Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State
Just how good can the offense be?
A potential first-round NFL draft pick returning at QB? Check.
Two running backs returning who combined for over 1,700 yards and 14 touchdowns? Check.
The entire starting offensive line back? Check.
Things look really good for Oregon’s offense heading into the 2019 season. Ten of the Ducks’ 11 starters in 2018 return for Mario Cristobal’s second season as head coach. Though it’s worth noting that Oregon’s offense was actually slightly worse in 2018 than it was in 2017, when QB Justin Herbert missed five games.
Oregon’s total yards per play were down. The team’s completion percentage fell by over six points. And the rushing offense dropped off in the first full season of offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s offense. The Ducks averaged just 4.4 yards per carry in 2018. To put that into context, Oregon hadn’t averaged fewer than 5 yards a carry for a season since 2005.
With C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye back in 2019, Oregon’s ground game won’t reach the heights it did in the Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich heyday. But with a healthy and physically revamped offensive line, it should be formidable.
The line had lost nearly a total of 40 pounds in July in an effort to get quicker and stronger.
“Some of the bigger guys that were more — I wouldn't say that they're a project — but their body weights and body comps were projects,” Cristobal said at Pac-12 media day. “We've done an extraordinary amount of work just changing their body comp so we can build them to their optimal playing weight. We treat them like prize fighters. Guys fight their best at a certain weight. We've identified that weight. We did the reducing part of it; now we start the climb back up.”
Herbert the Heisman contender?
Herbert’s junior season was far from bad. He was 240-of-404 passing for 3,151 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions. At 6-6 and over 230 pounds with a strong arm, Herbert makes NFL scouts drool.
But Herbert’s numbers in 2017 were better. He completed far more of his passes — over 67 percent — and averaged nearly two more yards per attempt (9.6 to 7.8).
If Herbert’s production is similar to what it was in 2017, then the sky is the limit for both Oregon’s offense and his Heisman and NFL draft hopes. Though he’ll have to post the stellar numbers without his No. 1 target from 2018.
The only starter not back on Oregon’s offense is wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, a really big piece of the offense last year. Mitchell had 75 catches for 1,184 yards and 10 scores. No other Oregon receiver had more than 38 catches, 433 yards or five touchdowns.
Losing Mitchell is a big deal. Another big deal for 2019 could be the remaining receivers’ ability to cut down on drops. Those drops were a large reason why the passing attack wasn’t as good in 2018. And Cristobal said the team focused on that during the spring.
“Well, we had, I think it was, 50-plus drops. Led the country,” Cristobal said. “I blame myself. I blame us as coaches. We should've done a better job teaching it. Catching the football is still a technique, a fundamental, and we can enhance that if we teach it the right way.”
Cristobal said new receivers coach Jovon Bouknight has “enhanced” the players’ technique for catching the ball.
“We reduced the number of drops by almost 80 percent during spring ball,” Cristobal said.
If the drops, err, drop in 2019, Herbert’s stats will certainly benefit. And Heisman voters could take notice.
What to expect from Kayvon Thibodeaux
Oregon scored the recruiting coup of the 2019 class when it got the signature of five-star DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 1 weakside defensive end and the No. 6 prospect in the country.
Thibodeaux chose Oregon over Alabama.
“You know, even when he made his announcement and I saw all those people sitting there in crimson, I was like, I don't know, that's not a good look for us right now,” Cristobal, a former Alabama assistant, said. “But we felt strongly that he had a great experience at Oregon. We felt extremely good about the fact that he connected with us on a personal level as well as his opportunity level.”
That opportunity should come pretty quickly. Oregon expects Thibodeaux to contribute right away and he could open the season as a starter on the defensive line.
Thibodeaux has freshman All-America potential and could join two returning starters on the defensive line. Asking him to replace the sack production of Justin Hollins (6.5 sacks) is a bit much in 2019, but Thibodeaux should be a guy who helps Oregon get more than the 29 sacks it tallied in 2018.
