Donte Pimpleton

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Running back drills during Oregon's spring practices have been a bit light on the running backs. 

Senior Royce Freeman, redshirt senior Kani Benoit, and redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James have been the only three going through drills under new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton in what appears to be a thin crew of familiar faces. But appearances can be deceiving. The Ducks remain very much stacked at the position regardless of the overall numbers. And the group is as close as ever.

“We’re like brothers,” Freeman said.

Oregon's running game should look quite familiar next season in new coach Willie Taggart's no-huddle offense, but there will be more of an emphasis in running straight ahead (downhill) and being physical, both along the offensive line and for ballcarriers, especially the 235-pound Freeman.

Taggart, who has reviewed all of last season's game film, said he believes Freeman must run behind his pads better. Meaning, he must be more physical and allow his size and pad level to go through defenders rather than provide tackling angles that benefit defenders. The same points were made about Freeman under former running backs coach Gary Campbell. But in the team's old system, the running game relied a bit more on finesse than this new system under co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, who came to Oregon from power-running Alabama. 

Cristobal wants the offensive line to be more physical and has added some downhill running plays to Taggart's offensive scheme that the new run game coordinator wants to see Freeman exploit with his size and strength by delivering "body blows," similar to wearing down an opponent in boxing. 

“Come the fourth quarter, your yards per carry and your knockdowns you have, your trunk yardage plays and explosive plays should increase by a significant amount,” Cristobal said. "We want to make it so by the fourth quarter people don’t want to tackle Royce Freeman.”

Or, any other running back on the team for that matter. Cristobal said the entire group has shown toughness this spring. 

“You want to be around guys that enjoy collisions,” Cristobal said. “That search and seek opportunities to be physical and to be tough and to establish a mindset.”

Oregon's depth at running back will receive a jolt next fall. Junior Taj Griffin, who injured his knee late last season, could return at some point, or he could redshirt to save the year of eligibility. Either way, the Ducks will also welcome in freshmen running backs, C.J. Verdell and Darrian Felix. Cyrus Habibi-Likio could also play running back but is expected to start out on the defensive side of the ball. 

So, depth shouldn't be an issue. Then again, does a team really need more than Freeman, Benoit and Brooks-James to be successful? Not likely.

“You know you’re gong to get the same type of talent level [no matter who is] going in,” Benoit said. “There’s not going to be a drop off.”

Freeman said the group was reminiscing the other day about having been together for so long. Benoit will enter his fifth season at UO while Freeman and Brooks-James enter their fourth. The bond among the group, Freeman, said is strong. Benoit said that sense of brotherhood trumps any potential hard feelings about playing time. 

“We all feed off each other," Benoit said. "We all try to make each other better."

Pimpleton, Benoit said, has been working out well and in some ways is like Campbell in how he relates to the players.

“Really calm, but he gets his point across,” Benoit said. “We accept that well. He’s not a yelling coach, he’s not a berating coach. He tells you what you need to do, if not then you’ll come to the sideline. He’ll just waive you over.”

Pimpleton, who along with other assistant coaches who aren't coordinators hasn't been made available for interviews this spring, is putting a heavy emphasis on running backs learning to recognize defenses and fully understand the blocking schemes. 

"That helps us run a lot better knowing where our lanes are and where the holes are going to be," Benoit said. 

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's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

The Oregon defense, which ranked 128th in the nation last season, will receive some extra tender love and care under new coach Willie Taggart.

During a lengthy one-on-one interview this week that will air later this month on CSN, Taggart said that special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie has recently been handed the extra assignment of also coaching outside linebackers. That will leave defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to coach only the inside linebackers instead of the entire linebacker crew. 

Oregon already has two defensive backs coaches with Keith Heyward handling safeties and Charles Clark directing the cornerbacks. 

Assistant head coach Joe Salave'a will coach the defensive line. 

The reason for the use of multiple coaches at two different position groups on defense is simple. Taggart said the defensive side of the ball needs more work in the areas of development and communication, a big issue for Oregon the past two seasons when the defense ranked among the worst in the nation. 

