Jake Pisarcik

Oregon's offensive line could be considered the greatest in program history by season's end

Oregon's offensive line could be considered the greatest in program history by season's end

EUGENE - Oregon's offensive line should be a wrecking crew in 2017. 

When it's all said and done, this group could be considered the greatest in program history. The line's combination of size, strength, agility and tenacity across the board is unmatched by any previous Ducks line. It's so good, that the line could be the unit that transforms the Ducks from fledgling bowl team to one that could actually challenge in the Pac-12 North Division. 

“I think it all starts up front and if there is one position group on this football team that’s very solid and together and I’m really excited about, it’s the offensive line,” UO coach Willie Taggart said.

The Ducks return four redshirt sophomores who saw starts last year.  Center Jake Hanson, guard Shane Lemieux and tackle Calvin Throckmorton each started 12 games. Tackle Brady Aiello saw 10 starts. Most importantly, UO returns senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby, the team's best offensive lineman who missed 10 games last season mostly due to a broken foot. Toss in senior Jake Pisarcik, who played in six games and will compete to start at guard, and senior backups Doug Brenner and Evan Voeller and the Ducks have a loaded group to work with.

“There’s so many guys that we can plug in there and I’ve got complete confidence in all of them,” sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “They’ve done a great job this offseason and they really know what they are doing.”

They experienced some great lessons last year and came out looking pretty good. Consider that the Ducks, despite running back Royce Freeman have a down season due to injuries, finished second in Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (226.4) and tied for the conference lead with Arizona in yards per attempt (5.5).

Not bad. But there was tons of room for growth. 

“I think we’re going to be tons better," Lemieux said. "Just looking at film from last fall camp to this last spring, it’s just like a total different offensive line.”

Different in size, strength, techniques and smarts. 

The Ducks line has increased its strength and bulk, going from about a 290-pound average to 310. The added physicality will be needed to operate in a new rushing attack. Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has installed a more physical attack based on what he did as line coach at Alabama and Taggart's schemes. 

Oregon wants to be more downhill in its attack. Straight ahead. Powerful. Tough. They will still get to the edges, which the previous scheme lived off of, but the new attack wants to enforce its will on opponents. The change in attitude takes time to build. 

"We're getting there," Cristobal said. "I wouldn't trade these guys for anything...You see the power...When you have a backfield like we have you can't help be excited to come off the ball and knock people back."

The trick is to build that depth through competition. 

"You can't let them feel comfortable," Cristobal said. "If they played to a certain standard then that standard has got to be higher...You're going to need depth. And you're going to need someone at some point in time to step in, or at some point in time be better than what's being done."

Unity and synergy are also important. Crosby acted as a mentor last year while sidelined. Now he is a leader and likes how the group has gelled. 

“We’ve all really grown together,“ Crosby said.

That, and experience, should lead to better communication. Last year, Herbert, playing as a freshman quarterback, sometimes had trouble communicating checks with such a young line. A season together, and a strong offseason complete with team bonding should make on-field communication more efficient. 

“When we see something that we don’t like we can change the play and we’re all on the same page,” Herbert said. “Last year, just five or six guys coming together that haven’t played much together communication stuff wasn’t great but having a year with them has been awesome. We’re so comfortable together that if Jake says something we know we are all going to follow him.”

Last season ended on a negative note for the Ducks. They led at Oregon State in the second half before the rains came. The passing game went down hill while OSU began to pound its running game at a weak Oregon defense. The Ducks' running game never answered. Oregon won 34-24. 

“There’s obviously some freshman mistakes that shouldn’t have been there by the end of the season” Lemieux said.

But that was then. This is now. 

“Our play has changed a lot," Lemieux said. "Our demeanor has changed a lot. Where last year I can look back and early in the season our strength wasn’t up to par as it should have been. There were some technique issues that shouldn’t have been happening that late in the season. Definitely I think the freshmen mistakes are obviously out the window.”

And that's bad news for opposing defenses. 

Mario Cristobal eager to mold Ducks' young linemen

Mario Cristobal eager to mold Ducks' young linemen

Oregon's offense will have a similar feel to what fans have grown accustomed to seeing at Autzen Stadium the past 12 years, but the goal is to accomplish the same potency with a different level of size and toughness. 

Ducks co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Mario Cristobal came to Oregon after spending the past four seasons as the offensive line coach at Alabama. The Crimson tide offensive lines have been built to bulldoze opponents while the Ducks have used a bit more finesse while running their spread offense, whether coaches ever wanted to admit that, or not. 

On Wednesday, when the Ducks began spring drills, Cristobal said he looked forward to infusing some of what he did in a pro-style offense at Alabama under coach Nick Saban with what Oregon's plans will be under new head coach Willie Taggart who employs a spread offense. 

