Ducks will put their hopes on the line
EUGENE — Willie Taggart doesn’t pretend that football is more complicated than organic history or quantum mechanics.
Oregon’s first-year coach even describes his offense as “lethal simplicity.”
If success simply starts up front, the Ducks should have a fighting chance this fall behind an experienced and talented offensive line.
Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal inherited five players with significant starting experience and quality depth at each position.
Left tackle Tyrell Crosby, who is back healthy after last year’s foot injury, has rejoined a group that includes 2016 starters Calvin Throckmorton, Jake Hanson, Brady Aiello and Shane Lemieux.
“You’ve got to have great chemistry on the offensive line because you’ve got to have five people playing as one,” Hanson said. “You can’t be selfish on the O-line because everything goes together. You can have four guys that are executing their blocks correctly, but if one guy messes up it can turn a potential 20- or 30-yard run into something that is stopped at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s very important to have that chemistry and be a cohesive group together.”
Seniors Jake Pisarcik, Doug Brenner and Evan Voeller are also competing for significant playing time, along with redshirt freshmen Logan Bathke, Jacob Capra and Sam Poutasi.
“This group has a lot of depth to it and we’re all coming together really nicely,” Crosby said.
After missing Oregon’s final nine games last season and being limited in the spring, Crosby has been on the first team during fall camp ahead of Aiello.
“The more I practice, the more and more I feel like I used to. I’m feeling good, and I’m getting confidence with each rep,” Crosby said. “I’m feeling really good right now. Probably the last time I felt this good was last year during camp.”
The newcomers to the unit include 6-foot-7, 308-pound junior college transfer George Moore and true freshmen Cody Shear and Alex Forsyth.
Despite Valentino Daltoso’s transfer to California, where he will reunite with longtime Oregon assistant coach Stave Greatwood, and Zach Okun medically retiring, Cristobal will have plenty of combinations to choose from off the depth chart menu.
“When you have that moving depth chart, I think that helps all the guys understand they can be the guy,” Taggart said. “There’s nothing like having competition and having guys go hard every single day.”
Royce Freeman is an unofficial member of the group. The senior running back has been attending offensive line meetings and going through drills with the big boys.
“We just think running backs are another extension of the O-line,” Taggart said. “I think the more they understand the way the line is taught to do things, the better they can be as a running back setting up blocks and things.”
South Florida was No. 5 among all FBS teams in rushing last season under Taggart, averaging 285.3 yards per game.
The Ducks streak of leading the Pac-12 in rushing for 10 consecutive years was snapped in 2016 as Oregon (226.4 ypg) finished second behind Arizona (235.0 ypg).
With the emphasis the new staff put on the players adding size and strength in the weight room, the offensive line simply believes it will be lethally productive again.
“The improvements that most of the guys made were kind of ridiculous,” said Aiello, who is listed at 6-7, 302 pounds, which us up 12 pounds from last season. “We put on a lot of muscle, added a lot of strength, which helps out on the field, especially at a lineman position.”
Before joining Taggart’s staff at Oregon, Cristobal spent four seasons as Nick Saban’s assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won the 2015 national championship and lost in the 2016 title game to Clemson.
There is still a lot of work to do before the Ducks get back in contention for the College Football Playoff, but Cristobal said he wouldn’t trade his offensive linemen for any other group.
“I think what’s making everybody better is the amount of competition out there. I mean, it is relentless,” Cristobal said. “The amount of juice and energy, I’ve never seen a level of that type of just excitement. And it’s contagious. …
“It’s been a great camp, it really has.”