The decision to have two defensive backs coaches, something Leavitt used as the defensive coordinator in Colorado before Oregon hired him away during the offseason, is to increase communication within a group that is spread out all over the field. Plus, the group must communicate coverages with the linebackers. 

"We're trying to create a synergy throughout the defense," Taggart said.

Teaching a new defense to what was a very young group last year with just one senior starter will be challenging. Having two defensive back coaches working to make sure there is at least proper communication will help accelerate the growth process, Taggart hopes. 

"It's a lot easier if guys have two coaches back there," Taggart said. 

The same could happen with the linebackers. Oregon will have seven linebackers that are going to be either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Getting them up to speed as fast as possible could make all the difference next season, but especially by 2018 when four out of that group will likely make up the starting lineup. 

While the defense will have five full-time coaches handling position groups, the offense will have four. Co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal will take on the running game and the offensive line. Co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo will handle the passing game, quarterbacks and tight ends with the help of a graduate assistant. Michael Johnson will coach wide receivers and Donte Pimpleton will handle the running backs. 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - RBs: Royce Freeman's return means Ducks remain loaded

Oregon 2017 Outlook - RBs: Royce Freeman's return means Ducks remain loaded

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: Quarterbacks; Tight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Running backs.

Key loss: None. 

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210), Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

What we know: Freeman's return was not required for Oregon to remain potent at this position but having him back certainly gives new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton less to worry about in 2017.

Freeman, should he remain healthy, will likely break LaMichael James' career rushing mark of 5,082 yards. Freeman, who has 4,148 for his career, needs 934 yards to tie James.

What might be more intriguing than watching Freeman chase history is seeing how Brooks-James evolves as a player. He showed flashes of elite ability last season while filling in for an injured Freeman to the point where he became the primary ball carrier in several games, even starting at USC. Had Freeman entered the NFL Draft, next season would have been Brooks-James' time to shine as the starter, but he should still receive enough carries to surpass the 771 yards he racked up last season on 7.6 per carry. Brooks-James will likely be the featured back in 2018 should he stick around for his senior season. 

Benoit, like Brooks-James, has shown abilities worthy of a starter but he won't get that chance with Freeman's return. Nevertheless, Benoit (300 yards last season) gives Oregon a starting-caliber running back off the bench. 

What we don't know: Griffin was lost for the season with a knee injury in early November. He should be able to recover by the start of next season, but where he fits in as a specialty back in Taggart's offense remains to be seen. Chances are Griffin settles back into his role of receiving spot carries in the hopes he breaks a long one, as he did with a 50-yard touchdown run at Nebraska last season. 

UO has two running backs committed to the 2017 class. Both should plan on redshirting behind this group. 

Final word: This position carries with it the least amount of mystery on the team. Pimpleton should have the easiest transition out of all of Oregon's new assistant coaches.  

Position grade: A. Oregon should lead the conference in rushing once again.  

Next up: Tight ends.

Oregon to hire Donte Pimpleton as running backs coach

Oregon to hire Donte Pimpleton as running backs coach

Oregon football coach Willie Taggart is starting to pull from his former coaching staff at South Florida, beginning with the hiring of running backs coach Donte Pimpleton to serve in the same role with the Ducks, a source has confirmed. 

The news was first reported by Fox Sports

Pimpleton will replace Gary Campbell, who coached UO running backs for 34 years under Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and the recently fired, Mark Helfrich. 

New head coach Willie Taggart and Pimpleton have deep ties.  Both played football at Western Kentucky where Pimpleton later coached under Taggart as the offensive quality control coach (2010-2011) and as the wide receivers coach (2012). 

Taggart coached at Western Kentucky from 2010 through 2012 before taking over South Florida. Pimpleton then moved over the Kentucky Wesleyan for two seasons (2013-2014) and then to Delaware State (2015) before rejoining Taggart at USF for the 2016 season. 

Pimpleton played quarterback and receiver at Western Kentucky from 1997 through 2001. Taggart played quarterback there from 1994 through 1998. 

Pimpleton becomes the third new coach at Oregon under Taggart, joining defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and wide receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty.