Ahead of No. 16 Auburn's season opener against No. 11 Oregon, The Plainsman posed questions for Gabriel Ornelas, sports editor for the Daily Emerald, Oregon's student newspaper. Here's how he sees the action shaking out Saturday evening in Arlington.
1. What's your take on Justin Herbert heading into this season? Is it safe to say the offense underachieved last year with a first-round talent under center?
Coming into this season, I think Justin Herbert still has a lot to prove. We know he has all the physical tools to be a No. 1 draft pick, but I still don’t think he has the resume that reflects it. Last season, Herbert and the Ducks went 9-4 in 2018. Oregon went 6-1 during the first half of the season, notching the biggest win of Herbert’s career against No. 7 Washington. Then it all came crashing down. Oregon tallied three losses in its next four games and finished the second half of the season 4-3, with a win in the RedBox bowl against Michigan State to finish the season.
For Herbert to live up to the hype, he needs to take over games this year. I think that is his next step after a lackluster 2018. He needs to prove he can win big games and become consistent if he wants to solidify his spot as the No. 1 draft pick.
2. Let's talk receivers. Who is set to emerge as the No. 1 and 2 options for Herbert with Dillon Mitchell gone and the heap of injuries?
For those who don't know Dillon Mitchell and what his impact meant for this Oregon
team last season, let me give you some stats.
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Mitchell had 75 receptions for 1,184 yards, an Oregon single season record, and 10 touchdowns. The next closest to Mitchell was Jaylon Redd, who had 38 receptions for 433 yards and five touchdowns. I think you get the point
With the loss of Mitchell the receivers have become a huge point of fall camp. No. 1 and
No. 2, in my opinion, were going to be Juwan Johnson and Mycah Pittman. But then the injuries began to rack up. Pittman is out 6 to 8 weeks following a shoulder injury he suffered in a scrimmage. Along with Pittman, Brenden Schooler and JR Waters are both out at least 4 weeks due to foot injuries.
Now it’s next man up mentality for Oregon. Expect Johnny Johnson III to step up and make plays for Oregon, many players have complimented him about his growth at receiver during fall camp. Also, Jaylon Redd needs to be somebody who steps up for Oregon as it goes against the challenge that is Auburn's speedy cornerbacks.
3. We know about Troy Dye and Kavon Thibodeaux. Who are some other playmakers on defense that could give Bo Nix some trouble?
With the addition of Andy Avalos, Oregon’s third defense coordinator in four years, some new faces may appear that we haven't seen much of in the past.
Bryson Young is one of the names that sticks out to me. Young, before 2019, had only tallied 17 tackles in his entire career. Now, he will start at the Stud position, which is a hybrid of an outside linebacker and defensive end. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound senior will get his chance on a national stage in his first start as a Duck.
The depth and talent of the front seven will need to step up as a unit, if they want to give the freshman some trouble in his first college game.
On Thursday, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir told the media he wanted to give Nix a “welcome to college football moment.” I think that will be a fun matchup to keep your eyes on.
4. Biggest keys to an Oregon victory?
I have three keys.
The first key has to be Justin Herbert. He really needs to step up on this prime time stage. His receivers let him down at times last season with numerous drops. I think he needs to take over this game to help solidify his case as a potential Heisman candidate.
The second key is the battle in the trenches. We will see a veteran Oregon offensive line go up against, arguably, the best defensive lineup. Auburn’s defensive line is unlike Oregon has seen in the Pac-12 over the past five seasons. They will need to win the war to establish a running game and to become unpredictable, along with protecting Herbert.
We have yet to see Bo Nix on a college stage. We all know the talent he brings, but what will he be like in the game on Saturday? I guess we can't answer this now, but if Oregon is successful in making him play like a freshman, which is a big if, this will help the Ducks tremendously.
5. Your score prediction, and why.
Predictions are, to me, the worst part of my job.
I think Oregon loses this one 28-21.
The addition of Avalos and a new defensive scheme can be troublesome as far as players going live with it in a national spotlight. Oregon hasn't played a defense like Auburn’s in quite some time. They bring depth, physicality and consistency to an Oregon offense that can be unpredictable and unreliable at times.
Using 2018 as a reference, the wide receivers and their drops worry me. This could hinder Herbert’s ability to compete at an elite level against a stout secondary.
The Pac-12 has historically not been good against SEC schools. Washington, the 2018 Pac-12 champs, took its crack at Auburn last year and came up short. The Tigers also play the constant high level of talent in the SEC compared to what Oregon plays in the Pac-12. Oregon carries the weight of the Pac-12 on its back as it heads into Saturday, and I think it will be too much for them to shoulder.
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