The last time Oregon didn't produce a single NFL Draft pick, there was no surprise involved. In 1985, the Ducks had been part of a bowl drought of more than two decades. They were coming off another middling 6-5 season, tied for the best win total since 1964. They weren't far removed from the 0-0 Toilet Bowl, one of the worst games in college football history. The program lacked prestige and hadn't won a conference title since 1957.
No matter how poorly the 2016 season went, last week's absence from the NFL Draft felt a lot different, even if there were legitimate reasons for the lack of picks.
Yes, every junior decided to return, including running back Royce Freeman, offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby and wide receiver Darren Carrington, all of whom would have been drafted. And because they all returned, Oregon will have 17 starters back, making it one of the most experienced teams in the country. There simply weren't many draft options.
Still, the Duck-free draft was a fitting conclusion to the year from hell in Eugene, one in which Oregon -- two years removed from playing for the national title with a Heisman Trophy winner -- plummeted to 4-8 and fired coach Mark Helfrich. The Oregonian detailed much of what went wrong under Helfrich's watch, including a broken team culture with leadership issues. It was a monumental fall from grace for a program that had made itself into a power, with seven straight AP top-11 finishes from 2008-14.
After Chip Kelly arrived, Oregon became a sure thing, a team that opened the season in the AP top five four times in a row after never previously starting that high. Now, the Ducks will enter 2017 with a lot to prove, far from top-five status. There is a healthy dose of skepticism attached to Oregon, and rightfully so, as the Ducks have faded into the background of the Pac-12 with Washington and USC back on top and Stanford not going away.
To fix what's wrong, Oregon will turn to what would have seemed like a bizarre formula a few years ago at the height of the Stanford-Oregon rivalry: a combination of Kelly and Jim Harbaugh.
New coach Willie Taggart is practically a member of the Harbaugh family. He played for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky, then coached for him there. He was Jim Harbaugh's running backs coach at Stanford from 2007-09, and he went on to get the Western Kentucky head coaching job 2010, legitimizing the Hilltoppers' FBS ascent with back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2011-12. When his tenure at South Florida started slowly, Taggart decided to bring in a dose of Kelly, creating the "Gulf Coast Offense," which emphasized tempo and spread running. Taggart went from hot seat talk to being a hot commodity on the coaching carousel, as the Bulls rose from 119th in scoring in 2014 to fourth in 2016, as quarterback Quinton Flowers became a star.
Taggart will try to mesh his Harbaugh principles with Oregon's cutting-edge identity that lost its way under Helfrich for a variety of reasons, including recruiting and player development failures, particularly on defense. While the Taggart era got off to an uninspiring start -- including three hospitalized players following workouts and the firing of assistant David Reaves after a DUII arrest -- on the field Oregon should be taken seriously as a sleeper candidate in the 2017 season, a team capable of bouncing back and at least being competitive in the Pac-12 race.
1. Herbert will find himself in a better situation.
The Ducks still finished 18th in yards per play last year, and that was with injury issues and an October switch to true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert showed potential, completing 63.5 percent for 1,936 yards, 19 TDs and four INTs. He finished third in the Pac-12 in passer rating, behind only Jake Browning and Sam Darnold and ahead of Luke Falk and Davis Webb. He even led an impressive win over Utah, throwing for 324 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with two seconds left.
While spring game results should be taken with a grain of salt -- especially against Oregon's defense -- Herbert looked sharp in last Saturday's scrimmage, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback competition is still open, but it's hard to imagine Herbert won't be behind center on Sept. 2 against Southern Utah. While he's not a game-breaking runner, he's mobile enough, and he'll be surrounded by a talented supporting cast. A patchwork offensive line will be in better shape, especially with Crosby returning from an injury that cost him most of last season, and Carrington and Charles Nelson headline a stellar receiving corps.
Herbert has to learn a new offense, but he's in position to build off a promising freshman campaign and succeed in 2017.
