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Ducks' focus shifts to Southern Utah

EUGENE — Willie Taggart is just as anxious as Oregon’s fan base to see how the 2017 team performs on opening night.

As the program’s first-year coach often says: “The spotlight does some strange things to people.”

The Ducks begin the new era against Southern Utah on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (5:25 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

“I think we will learn a lot about our football team,” Taggart said Monday during his first formal news conference of the season at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.

“I’m like you all, I’m ready to see this team as well. They’ve practiced, they’ve done the things that we’ve asked them to, now it’s time to go out in front of everybody.”

Oregon hasn’t started a season with a loss since 2011 (40-27 to LSU in Arlington, Texas) and hasn’t opened a season with a home loss since 2004 (30-24 to Indiana).

Taggart was 3-1 in openers at South Florida and 1-2 at Western Kentucky.

The Ducks started the 2016 season 2-0 with consecutive home wins over UC Davis and Virginia, but coach Mark Helfrich and his staff were fired after losing eight of the final 10 games.

Oregon is picked to finish fourth in the North Division of the Pac-12 by the media in Taggart’s first season.

“I think every part of our program that we’ve tried to address the culture and get what we want, our guys have done that,” Taggart said. “It’s just another part of that process now, the season, and we get to see how these guys respond to games.”

Backup QB battle

Taggart still hasn’t decided whether fifth-year senior Taylor Alie or true freshman Braxton Burmeister would enter the game if starting quarterback Justin Herbert were injured or pulled due to a lopsided score.

Alie and Burmeister are listed as co-backups on the depth chart released Monday.

“I’m not necessarily sure who will be the guy. I feel like they’re that close,” Taggart said. “We’ll look and hope for those guys to have a great week of practice, a great week of meetings, a great week of execution.”

Herbert saw his first collegiate action in mop-up duty during last year’s opener against UC Davis and eventually replaced Dakota Prukop as the starter in the sixth game against Washington.

Fresh(men) faces

Burmeister is one of 11 true freshmen listed on Oregon’s two-deep entering the season. As many as three members of the 2017 recruiting class could start against Southern Utah.

Johnny Johnson is one of three starting wide receivers, along with sophomore Dillon Mitchell and senior Charles Nelson.

“He started catching footballs,” Taggart said of Johnson emerging as a reliable target for Herbert. “Early on in preseason camp he was dropping a lot of those passes. These last two weeks he’s been on fire, he’s been different. It was like, ‘OK, I know the plays now and I can just go play football.’ “

Either true freshman Jordon Scott or true freshman Austin Faoliu will start at nose guard. True freshman Thomas Graham or junior Ugo Amadi will start at one cornerback position opposite senior Arrion Springs.

“They just played consistently and they made plays consistently,” Taggart said. “They’ve shown us that they can play at this level and shown us that they can help our defense.”

Training room

Wide receiver Taj Griffin and safeties Tyree Robinson and Brady Breeze are not listed on the two-deep due to injuries.

“Those guys are healing,” Taggart said. “They’re not completely healed yet, but hopefully they’ll be back here soon and ready to go.”

Two defensive linemen expected to help the defense this season, Scott Pagano and Malik Young, are also missing from the depth chart.

Pagano, a Clemson graduate transfer, is still recovering from offseason foot surgery. Young, a junior college transfer who joined the program last week, is getting in “football shape” and up to speed with the defense.

Oh captain, my captains

Senior running back Royce Freeman and senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux were voted team captains by the players.

Freeman has a chance to break LaMichael James’ career rushing record this season, and Mondeaux is trying to lead a dramatic turnaround on defense.

“It’s a big-time award for those guys,” said Taggart, who will meet with Freeman and Mondeaux every week. “The team picked those guys to be the captains, to be the face of this team.”

Oregon head coach Willie Taggart watches his running back Royce Freeman, left, quarterback Justin Herbert as they run through a drill during practice. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]