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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Healthy Herbert key to Oregon’s success

Just 12 months ago it was the start of the “Willie Taggart Era” in Eugene. Now it’s Mario Cristobal’s turn.

The team’s former co-offensive coordinator is embarking on his first season at the helm of the Ducks. Taggart, meanwhile, is doing the same at Florida State after a one-year tenure at Oregon.

It’s not quite Cristobal’s debut. He led the Ducks in last season’s Las Vegas Bowl, a 38-28 loss to Boise State. With a full season in front of him, Cristobal’s clearly ready to move on from 2017’s 7-6 finish.

“This season has nothing but opportunity in front of it, and we’ve got to do it. There is no way to sugarcoat it or try to dance around it, there is not. We’ve just got to get it done,” he said.

Cristobal, who was an assistant at Alabama under Nick Saban for four years, has one of the league’s top quarterbacks in junior Justin Herbert, who threw for 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns last season — despite missing five games with a fractured collarbone. He also rushed for 183 yards and five scores.

He was replaced as starter by freshman Braxton Burmeister and the Ducks went 1-4 over the course of his absence. Burmeister threw for 324 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions during the span, while also rushing for 106 yards and three scores.

The key will be keeping Herbert healthy, while also making sure he has a backup who is ready to step in. And in this case, Burmeister took his lumps last season.

Herbert has done his part by bulking up over the offseason and now weighs in at some 240 pounds.

“It’s not just how he looks. It’s the mindset that comes with it, the confidence that comes with it,” Cristobal said. “The ability to create a galvanizing effect for the guys in the locker room, because you know you’re preparing and holding each other accountable.”

The Ducks averaged 52 points with Herbert on the field last season, so the longer he stays there, the better for Oregon.

WHO’LL CATCH HERBERT?: With the departure of versatile WR Charles Nelson, a lot of attention has gone to Herbert’s targets. The Ducks return their top receiver from last season, Dillon Mitchell, who caught 42 passes for 517 yards. Then there’s fellow wideout Brenden Schooler, who switched from safety, and tight-end Jacob Breeland, who caught five TD passes last season.

TWO-WAY PLAYER?: Bryan Addison could also be a welcome addition to Oregon’s receiver corps. He somewhat surprisingly joined the Ducks in July. Originally committed to UCLA, he was granted his release after his admission was delayed.

Addison, who is a 6-5 prospect out of Gardena, California, could see time at both wide receiver and defensive back — both positions where the Ducks could use some help.

Cristobal didn’t hide his enthusiasm for Addison at the league’s media day: “He’s played both ways. He has special teams value. He is intelligent, he’s tough, he’s athletic. Great balance and body control. Explosive. Incredible ball skills.”

REPLACING ROYCE: The Ducks’ two top running backs from last season, Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit, have graduated. The top returnee is Tony Brooks-James, who ran for 520 yards and two touchdowns. He could get help from redshirt freshman CJ Verdell. Herbert was the team’s fourth-best rusher last season.

DON’T FORGET THE D: There was lots of speculation that Taggart’s defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, might follow him to Florida State at the end of last season. But Oregon was able to keep him on staff, and that’s a good thing: In his first season, the Ducks went to a 3-4 defense and improved to 75th in the nation in points allowed, up from 126th. They also improved to 42nd nationally for yards allowed. He has clearly inspired his players, including linebacker Troy Dye, who has led the team in tackles for the past two seasons.

OUTLOOK: Oregon was picked to finish third in the Pac-12 North. Washington should rule its half of the conference and is the favorite to claim the league’s overall title. But Oregon is helped by a schedule that has just two teams that are expected to be ranked: Washington and Stanford. The Ducks get both of those teams at Autzen Stadium.

Oregon opens the season at home on Sept. 1 against Bowling Green, and also gets its other two nonconference games — against Portland State and San Jose State — at Autzen.

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (10) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)