It’s almost over.
The waiting. The anticipation. The angst. The offseason hot takes. The wild speculation.
It ends this Saturday when Auburn football returns to the field in Week 1’s only matchup between ranked opponents. Their opponent will be the Oregon Ducks, a program back on the rise after a bit of a downward turn following Chip Kelly’s exceptional stint. The Ducks are coming off a 9-4 season, return a possible top overall pick at QB, all of their offensive line and most of their offensive weapons.
Here’s a closer look at the Oregon offense.
The star of this offense is Justin Herbert. The once 3* prospect has blossomed into one of the nation’s premier signal callers. Many think his name could be the first called next April at the 2020 NFL Draft. Watching him play I can understand why.
Standing 6’6” 237 lbs, Herbert is an imposing presence in the pocket. Strapped to his shoulder is a rifle capable of firing a football literally anywhere on the field with disturbing accuracy. Seriously, when Herbert wants to fit a ball into a tight window, he FITS a ball into a tight window.
He’s also an outstanding athlete who will undoubtedly be called “sneaky athletic” at some point during Saturday’s broadcast. Most of the time he uses that ability to elude the rush and make a play downfield with his arm but he can tuck it and go when he wants. This becomes especially effective in the red zone.
But no one’s perfect and there are some flaws that pop up in Herbert’s game. Namely his tendency to sail the ball when trying to throw deep and a propensity to lock onto his first read. That latter issue is something to watch this weekend given Auburn’s veteran secondary.
However, the engine of this offense is undoubtedly the offensive line. Oregon will go as far as this offensive line can take them. Heading into the 2019 campaign they are earning some serious hype with some prognosticators touting them as the #1 unit in the land. That might seem somewhat head scratching when you look at some of the results last year (namely that Arizona game) but injuries ravaged this unit midway through the season.
The Ducks started fast in 2018, winning 5 of their first 6 contests with their only loss coming in a pretty fluky game vs Stanford. But then stud true freshman left tackle Penei Sewell went down with an injury against Washington and things started getting rocky. To make matters worse, former Bammer turned Duck starting RG, Dallas Warmack, battled shoulder issues for most of the season. As a result, a once dominant rushing attack dried up and the Ducks put up their worst season rushing total in over a decade.
Auburn though will be facing a fully functional Oregon offensive line. The left side is unquestionably the strength of this group. Sewell is a former top 100 who was recruited by literally everyone (he has a 5* little brother that might be even better who plays linebacker) and there was a noticeable difference when he was no longer on the field. But I would argue the best of the group is left guard Shane Lemieux. He’s Mr Steady up front who consistently gets movement at the point of attack and very rarely gets blown off the ball. The single best matchup Saturday night will come when Lemieux and Derrick Brown lock horns.
Things get interesting on the other side of the line. There are a lot of “OR”s right now for that group. Jake Hansen has started since he was a freshman but was the noticeable weak link for the Ducks last year up front. His bad snap changed the direction of the Stanford game and he often times struggled with more athletic interior defenders.
Calvin Throckmorton is Oregon’s Austin Golson. Not gonna wow you with his play but someone that can play anywhere on the line and get the job done. He could start at guard or tackle though I think he’s better outside. My guess is Dallas Warmack gets the nod again at right guard with Throckmorton at tackle. But it wouldn’t be a shocker if Brady Aillo won the job and Throckmorton slid inside.
Where the question marks really lie are at the skill positions. Yes, Oregon returns two 700+ yard rushers in 2019 both coming off strong freshman campaigns. However, I am not sure I would call either a game changer. CJ Verdell is probably the more talented of the two and has the most upside while Travis Dye is a little more of a home run threat. Cyrus Habibi-Likio is the touchdown vulture who is deployed in short yardage or goal line situations. He had 7 touchdowns on 18 carries last season. None though jump out as guys that can create big plays on their own. That’s not to say they won’t make big plays when they open up but I don’t see the same dynamic playmakers on tape I saw in Washington’s Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed last year.
Much has been made about Oregon returning all but one starter from last year’s offense but that one departure is a major one. Dillon Mitchell was far and away the Ducks most explosive offensive weapon last season snagging 75 passes for 1,184 yards and 10 TDs. When the Ducks needed to make a play they got it in Mitchell’s hands and he usually delivered.
