj Griffen and Tony Brooks-James. Griffen is an explosive play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball and promises to make an impact on the field once he improves on the 87 touches he had in 2015. The backups look to compliment each other and take over as the next great one-two punch for Oregon football once Freeman’s college career has concluded.
Most yards after contact among returning RBs:
Fournette, LSU 1094
Freeman, Oregon 1067
Gallman, Clemson 937
Rose, New Mex St 933
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 17, 2016
Darren Carrington, the Ducks most targeted returning receiver, has a lot to prove in 2016 after missing seven games due to suspension in 2015. He averaged a whopping 19 yards per catch and is Pro Football Focus’ second highest rated receiver returning in the conference. He’ll be joined by speedster Devon Allen, who finished fifth at the Rio Olympics in the Men’s 110-meter hurdles, and jack of all trades dynamo Charles Nelson as part of a talented group of pass wideouts for the Ducks.
— Andy McNamara (@McNamaraUO) August 17, 2016
All that speed and four-star hype at receiver overshadows what could be the best group of tight ends ever produced collectively by the Ducks this season. Between Evan Baylis, Johnny Mundt, and Pharaoh Brown, the Ducks once again compare similarly to Stanford in having the ability to be multiple in how they deploy their tight ends in no-huddle situations. It wouldn’t be surprising if two of the three were playing on NFL teams next fall.
Seniors Cameron Hunt and Tyrell Crosby total 57 starts between them and will solidify the offensive line at right guard and left tackle. Hunt is a four year starter for the Ducks and versatile in the positions he’s filled along the line during that time. Steve Greatwood is once again back to coach this unit, as he has done since 2005, with Oregon leading the conference in rushing since 2009.
Greatwood excels at recruiting a certain build of athlete to play offensive line for the school and will be trusted to mold together this new unit looking to fill three starting positions. Crosby will flip from right to left tackle, while Hunt should stick at right guard until he’s needed elsewhere due to injury. Redshirt freshman Jake Hanson has been compared to former all-conference performer Hroniss Grasu both in skill and disposition and looks to fill the void left by the former standout more than a year after his departure to the NFL.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE DUCKS ON DEFENSE
2015 S&P+ Defense: 85th in FBS
2015 Havoc Rate: 55th in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Defense: 6
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 53.1% (104th in FBS)
The Dom Pellum experiment came to an end this off-season after only two years as the long-time Ducks assistant just couldn’t make it work calling the defense for Helfrich. Pellum was sent back to what he does best, coaching fast linebackers in the new Ducks attack oriented 4-3 defense installed by defensive coordinator Brady Hoke (no quarterback controversies under Hoke’s watch on defense this year).
The scheme change promises less reading and more attacking with smaller/quicker athlete types made to search and destroy in a one-gap approach rather than tip-toeing with their thinking caps on while two-gapping.
That being said, if you look at the Havoc statistics, Oregon wasn’t that bad at all with their 38 sacks (second in the Pac-12 behind ASU) and 91 tackles for loss (fourth in the Pac-12). But it struggled at times to stop Pac-12 offenses on third down and was in the bottom half of the conference with its 13 interceptions.
Adding to the challenge will be Hoke having to produce without the help of Pac-12 defensive player of the year DeForest Buckner, the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
In fact he’ll only have stand-out defensive end Henry Mondeaux among starters returning in his front seven, so the slate has, in fact, been wiped clean for the former Michigan Wolverines head coach. Priority number one being an improvement in his unit’s run-stopping ability.
After falling to 52nd in the nation in Defensive Rushing S&P+ in 2014, the bottom dropped all the way down to 110th last year, allowing nearly 180 yards rushing per contest.
While that front seven is lacking, the defensive secondary for Hoke could prove to be a stronghold for the Ducks who return three starters and a long list of players that were thrown into the fire as underclassmen the last two years. That experience will pay off in spades both in quality and quantity even with the recent departure of backup corner Chris Seisay who left the program last week.
When on defense (he plays everywhere) Oregon's Charles Nelson allowed one catch for every 27 coverage snaps. Best among returning #Pac12 CBs
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 20, 2016
The Ducks were also confident enough in their depth to let Charles Nelson take on a full-time receiver position even after he proved successful as a corner.
The Ducks have won the most games of any Pac-12 team since the start of the 21st century, but they just haven’t been able to close like Pete Carroll did with the Trojans a decade ago.
How far this team can go will be predicated on whether or not Prukop can play to a level similar to Adams when he was healthy in 2015. And success in that department could earn Lubick his first ever head coach position if this team goes on to win the Pac-12.
While Prukop doesn’t necessarily need to be the savior on an offense that can rely heavily on the run game like few others can to win games. Much like Arizona State, the Ducks defense has to force more turnovers in 2016, to help further the development of its new starting quarterback.
For more statistical information on Oregon, check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats Report.
**HAVOC RATING WAS DEVISED BY BILL CONNELLY – “THE PERCENTAGE OF PLAYS IN WHICH A DEFENSE EITHER RECORDED A TACKLE FOR LOSS, FORCED A FUMBLE, OR DEFENSED A PASS (INTERCEPTED OR BROKEN UP). IF QB HURRIES WERE A RELIABLE STAT (AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL, THERE IS FAR TOO MUCH INCONSISTENCY IN HOW THEY ARE RECORDED), THEY WOULD BE INCLUDED HERE, TOO.”
**S&P DESIGNED BY FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS – “TAKES INTO ACCOUNT EFFICIENCY (SUCCESS RATES), EXPLOSIVENESS (ISOPPP), AND FACTORS RELATED TO FIELD POSITION AND FINISHING DRIVES. IT IS NOW PRESENTED IN TWO FORMS: THE FIRST IS A PERCENTILE, AND THE SECOND IS AN ADJUSTED SCORING MARGIN SPECIFIC FOR THIS SPECIFIC SEASON’S SCORING CURVE.”