The new era, and new energy of Oregon football: 5 takeaways from the Ducks spring game

·7 min read

The opening kickoff at the Oregon Ducks’ annual spring game on Saturday took place at 1:09 p.m.

By 1:10 p.m., there was an energy spreading throughout the crowd at Autzen Stadium that hasn’t been felt for the better part of a decade.

We knew that Dan Lanning, Kenny Dillingham, Tosh Lupoi, and the new-look Oregon coaching staff were going to want to make a good first impression, but it’s hard to imagine them getting off to a better start than they did. On the first play from scrimmage, QB Bo Nix dropped a dime to WR Seven McGee, who was streaking through the secondary. The play went for 70 yards, and a touchdown from McGee two plays later capped off a thrilling opening drive.

A new era of Duck football had officially begun.

With that new era came a new energy. That energy has been present before Saturday’s scrimmage, heating up to a boil for weeks, if not months, now. It’s an energy that has caused waves on the recruiting trail, all while making an effort to incorporate Oregon history into the present-day actions of the team and the program.

This wasn’t just your annual spring game — it was the start of a new brand of football in Eugene. A fun brand of football. A brand of football that isn’t afraid to take shots downfield on the opening snap, or run double-pass jet-sweeps multiple times in the same game. It features a group of head coaches that have youth on their side, but NFL experience and know-how. It’s centered around a team that may be unproven on the national scale but has the tools to compete and the belief that they can.

I’ve been to a number of Oregon spring games in my life, and I can’t quite remember walking away from any with the feeling that I did on Saturday afternoon.

That feeling was excitement, both for what I had just seen, and what we are going to see next. Here are a couple of notes on what the Ducks showed on Saturday:

A new and improved Oregon offense

After every game, at Ducks Wire we usually single out a player who had the best game, giving him our Most Valuable Player trophy for the day. It was incredibly hard to choose after the spring game, and that feels like a blessing after the numerous weeks during the 2021 season where we contemplated whether or not it was Travis Dye or Anthony Brown who ‘wowed’ us the most.

On Saturday, Oregon’s offense was explosive, and it brought back memories of the Chip Kelly-era Ducks. That’s not to say that it was a hurry-up, beat you to the ball style, but it was rather a scheme that took chances, and wasn’t afraid to stretch the field.

In all, the two sides combined for 611 yards of total offense and 52 points. There were more than enough turnovers — 5 to be exact — but that’s something that comes with offseason football.

More importantly, there were a total of 5 explosion plays (35+ yards gained) by my calculation, which may be the most in a single game for the Ducks in I don’t know how long.

“We probably took more shots today than I think we’ve taken in any spring game combined,” Forsyth said. “It was cool to see.”

That’s what this Oregon offense is now. Kenny Dillingham, Dan Lanning, and every player we’ve talked to so far this spring have said it, but we had to wait until Saturday to finally see it.

I think most of the Oregon fan base believes now.

DJ Johnson headlines depleted defensive line

Photo by Ethan Landa

The Ducks were without a number of starting defenders on Saturday, particularly when it came to the defensive line. Guys like Brandon Dorlus, Popo Aumavae, and Keyon Ware-Hudson all sat on the sideline in street clothes, which is something we’ve seen throughout the spring.

That didn’t stop the defensive line from making a statement, though.

It’s hard not to talk endlessly about DJ Johnson here. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, he may win the trophy for most intimidating player on the field, and his game certainly lives up to it. He was everywhere on the field Saturday, leading both teams with 7 total tackles, as well as 5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Those are incredible numbers.

When you think about a healthy unit up front, throwing in guys like Sam Taimani, Treven Ma’ae, and eventually Ben Roberts, what Oregon is able to do up-front in the trenches is scary. We saw a glimpse of it on Saturday with the Predator going to work, and it was enough to get some high hopes for September.

An up-and-down QB room

I don’t think any of Oregon’s three quarterbacks are going to leave Saturday’s scrimmage thinking they played as well as they could. There were certainly some bright moments — Bo Nix threw for 3 touchdowns, two of which went for 35-plus yards — but a lot of things to clean up. All together, the group threw 4 total interceptions — Ty Thompson had two — and was sacked 9 times.

It’s unfair to ask any QB room to play a perfect game in the spring while dealing with a new coaching staff and trying to learn a new offense. However, it’s clear after the scrimmage that the Ducks still have a ways to go before they can feel 100% confident in any guy that they throw out there under center.

Oregon's history of playmaking RBs continues

Photo by Ethan Landa

It’s believed that the Ducks have a three-headed monster in the RB room heading into the summer, with Byron Cardwell, Sean Dollars, and Noah Whittington expected to lead the way. Cardwell was unavailable to play on Saturday, leaving Dollars and Whittington to shoulder the load.

They certainly took the opportunity and ran with it.

Whittington — a transfer from Western Kentucky University — had the best day on the stat-sheet, running 11 times for 84 yards and a touchdown. However, don’t let that convince you that he was leagues better than Dollars, who had 8 rushes for 49 yards. The pair did a lot to impress the fans in attendance, and while the day was more dedicated to showing how prolific Oregon’s passing game could be, we absolutely saw enough to believe that the Ducks’ rushing game won’t miss much of a beat, even a season after losing CJ Verdell and Travis Dye.

A completely stacked WR room

Good lord, do the Ducks have some incredible firepower and depth at the wide receiver position.

Both Seven McGee and Dont’e Thornton led the WR room in total yards today — 116 apiece — but the way in which they dominated the game was something that we haven’t seen from a pair Ducks in a while. McGee started the day with his 70-yard reception from Nix, and then capped it off with a one-handed TD catch 2 plays later. Thornton was a regular in the endzone, with TD catches of 39 and 70 yards from Nix as well.

On top of that, you have veteran transfer Chase Cota having a breakout game in front of his home-state crowd, hauling in 6 catches for 100 yards. What was more impressive about Cota’s performance was the fact that 3-4 of his receptions came on 50-50 balls in traffic where he had to go up and fight a defender for the grab.

While those three led the way, guys like Troy Franklin (36 yards, 1 TD), Terrance Ferguson (48 yards), and Moliki Matavao (43 yards) also had great performances as well.

We know that the Ducks are going to try hard to spread the ball down the field this season, and if we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that they absolutely have the receiving depth to get the job done.

1

1