There was a big drop off to #2 last season in Jaylon Redd who caught 38 passes for 433 yds and 5 TDs. Most of his damage though came against the likes of Bowling Green and Arizona State (though he had a strong performance in the bowl game). To make matters worse, the injury bug has bitten this unit especially hard. Herbert’s roommate and returning starter Brenden Schooler went down with a foot injury, blue chip freshman Mycah Pittman is out with a bad shoulder and another expected freshman contributor JR Waters also has a lower leg issue. Pittman especially I think will prove a major blow. He’s a true freshman but was the #94 player in the country and a guy I think was poised for a big time debut.
Oregon is hoping Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson is ready to recapture some of his 2017 magic when he caught 54 passes for 701 yards and a touchdown. He’s expected to be the top wideout in the corps but presents a very different threat than Mitchell. Johnson is 6’4” 230 lbs who bullies cornerbacks on the outside while Mitchell was 6’1” 197 who relied on his quickness and great hands to make big plays. Despite Herbert’s return, this passing offense will look very different in 2019.
Finally, keep an eye on these tight ends. They have been battling injuries as well but both I believe are expected to play this Saturday. Jacob Breeland was a solid option in the intermediate passing game last season stepping in for the injured Cam McCormick who will return to action in 2019. With so many questions at wide receiver, I expect to see a heavy dose of the Ducks’ tight ends Saturday night.
I had somehow missed that Oregon adopted the Pistol under Mario Cristobal. Run game coordinator Jim Mastro worked on Chris Ault’s staff for 11 seasons when Nevada was shredding opponents with a dynamic rushing attack out of the Pistol. You can see Ault’s influence all over this Oregon offense that relies heavily on zone concepts.
Oregon spends most of their time in 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) but will also trot out some 10 and 12 personnel looks. The Ducks’ running game features a lot of Inside Zone, Outside Zone, GT Counter and Pin-Pull Sweeps. Most are either paired with a pass option or have a read element. The Ducks also like to stretch the field horizontally by lining up their wide receivers real wide, often putting their passing strength into the field and the run strength to the boundary in order to make a defense declare pre snap how they plan to defend them. Play run and they will get it out to the wide side of the field. Leave the box even and they will run it down your throat.
Auburn will absolutely have to respect Herbert’s feet. While he won’t be looking to run the ball 10+ times Saturday, he is a threat to pull the ball and go. The Tigers will need to make sure to stay sound in their assignments and fight the urge to chase where they think the football will go. Herbert will make you pay if you don’t.
A lot of Oregon’s passing attack was predicated on getting Dillon Mitchell the chance to make plays in space. That meant a lot of mesh concepts and drag routes to get him in 1 on 1 situations in the open field. It will be interesting to see if they ask Juwan Johnson to do some of the same things or if they tweak their scheme to give him more chances to use that size of his down the field.
One play I saw pretty consistently was a “Double China” concept out of trips. The two outside wide receivers both run 5 yard ins while the slot man runs a corner route. Given the amount of trips Oregon runs, it’s not a surprise to see this concept utilized fairly often.
At the end of the day, this Oregon offense wants to run the dang ball. That’s where it all starts. If they can find success on the ground, it opens up this passing attack. However, when the Ducks can’t get much going on the ground they haven’t proved they can throw themselves out of trouble.
Maybe it’s the homer in me talking but I just have a hard time seeing the Ducks’ offense finding consistent success against Auburn’s defense. Justin Herbert is absolutely an elite quarterback but I am not sure he has the weapons around him to score a bunch of points. Oregon’s offensive line is very good and very experienced but I am not sure they are “#1 in the nation” good. I suspect though they will be one of the top 4 units Auburn’s defensive line faces in 2019.
I am fascinated to see how Kevin Steele chooses to attack this Oregon offense. Does he stack the box to ensure the Ducks can’t get the ground game going and trust his veteran secondary to hold their own against Oregon’s wide receiver corps? Or does he elect to take the ball out of Herbert’s hand and trust his front 7 to hold up to even numbers in the box? Either way, the matchup of the game is unquestionably Auburn’s DL vs Oregon’s OL. The winner of that struggle has a very good chance at winning the game.