Ducks struggle to find receivers
EUGENE — With Darren Carrington's dismissal, one of the more intriguing questions about the Oregon Ducks is who will catch on as the go-to target for quarterback Justin Herbert.
Charles Nelson is the only known commodity among a young group of pass catchers. Nelson led the Ducks in receptions last season with 52, and he was second to Carrington in receiving yards (554).
The other returning receivers?
Dillon Mitchell caught two passes for nine yards as a true freshman in 2016.
Alex Ofodile caught one pass for eight yards as a redshirt freshman.
Other than Nelson, the top returning targets for Herbert are running backs Tony Brooks-James (17 catches, 155 yards, 1 TD in 2016) and Royce Freeman (23 catches, 144 yards, 1 TD).
For Herbert to show the growth expected in his sophomore year, some targets need to step up.
Nelson says he doesn't feel the need, though, to significantly increase his production.
"No, because I feel like every guy in the receiving group has special abilities and can make plays," he says. "When they step on the field, they'll be ready. I don't feel like I need to change my game and get more catches for us to be more successful as a team."
Coach Willie Taggart, who has been saying since he was hired that every position is up for grabs, says he believes the true freshmen can be productive receivers. But the shift to receiver of sophomore Brenden Schooler (from safety) and junior Taj Griffin (from running back) indicates the search for answers at receiver might take time.
Of the 15 players at the receiver position after one week of camp, only three have played the position in college, and five are true freshmen.
"Every guy at the receiver position, they came here to play receiver. Some will have an opportunity quicker than they thought they would," Taggart says. "We need for all of them to grow up and gain some experience pretty quick. It's our job as coaches to help develop those guys and get them ready to go. But we recruited them to come here and play football. It's next man up, and they should be excited to play big-time college football."
But it will likely be guys not recruited by Taggart who will be called upon most — at least early in the season. It would help if Mitchell, a 6-1, 195-pound native of Memphis, Tennessee, can take a big step as a sophomore.
Nelson says Mitchell "does things you don't normally see. He makes a lot of plays."
Mitchell says he's glad Nelson is there to set the tone for the receiving group.
"When he wants to speak, he speaks up. But he leads by example," Mitchell says of Nelson. "He goes out and plays hard every day. He never takes plays off. You'll never catch Charles doing anything negative."
Mitchell says he's grown as a person since his freshman season was delayed by a knee injury that kept him out of the first six games. He meditates daily and has read "The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom" by Don Miguel Ruiz. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady has said he reads the self-improvement book every year.
"Being a better football player is something I strive for every day. But becoming a better person, I think that is very overlooked, and looking at myself last year, that's where I had to start," Mitchell says.
Mitchell says he is much happier than a year ago, when his injury added to the anxiety of being away from home for the first time. The meditation, he says, "helped me a lot just to slow my mind down and to stop thinking so much. Just to help me realize that everything isn't as big as it seems."
Expectations aren't as big in Eugene as they have been for many years. But with Carrington at Utah, Mitchell is a guy fans and coaches hope can fill a void.
He sounds confident, and talks about taking on a Conor McGregor personality.
"I'm not going to say I'm disrespectful in any type of way, but I'm most confident in what I can do. I've been hearing the word pressure that's supposed to be on my shoulders with DC (Carrington) leaving. But I don't believe in pressure," Mitchell says. "I'm going out there to entertain people. This is something I've been doing since I was a kid, and I'm just having fun. So I believe it's going to be a great year for us."
Any success the passing game achieves in 2017 likely will involve the tight ends, too. That is nothing new at Oregon. But the tight ends are untested, too.
Jacob Breeland, who had five catches for 33 yards in 10 games as a redshirt freshman last season, might be the best receiver among the tight ends.
He says successful spring practices, along with work in the weight room, have prepared him to compete for the starting job.
"I've gotten a lot stronger and bigger. I've added more weight so I can hold my ground," Breeland says. "I think it's confidence, too. Confidence that I can do the job."
Breeland also is excited about Taggart's offense.
"The terminology is a lot easier. Not as many reads I have to call. I just get the play and go," Breeland says. "I'll have maybe two options, but it's pretty easy to call which one to do instead of the four I had to do in the past, so it's a lot easier."
Still, with new coaches and a bunch of new players running routes, it's safe to say the fate of the Ducks' receiving game is up in the air.