Last week we gave you a quick overview of what Auburn’s up against with the 2019 football schedule. In case you missed it, the news isn’t great. It’s a tough road. Maybe the toughest in college football, since the Tigers may have as many as five top ten opponents on the slate when the season begins. One of those teams will be sitting across the field at Jerry World in Arlington on August 31st.
Auburn began 2018 in Atlanta against a PAC-12 team and broke the Mercedes-Benz Stadium curse by beating Washington (the eventual conference champs) in an exciting game. Now the Tigers get another West Coast foe, only this one will be led by a consensus preseason top-five pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Let’s tell you about the Oregon Ducks.
Oregon was good-not-great in 2018, winning the games they should have and losing the games they should have. They really only had one tough stretch during the year, when they played four ranked teams in a row from September 22nd to October 20th. During that stretch they went 2-2, beating #7 Washington at home and #24 Cal on the road, but falling at home to #7 Stanford and at #25 Washington State.
Other than that, Oregon was pretty solid in the first year after Willie Taggart. Mario Cristobal came on to take over the head coaching job, but the Ducks are far removed from what we came to know from them when Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich ran the program. They’re not the lightning-quick offense that we saw, and Cristobal won’t rely on the running ability of the quarterback nearly as much as the Ducks did with Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota.
In the PAC-12, which was admittedly the worst of the Power Five conferences, Oregon was 25th in scoring offense (34.8 ppg), 48th in scoring defense (25.4 ppg), and finished fourth in the North division behind Washington, Washington State, and Stanford.
What we’re going to see from them in Texas this August begins rightfully so at the quarterback position, so let’s break down what makes Justin Herbert the guy in the backfield for the Ducks.
Justin Herbert’s got all of the physical tools to be a complete NFL quarterback. First of all, he’s huge, like almost Cam Newton-sized at 6’6, 233 pounds. He’s got a great arm and he finally started every game last season for the Ducks. In thirteen contests he threw for over 3,150 yards to go along with 29 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. His completion percentage could be better (just 59% last year), and he did regress from his 2017 yards/attempt (9.6 to 7.8), but he’s going to be the second guy taken at quarterback after Tua in the 2020 Draft.
Despite being large, he won’t run much (just 166 yards on 71 carries last year), and he does have a tendency to either be a boom or bust guy in the passing game. He wasn’t super consistent throwing the ball, and without some of his top targets back for 2019, he’ll be in trouble if he can’t make find a rhythm. Some times it wasn’t necessary for him to play all that well, like in early wins over San Jose State (just 16-34 with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions), but he disappeared in consecutive losses to Washington State (115 rating) and Arizona (90 rating).
It’ll be tough for Herbert to find good footing against what should be one of the best defensive lines in the country, and a secondary that’s got a ton of experience as well. If he’s the focal point of the Oregon offense, he’ll need to depend on what might actually be the strength of that group to keep him upright.
Auburn’s defensive front vs Oregon’s offensive line should be one of the marquee position battles during the early part of the 2019 season. All five starters return from 2018, so the Duck front is big and seasoned, and it’ll probably look something like this:
LT Penei Sewell (6’6” 345)
LG Shane Lemieux (6’4” 317)
C Jake Hanson (6’5” 297)
RG Dallas Warmack (6’2” 316)
RT Calvin Throckmorton (6’5” 315)
Lemieux, Hanson, and Throckmorton all have at least 37 starts on the line, so they’re heading into their senior seasons, and everyone except for Sewell will be a senior in 2019. Throckmorton sat out of the spring with an injury sustained during the bowl game, but he should be back for the regular season.
There’s not really a weakness, as Throckmorton’s absence gave the Ducks a chance to build some quality depth. Brady Aiello took over at right tackle for the spring, and he played really well. Additionally, Malasaela Aumavae-Laulu was the top JUCO lineman in the nation last year, and he’s pushing Dallas Warmack for the starting gig at right guard, so there’s not really a weak spot on the entire line.
In 2018, they allowed 22 sacks in 13 games and paved the way for 4.5 ypc in the run game. It stands to reason that they’ll be better this year, but Auburn’s biggest strength will be the unit matched up against them in the opener.
If the line can be good, then that allows Herbert to stay clean and make plays. That’s where the issues may be... some of the biggest playmakers from last year are gone.
Dillon Mitchell led Oregon in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns last year. He’s gone, and with his departure go 75 grabs, 1,184 yards, and 10 scores. Mitchell was a big guy at 6’2, 189, and now the most prolific guy in the Oregon passing game is junior Jaylon Redd, who caught 37 passes last year.
Redd will return, but he’s a different type of receiver at just 5’8. Also gone is the tight end Jacob Breeland, who snagged 24 passes for 377 yards in 2018. So with those absences, Redd, running back C.J. Verdell, and receiver Brenden Schooler seem to be the main targets for Herbert. Verdell was pretty solid out of the backfield as a pass catcher, and Schooler provides that big body that they’ll miss without Mitchell.
Oregon’s going to rely heavily on some newcomers to the group this year. Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson provides a huge frame at 6’4, 231 pounds, and he joins the Ducks after catching 81 passes in his Nittany Lion career. After him, freshman Mycah Pittman may be a guy to watch out for as well. Both did pretty well in spring, and Pittman caught seven passes in the spring game. The position battles will likely only be settled once they get into fall practice.
Unlike the wideouts, the backs are pretty much set in stone. C.J. Verdell will be the starter after a 1,018-yard (5.0 ypc), 10-touchdown season last year, and Travis Dye will come in nearly as much as he finished 2018 with 739 yards (5.3 ypc) and 4 touchdowns.
Verdell’s a great all-purpose guy who added over 300 receiving yards last year, and he got a little bit more weight to increase his durability in the offseason. Behind him (next to him), Travis Dye actually came on stronger than Verdell at the end of the year, finishing off the regular season with a 199-yard outing against Oregon State. With a higher yards-per-carry average, he’s not so much a backup as starter 1B.
Behind those two, the Ducks are really excited about Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who only got 18 carries last year but served as the goal-line runner (7 rushing touchdowns). He’s turned into more of an every down back, and we’ll certainly see him in situations further out from the goal line.
This is a group that could work really well depending on how much the offensive staff leans on the running game this year. Behind a really experienced offensive line, Oregon could run through the PAC-12, but like we mentioned, they’ll have a heck of a task coming against the Auburn defense to start the year.
We’ll check out the defense tomorrow!