2. The running game has the potential to be great.
Freeman has rushed for over 4,000 yards in his career, and Tony Brooks-James, Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin (who's recovering from a knee injury) round out one of the nation's deepest backfields. Freeman was limited by injuries last season, but he ran for 1,838 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry in 2015. Taggart wisely made recruiting Freeman to stay for his senior season a top priority, as he's a powerful but dynamic runner who can carry the load as the foundation of an offense with a young quarterback.
Brooks-James averaged over seven yards per carry as the top backup, and there's no question that this unit has star power. Get better play from the offensive line -- Taggart brought in Mario Cristobal from Alabama as line coach and co-coordinator -- and there's a lot to love here under a coach in Taggart who developed an explosive rushing attack at South Florida.
3. The defense is going to improve.
To be fair, substantial improvement would be needed to get even close to mere respectability. Improvement doesn't mean Oregon will be good defensively. The Ducks were 115th in yards per play allowed and 126th in points allowed, giving up at least 26 points in every game and over 40 points five times (the low point being the 70-21 loss to Washington.) There is no immediate fix to the recruiting and player development issues that have plagued this unit the past few years.
Taggart made the best possible hire in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, another ex-USF coach who remade the Colorado defense the past couple years. When Leavitt arrived in Boulder, the Buffaloes were 120th in yards per play allowed. They improved to 83rd in his first year, then 16th in 2016 as the backbone of an astonishing turnaround in which Colorado won the Pac-12 South.
Leavitt has a strong building block in sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, one of the few bright spots last fall, and the Ducks also won the competitive battle to land Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano at defensive tackle, a big boost to what often looked like a hopeless run defense. Given how much potential the offense has, the defense doesn't need to be a shutdown unit for Oregon to get back into the top 25. It just has to become competent.
4. The schedule could be worse.
Unfortunately, the Ducks have to play both Stanford and Washington on the road in Pac-12 North play, in the middle of a brutal midseason stretch that includes Washington State, UCLA and Utah. However, beat Nebraska at home in Week 2, and the early-season schedule doesn't look so bad, and the Ducks finish with Arizona and Oregon State at home. Most important, Oregon avoids USC, arguably the best team in the conference.
5. The players get a fresh start.
Most of the last year's production returns, but two overwhelming issues were the lack of leadership and the defense's inability to stop anybody. There's no reason to assume that either problem will automatically get better with largely the same cast of players, but it's hard to imagine the Ducks won't benefit from hitting reset, assuming they get the appropriate buy-in to Taggart's regime. Last year was a perfect storm of problems: The Ducks lost close heartbreakers to Nebraska and Colorado early, and injuries then began taking their toll while the defense fell apart. Frustrations mounted, and the second half of the season was spent with the distraction and pressure of Helfrich being on the hot seat.
Taggart's main goal is to develop accountability and leadership, and as the outsider coming in -- literally the first head coach hired from the outside at Oregon since Rich Brooks in 1977 -- it's impossible to tell how an experienced roster will react to somebody new. And while Taggart is a great coach who has orchestrated turnarounds, those turnarounds haven't come instantly. He went 2-10 in his first year at Western Kentucky after inheriting a winless team, and he went 2-10 in his first year at South Florida after inheriting a 3-9 team. Culture changes don't happen overnight.
Is Oregon going to get back to being a playoff contender in Taggart's first season? No, the defense has far too much ground to make up. But the Ducks have the ability to be much more formidable last year, possibly a top-20 team that's in the mix in the Pac-12 title race.
The turnarounds at Washington and USC are deservedly the headlining stories in the Pac-12, and Oregon likely has too much ground to make up to return to the very top of the league. Still, last year's downfall may cause expectations to swing too far to the negative. We're still not far removed from the Ducks making noise in the Pac-12, and their chances of doing so again can't be dismissed. One down season doesn't make for a return to the true dark days of Oregon football the last time nobody was drafted.