Over a 40-year span, there might not have been a football program in the nation as continuous as the Oregon Ducks. During that time, the Ducks went through four head coaches, each time promoting from within to find the new man to take control of the program.
But amidst a growth in expectations and failing to live up to them, Oregon now finds itself with its third head coach in as many years.
Two years ago, Mario Cristobal left the comfortable confines of Nick Saban and Alabama to take a chance in the Pac-12 as Oregon’s offensive coordinator. He followed newly appointed head coach Willie Taggart with hopes of bringing power to Oregon’s quick-strike offense.
After Taggart unexpectedly left for Florida State the following year, Cristobal beat out a multitude of coaches, including former SEC Coach of the Year, Kevin Sumlin, to take over as head coach of the Ducks.
Now with his first year fast approaching, Cristobal has been given a rare gift — a bona fide star in junior quarterback Justin Herbert.
Herbert — who had one power-five scholarship offer coming out of high school — is widely considered one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and a potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Last year with Herbert healthy, Oregon went 6-2 and averaged 49.1 points per game.
Apart from Herbert returning, Cristobal’s best recruiting efforts went to securing defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. In one year, Leavitt took the Ducks from one of the worst defenses in the nation to an average defensive unit, surrendering 12.4 points per game less.
The Ducks were also able to retain the services of offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, wide receivers coach Michael Johnson and co-defensive coordinators Joe Salave’a and Keith Heyward.
Apart from Herbert on offense, Oregon returns running back Tony Brooks-James, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell and tight end Jacob Breeland, three players expected to take substantial jumps in production. Wake Forest graduate transfer Tabari Hines should give the receiving corps a boost while running back CJ Verdell looks to provide depth and power compared to the shiftier Brooks-James.
The offensive line will once again be strong, led by preseason all-American center Jake Hanson and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton. All five projected starters have started at least a game in their respective careers.
Defensively, the Ducks got a huge boost when senior Jalen Jelks decided to return to school. He’s a talented defensive end who will find himself playing on Sundays in the future. Linebacker Troy Dye, a preseason all-American and the heart and soul of the team, is expected to generate legitimate NFL buzz entering his junior year.
The backend of the defense is where Oregon has struggled. The Ducks return three starters in cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir and safety Ugochukwu Amadi. This unit needs to tighten up communication issues and find big plays if they’re going to stop from being the downfall of the defense.
Oregon has a widely favorable schedule with its first four games at home, including one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the nation. The Ducks will also face Washington and Stanford, its top two competitors in the North Division, at home.
It’s easy to see the Ducks surpassing last year’s 7-win season yet Oregon still appears to be a year away from contending in the Pac-12. But, a healthy Herbert combined with production from returning starters and a favorable schedule could have the Ducks at double-digit victories and in an established bowl game at years end.