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Oregon Football

Torres' Take: Big News for Oregon Football

January 15, 2020

Welcome back to Torres’ Take. It’s been a pretty big news week, what with four juniors announcing their NFL decisions and a key coaching addition. 

As we shift to the 2020, I also want to take a look back at some of the biggest surprises from Oregon’s Rose Bowl championship season and look ahead to what this year’s team might accomplish. 

Joe Moorhead 

The Ducks have landed their new play caller in the former Mississippi State head coach. 

Moorhead has an impressive track record, with average points per game increasing significantly during each of his stops. He met his match, however, in Starkville, where team turmoil and a 14-12 record led to his departure after just two seasons. 

The Oregon job will allow him to return his focus to developing the offense, recruiting and player development, areas where he excelled in two years at Penn State. The former Akron and Connecticut OC is likely to add some wrinkles and refinements to the Ducks’ power spread offense, but don't expect any wholesale scheme changes. 

Moorhead’s experience coaching quarterbacks (Trace McSorley set most of the Nittany Lions’ career passing records under his tutelage) will be crucial as Oregon moves to replace Justin Herbert. He will oversee a position room that features redshirt sophomore Tyler Shough, redshirt freshman Cale Millen, incoming 4-star Jay Butterfield (who just enrolled) and prep all-American Robby Ashford. 

Draft Eligible Juniors Return  

The Ducks won another major recruiting battle this week when juniors Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir, Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott all elected to return to Eugene for their senior seasons. 

Retaining those four defensive starters certainly will minimize the holes the staff needs to fill this fall. Defensive Coordinator Andy Avalos now returns the vast majority of his two-deep, which will gain some major talent with the addition of the 5-star linebacker duo of Noah Sewell (already enrolled) and Justin Flowe, who is expected to arrive in March. 

Oregon will likely boast the strongest defense in the Pac-12 once again. And that should give the team some leeway as it transitions offensively and faces a brutal September schedule.  

5 players who surpassed expectations 

Kayvon Thibodeaux: How could I not put him on this list? I know there were great expectations for the nation’s top recruit, but it’s still hard to believe that he was as successful as he was as a true freshman. 
Nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss is a very impressive stat line -- and to think he was a part-timer in August. But as he got more comfortable in the system and adapted to the speed of the college game, the staff soon realized he needed to be on the field as much as possible. 

As evidence of his development, you need look no further than his punt block that probably should’ve been a house call in the Pac-12 championship. We haven’t really seen a pure rusher like this at Oregon since DeForest Buckner, who had 10.5 sacks in 2015 -- and that was a 6-7, 300-pound hoss who just might play in the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks. 

By contrast, Thibodeaux is a svelte 6-5, 240-pounder who relies more on his natural speed. KT is a perfect example of Mario Cristobal making the most out of the elite of the elite that the West Coast has to offer. 

I’d be shocked if Thibs isn’t a full-time starter as a sophomore. And like many of you, I expect him to achieve his personal goal 10 sacks and continue haunting Pac-12 offensive lines. 

Verone McKinley: Unlike the more-heralded Thibodeaux, McKinley flew largely under the radar entering 2019. A former 3-star recruit from Carrollton (Texas), the redshirt freshman was an early enrollee who spent 2018 learning the Oregon system. 

McKinley, who played mostly free safety in all 14 games this season, developed into just what the Ducks need -- another ballhawk in the secondary to work alongside Jevon Holland and Co. He joined Thibodeaux as a freshman all-American, making the Ducks the only school to have two defensive players selected. 

Mykael Wright: Here’s another big-name recruit, yet I was blown away by the season Wright had as he adjusted quickly to the college level. 

What I still can’t get over is that he didn’t play A SINGLE SNAP in his senior year of high school. Transferring schools always presents challenges, but he certainly didn’t let that missed time hamper his transition. 

We knew he was wasn’t going to redshirt after his performance in the Spring Game, when he made an unreal interception of Tyler Shough’s late-game Hail Mary. Wright made his impact felt both in the cornerback rotation and particularly on special teams, housing kickoffs against USC in his home town and Oregon State in the Civil War. 

Wright joins Oregon legends Jonathan Stewart and LaMichael James in having two kick-return touchdowns in the same season, and his runback against the Trojans was the second longest in school history. His accomplishments earned him all-Pac-12 honorable mention at both kick returner and cornerback. 

Wright finished his true freshman season with 21 total tackles and 1 interception in 11 games. Oregon fans should be salivating in anticipation of him playing alongside future NFL draft picks Graham and Lenoir.  

CJ Verdell: This pick might surprise some people, and I was hesitant to put him on the list at first. Oregon’s top running back followed up a redshirt freshman campaign that saw him rush for 1,018 yards and catch passes for another 315 yards with an impressive 2019: 1,220 yards and 6.2 yards per carry 

That’s not to say I didn’t think he could do it this year, especially behind that beast of an offensive line. But with his history of injuries, I was uncertain how much he would play. 

Verdell was banged up for much of the season, leading him to disappear at times. But then he would turn in crazy performance like his 257-yard, 3 touchdown break-out against Washington State. 

It might still be too early to anoint Verdell a four-year bell cow along the lines of Royce Freeman. And maybe he doesn’t need to be, given the presence of such talented young runners as Travis Dye, Sean Dollars and the incoming Trey Benson. 

What I can say is Verdell’s versatility will be a huge plus moving forward. I think Moorhead would be wise to utilize his pass-catching ability more often next season. 

Johnny Johnson: The junior wide receiver simply had a career year in 2019. 

I remember following Johnson’s recruitment as a member of the class of 2017, when he was committed to UNLV for a time. Then he gets an offer from Oregon, and just a few short days later he flipped to the Ducks. 

Johnson struggled with drops as a sophomore. But this season he displayed some of the surest hands on the team, hauling in 57 passes for 836 yards and 7 touchdowns. 

With Juwan Johnson off to the NFL, JJ3 and Jaylon Redd will be the senior leaders for the wide receiver corps. 

Gavin Sawchuk 

The Ducks haven’t had a lot of visitors recently, but one player they brought in late in the year was this 2022 5-star running back from Littleton (Colo). Sawchuk attends Valor Christian, which was home to the McCaffrey brothers and 2020 OL target Roger Rosengarten. 

Sawchuk, who called his visit “perfect,” was joined in Eugene by his mom and dad. He enjoyed the facilities and started to develop a relationship with the coaching staff, particularly run game coordinator Jim Mastro. 

The nation’s No. 2 back, who ran for more than 1,700 yards as a sophomore, hopes to use this upcoming track season to improve his speed. He holds offers from Michigan, Oregon, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State and USC, among others.  

Newman off the Board 

With the former Wake Forest quarterback deciding to transfer to Georgia, Oregon could either be out of the game for a transfer quarterback -- or just turning the page. 

Earlier this week, Houston’s D’Eriq King announced his intent to transfer. Oregon could get involved, although many analysts feel he is more of a runner than the polished passer the Ducks prefer at the position. 

What we could see is the team bringing in a grad transfer quarterback who has the potential to start as well as to provide leadership to the Ducks’ young crop of quarterbacks. Doubtless, how to proceed here will be an immediate talking point for Cristobal and Moorhead.

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