EUGENE — Oregon’s decision-makers chose continuity over change in December by promoting offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to the football program’s vacant corner office. A few weeks later, they locked down defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt for a second year, as well.
Those winter decisions are paying off in the dead of summer as UO nears the midway point of preseason practice.
“We’ve gained ground because of familiarity,” Cristobal said following Tuesday’s practice at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. “We feel we are farther ahead.”
A year ago under Willie Taggart’s brand-new staff, it took until the 13th or 14th practice until the offensive and defensive playbooks were installed, Cristobal recalled. But with experience gained last fall carrying over into this coming season, UO’s installation has finished at least half a week earlier.
That has allowed for more repetition and competition, both of which were evident Tuesday.
Cristobal, who still has a hands-on role coaching the offensive line despite his role as head coach, made changes by inserting freshman Penei Sewell at right tackle and Alabama graduate transfer Dallas Warmack at right guard on the first-team line, and moved Calvin Throckmorton a typically a right tackle his entire UO career a to left tackle and center. As that first-team line trotted onto the field alongside receivers Johnny Johnson Jr., Jaylon Redd and Dillon Mitchell and running back Tony Brooks-James, Nike co-founder and UO mega-booster Phil Knight watched from the sideline.
“The good thing is we’ve got plenty of guys who can step into that job,” quarterback Justin Herbert said. “I’ve got confidence with the 10th guy just as much as with the first guy.”
The Ducks rarely varied from the same rotation along the line last season, per the wishes of Taggart: left tackle Tyrell Crosby, left guard Shane Lemieux, center Jake Hanson, right guard Jake Pisarcik and Throckmorton at right tackle. But now Crosby and Pisarcik have graduated and Cristobal is introducing a more liberal rotation that hews closer to his personal philosophy of line play.
“Cranking up the heat on the offensive line, that’s all it is and that’s the way it should be,” Cristobal said. “We want to see what the best combination is. We still have several days to experiment with that. I think it also gives those guys an opportunity and you have to a you have to find out who can do it and if they’re not quite there you have to find a way how you’re going to develop them.”
The practice was UO’s first since holding its first of three preseason scrimmages on Sunday. Herbert said there were “little things” that held back UO’s offense but Cristobal called himself pleased overall despite seeing more penalties than hoped.
“We got to see a lot of guys in a lot of different situations and what we found out about our football team is we play with better effort and we’re executing better,” he said. “We need more guys to get above the line, we need more guys we feel we can win a championship with. We’re grinding on that, we’re going to keep doing that.
“We’re going to keep shuffling guys around until we feel like we can play two guys, be a true two-deep at each position. That being said both sides of the ball had their moment.”
Throughout this month nearly every coach has offered caveats with their assessment of the Ducks. But UO’s continuity has offered glimpses into its potential, too. The defense, once a sieve during quarterback Justin Herbert’s first season, has benefited most.
“They’re going to be a lot better this year,” Herbert said.
The same could be said of Herbert, who has held a starting role since midway through his freshman season but is looking to play an entire season for the first time now as a junior. A three-sport athlete growing up in Eugene, he has been fully focused on football since arriving in college and the single-sport focus has paid off.
“We’re seeing the best of Justin Herbert to date,” Cristobal said.
Behind Herbert, reserve sophomore Braxton Burmeister “got a little bit ahead” of true freshman Tyler Shough on Tuesday but Cristobal cautioned a again a that it’s too early to call a definitive leader for the backup job.
Cristobal has made no secret that he wants to build his program around a cornerstone of physicality, and he called himself pleased with what was shown in Sunday’s scrimmage. UO will drill it again Wednesday with drills designed to simulate short-yardage and goal-line scenarios.
“We have to get in that mentality of look, situational football is technique, it’s execution, but it’s also physicality,” he said.