Biggest game: at Stanford (Sept. 21)
Stanford’s dramatic 38-31 overtime win at Oregon was the biggest moment of the 2018 season for the Ducks. Oregon blew a 24-7 lead, somehow failed to run out the clock late in the game and then lost on a circus catch in the extra period. We won’t go any deeper than that to save Oregon fans the pain of reliving that game.
The win was the third straight for Stanford over Oregon. The Ducks haven’t won against the Cardinal since 2015. A fourth straight win for Stanford hurts Oregon’s Pac-12 North hopes significantly. Oregon also has to travel to Washington and USC.
LB Troy Dye
Dye has quietly become one of the best linebackers in the country and is back for his senior season. He posted 91 total tackles in just 10 games as a freshman and has tallied over 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons. He led the Ducks with 115 tackles in 2018 and also had six tackles for loss and seven pass breakups.
Simply put, he’s the most irreplaceable member of Oregon’s defense. He’s the only returning linebacker on the defense and will be vital to the Ducks’ Pac-12 hopes in 2019. If Dye has even more tackles in 2019 — 121, to be exact — he’ll pass Tom Graham as the school’s all-time tackles leader.
Biggest question mark
From A.J. Jacobson of Rivals’ DuckSportsAuthority.com: Probably the biggest question for the Ducks heading into 2019 is filling out the two-deep at wide receiver. Last season the passing game largely went through Dillon Mitchell, who single-handedly accounted for a third of the teams’ total air attack but is now gone to the NFL.
The list of candidates is long and includes veterans like Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson III, and newcomers like Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson and a trio of talented redshirt freshmen and a quartet of touted true freshmen. Following Oregon’s first fall camp scrimmage, Cristobal said he saw significant improvement at the position over last season.
Duck Sports Authority’s breakout player
WR Jaylon Redd
Redd is ready for a breakout season. Largely in the shadow of Dillon Mitchell in 2018, the shifty speedster was impressive in spring camp and has carried it into the fall. Redd had 38 catches for 433 yards and five TDs in 2018.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
QB Justin Herbert
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: Herbert has an excellent chance to enter this season as the 2020 QB1 for many teams — and remain there following a strong senior season. His 2018 tape didn’t match the hype of 2017, but Herbert’s arrow remains pointed upward even with a poor finish down the stretch. He simply wasn’t meshing with receivers not named Dillon Mitchell most of last season, and that certainly will have to change with Mitchell off to the NFL.
The addition of Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson should help, and Herbert will be operating behind one of the better offensive lines in college football this season. Still, there’s a worry that viable receiving threats will be hard to come by this season. WR Brenden Schooler’s foot injury — he’s expected to miss six to eight weeks — means the Ducks have only two healthy receivers to start the season who have caught more than one pass from Herbert (Johnny Johnson and Jaylon Redd). TEs Jacob Breeland and Cam McCormick can help, as should freshman WR Mycah Pittman, who looks to be an immediate contributor.
But scouts also factor in all the dropped passes from a year ago and see a rare specimen in Herbert. At this point, given his experience, size, arm talent and high character, it would be a surprise if he’s not one of the first names off the board next April barring a disastrous final season.
WR Juwan Johnson
The Penn State transfer could end up starting right away and he’s really not much of a sleeper. But there are a lot of targets that went toward Mitchell that have to go somewhere else in 2019. And Johnson’s a good bet to get a lot of them. If he’s available as you’re filling out your bench, you can do a lot worse.
We have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our rankings, so we have to give the Ducks the edge in the season-opener. That leaves two losses on the schedule the rest of the way. The easy choice for those two games are the road games at Stanford and Washington. But that would put Oregon behind via tiebreaker in the North. We think the Ducks beat Stanford. So let’s go with the over.
– – – – – – –
Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
More from Yahoo Sports: