Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

The Willie Taggart-era at Oregon on the practice field began this morning when the Ducks opened spring drills, which will include 14 sessions before the Spring Game on April 29. 

Oregon enters spring with a new staff but most of the same players who were largely responsible for a 4-8 season in 2016, a year that led to the firing of former coach Mark Helfrich and a staff that featured some assistants who had been in Eugene for as many as 20-plus years.

In order to win right away, Taggart must do so with the players recruited by the former staff. That's not impossible. In fact, it's highly likely. Oregon played mostly a young and battered group in 2016. It's a core that should be considerably better in 2017 after taking their collective lumps during the program's first losing season since 2004 (5-6). 

That development process began during the winter and continues this spring. Many questions linger for this staff to sort out, but here are five that must be addressed this spring: 

1. Will a quarterback controversy develop or will Justin Herbert re-establish himself as the guy for this new staff? The only quarterback in Oregon history who at the same age could have beaten out what we saw from Herbert as a freshman would be Marcus Mariota. Maybe. That's how good Herbert is. So, when Taggart says that the position is open, he is essentially hoping that either redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr. or redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen demonstrates some Mariota-level skills.

We shall see. 

Herbert took over as the starter in week 6 and in seven starts completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,986 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Project those numbers out over 13 games (with a bowl) and you get 3,688-35-6. Those numbers are almost identical to what Mariota put up in 2013 (3,665-31-4) as a redshirt sophomore while playing on a much better team.  No doubt Taggart witnessed all of Herbert's skills while reviewing game video from last season. 

Still, Taggart points out that UO won just four games, so whatever Herbert did last season wasn't good enough. Truth be told, Herbert won just two of those four (Arizona State and Utah), but Mariota wouldn't have won much more with the defense Oregon put on the field. 

Taggart does liked the physical abilities he saw from Wilson and Jonsen during winter workouts, but added that Herbert has also looked great, so far. 

“Really impressed with winter conditioning watching him run around and change directions, and doing those things," Taggart said. 

Now, Taggart wants to see Herbert, or another quarterback, become an established leader. 

“At the end of the day, I want to see who can lead this football team," Taggart said. "Who can get this team to rally around him.”

Let the QB games begin. 

2. Are there any young playmakers at linebacker not named Troy Dye? Dye made a name for himself last season as pretty much the only playmaker on defense. The Ducks will return to the 3-4, defense, which means UO needs three other linebackers to emerge. Seniors A.J. Hotchkins and Jimmie Swain must improve. Also, Oregon could use someone among the young group of sophomores La'Mar Winston Jr. and Keith Simms, and redshirt freshman Eric Briscoe, to breakthrough. 

"We have to get more athletic at that spot," Taggart said.

Translation: "We lack ballers."

Oregon will be looking for more of those this spring. 

3. Are there any playmakers along the defensive line at all? We must continue on with the defense because that side of the ball was so bad last season. So bad that there really weren't any bright spot along the defensive line to be found. 

Taggart, however, said he believes that some playmakers exist upfront. Mass confusion on defense last year, he added, led to a lot of young defensive linemen not being able to flourish. 

"Usually when you don't know what you're doing, you'll get your butt whooped," Taggart said. "But there's some potential."

Jalen Jelks, Henry Mondeaux, Gary Baker, Rex Manu, Drayton Carlberg, and others, all must develop this spring or opposing offenses will once again trample the Ducks. 

4.  Can Dillon Mitchell and Alex Ofodile ease concerns about depth at wide receiver? Oregon returns two wide receivers of consequence: seniors Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson. Taggart needs about four more receivers for him to be comfortable about the depth at this position. 

Sophomore Dillon Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile are both former four-star recruits and the next men up. But the jury is out on both. They could either emerge this spring or open the door for one of seven freshmen receivers to take their jobs. 

One such freshman already on campus is three-star recruit, Darrian McNeal, a quick elusive receiver in the mold of Nelson and former UO star, De'Anthony Thomas, but not quite as fast, according to Taggart.

Taggart said McNeal's love for the game shows in his play, play that could get him on the game field right away. 

But for this position to take off, Mitchell and/or Ofodile must take major strides in their development this spring. 

5. How will a new coaching staff mesh? Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and cornerbacks coach Charles Clark worked together in Colorado. Taggart brought two South Florida assistants, special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie and running backs coach Donte Pimpleton, to UO from his former team. Other than that, no other coaching connections exist on this staff. 

So, stands to reason that there could be some growing pains as the staff learns to work together. 

"Not everybody has been around me," Taggart said. "A lot of things I might not like and I'll continue to coach those guys up and get it the way that we want it."