“It was an incredible four years [at Alabama],” Cristobal said. “You learn everything from regimen to structure, practice planning, how to look ahead and schedule out an entire year for the pitfalls that come with certain phases of football. I’m certainly bringing everything over here and applying it as it fits to coach Taggart’s plan. That’s the most important thing."

Cristobal takes over a line that helped the Ducks finish second in the Pac-12 in rushing offense with four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen leading the way. The Ducks return redshirt sophomores, Jake Hanson, Brady Aiello, Calvin Throckmorton and Shane Lemieux, along with senior Tyrell Crosby (injured most of last season) and redshirt senior guard Jake Pisarcik, who started at guard before and after Crosby went down.

That's quite a group, but it's one that Taggart said needs a lot of work in order to meet his standards for strength and attention to detail. Cristobal indicated about the same.  

“This is a development game and the offensive line is probably the most significant development position in terms of, it takes a little bit longer,” Cristobal said. 

His enthusiasm about molding this group was obvious. 

“I don’t want to use clichés but I’m jumping out of my skin right now,” he said.

Cristobal said he came to Oregon for the opportunity to be a coordinator at a great program and to work with Taggart. 

“I think coach Taggart has infused juice into the program," he said. "Players have bought in.”

Cristobal added that he likes Taggart's philosophies on building young men, maintaining great attention to detail and creating good people who can win. 

“We’re in the people industry," Cristobal said. "In my opinion, this game is played from the inside out...We want to make sure we do the best by our players as student athletes, as players."

The overall goal, he said, is to get Oregon back to where it was before the coaching changes made after a 4-8 season a year ago. 

“Oregon football has been outstanding for a long, long time," Cristobal said. "There’s been several great things accomplished here….Like I tell everywhere I’ve been; we’re borrowing these jerseys, we’re borrowing these coaching hats. It’s our responsibility, our obligation to raise the standard, to elevate the standard, to uphold the legacy. That’s our job.”

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 4 - Offensive line shuffling

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 4 - Offensive line shuffling

College football is back! The Ducks begin fall camp on Monday so we're breaking down each position to determine if the Ducks, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, and their fans will be smelling roses as Pac-12 champs during a trip to the Rose Bowl, or placing bets at a roulette table prior to watching a sixth-place UO team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Each position is graded using the poker hand scale.  

Today: Offensive line. 

Projected starters: Junior left tackle Tyrell Crosby (6-5, 310), junior left guard Jake Pisarcik (6-2, 300), redshirt freshman center Jake Hanson (6-5, 288), redshirt freshman right guard Shane Lemieux (6-6, 310), senior right tackle Cameron Hunt (6-4, 295). 

Key backups: Senior-transfer tackle Zac Morgan (6-7, 280), redshirt freshman center Zach Okun (6-4, 310), redshirt freshman tackle Calvin Throckmorton (6-6, 290), redshirt junior guard Doug Brenner (6-2, 305), junior tackle Evan Voeller (6-5, 295).

Smelling like roses: The line certainly will be solid, at least. Crosby replaces Tyler Johnstone at left tackle while Hunt replaces Crosby at right tackle. Matt Pierson was a great story last season, but he should be adequately replaced by Pisarcik. The right-guard spot might be filled by the promising Lemiux. Center, left vacant by the departure of Matt Hegarty, could fall to Hanson, who has never played center in his life, but drew great praise during spring drills. If he is the next Hroniss Grasu, the Ducks will be in business. If not... the rest of the line could begin to ravel just a bit.

However, there is a wild card in all of this. Morgan, a transfer from Dayton where he started at both tackle spots, could easily slide into the right tackle position, which would keep Hunt at right guard. If that happens, the Ducks would have just one huge question mark along the line and that would be at center. 

Place your bets: Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood worked his magic last season while producing a very good mix after losing Grasu and Jake Fisher to the NFL. He might have more talent to work with this time around. But will it jell right away? The Ducks brought in Hegarty because they believed they needed to fill the hole left by the departure of Grasu. This time around they feel good about a young replacement at center. But he is young. If he proves to be a year away from truly being ready, the Ducks' offensive line could be weaker, leading to an offense that won't quite be championship-caliber. 

Odds are: The inclination is to believe that Greatwood will find the right mix, as he usually does. The addition of Morgan at right tackle would allow everything else to fall into place nice and neatly. 

Poker hand: Three of a kind. This group has a chance to be very good, but at the very least should be solid.  

Next up: Defensive line.  

Other posts: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers/Tight ends; Defensive line; Linebackers; Defensive backs.