So far, Taggart said, the staff has worked together very well. Camaraderie and enthusiasm have been high. Taggart said it helps that Leavitt and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal are former head coaches who get the process. 

We will see if harmony continues or if some feathers get ruffled along the way. Especially if the previous four questions go unanswered and the team is left floundering in a sea of mediocrity during year one of the Taggart era. 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - WRs: Position thin after loss of Jalen Brown

Oregon 2017 Outlook - WRs: Position thin after loss of Jalen Brown

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backs; Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Wide receivers.

Key losses: Devon Allen, after suffering a season-ending knee injury at Nebraska, announced that he would focus 100 percent on track and field and winning a gold medal in 2020. Senior Dwayne Stanford, lost for the year at Washington State, is gone. Redshirt junior Jalen Brown announced via Twitter that he plans to transfer.   

Projected 2017 starters: Charles Nelson, Sr., (5-8, 170), Darren Carrington II, RSr., (6-2, 205), Dillon Mitchell, Soph., (6-1, 195)

Key backups: Alex Ofodile, RSo., (6-3, 190),  Casey Eugenio, RJr., (5-8, 175), Dylan Kane, RSo., (6-3, 195). 

What we know: Carrington's return is good news only if he matures into a leader that matches his talent. If not, he could run into trouble with new coach Willie Taggart's quest to restore discipline to the Ducks. Carrington is super talented and could improve his draft stock with a productive season and a shift in the attitude department. His 43 receptions for 606 yards and five touchdowns (tied) led the team in 2016. 

Nelson contributed 52 receptions for 554 yards and five touchdowns. He should continue to thrive in Taggart's offense.  

After these two...

What we don't know: Remember when Oregon had Carrington, Nelson, Allen, Stanford, Addison and Brown in 2015? That group was stacked with talent. This group? Not so much. At least not with proven talent.

But, let's not forget that in 2014 the Ducks returned the least amount of receiver production in 20 years and then discovered an embarrassment of riches despite Addison missing the season with a knee injury. Maybe that could happen again with the current group of young receivers. 

Mitchell, a four-star recruit in 2016, flashed some open-field running ability as a punt returner late in the season, but he caught just two passes for nine yards. Ofodile, a four-star recruit in 2015, got his feet went last season, but caught just one pass for eight yards. Kane, a three-star defensive back recruit in 2014, moved to wide receiver in 2015 and has yet to make a reception. Eugenio, a walk-on, frequently was listed on the two-deep depth chart also didn't make a reception. 

New receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty has his work cut out for him in the department of developing depth.  It's safe to say that without Brown, the Ducks will need both Mitchell and Ofodile to emerge in 2017. 

Even if they do, the Ducks could still need a freshman recruit, or two, to contribute in order to make it through the season.  The Ducks have received verbal commitments from four-star recruit Jaylon Redd and two three-star receiver recruits, Johnny Johnson III and Darrian McNeal

Final word: The Ducks should be fine at this position as long as they don't suffer serious injuries. Counting on freshmen could be dicey. Best-cased scenario is that Mitchell and Ofodile live up to their potential.  

Position grade: C. The depth enjoyed from 2014 through 2016 is gone and one of the two returning starters has been proven to be unreliable at times. That makes this an average group. For now. 

Next up: Offensive line.

Oregon wide receiver Jalen Brown announces he will transfer

Oregon wide receiver Jalen Brown announces he will transfer

Oregon wide receiver Jalen Brown announced today via Twitter (below) that he plans to transfer after three seasons with the Ducks. 

The redshirt junior stated that he has received permission from Oregon to seek another program to join but also stated that he planned to remain at Oregon until June in order to graduate in three years.

Graduating would allow Brown to transfer to another FBS program without sitting out a season. However, if he waits until June to do so he would miss attending spring drills with his new team, which probably wouldn't help him in terms of earning more playing time with a new team than he would with Oregon in 2017. 

Brown caught 19 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns in 2016, and also threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darren Carrington. Brown in 2015 caught seven receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown as a redshirt freshman. 

With Devon Allen (injury) and Dwayne Stanford (graduation) moving on, Brown is in effect the team's No. 3 receiver behind redshirt senior Darren Carrington II and senior Charles Nelson.  That pecking order sets up Brown to potentially be the Ducks' No. 1 receiver in 2017.

Former four-star recruits, sophomore Dillon Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile round out the projected top five for 2017.

Without Brown, Mitchell and Ofodile would see increased roles. Ofodile caught one pass for eight yards last season while Mitchell had two receptions for nine yards, but did display skills as a punt returner last in the season.