Big Willie Style: Taggart era opens for the Oregon Ducks
EUGENE, Ore. — The Willie Taggart era at Oregon opened with a tagline: Do Something.
How the charismatic new coach’s enthusiasm translates into something on the field will be revealed on Sept. 2, when the Ducks host Southern Utah.
Taggart takes over a team that went 4-8 overall last season under Mark Helfrich, who was fired three days after the season-ending (not to mention demoralizing) 34-24 loss to rival Oregon State in the Civil War. It was the first losing season for the Ducks since 2004.
Taggart is a rebuilder. He comes to Eugene after four years at South Florida, where he guided the Bulls from a 2-10 record his first year to a 10-2 mark last year and a spot in the Birmingham Bowl. Before that he spent three seasons at his alma mater, Western Kentucky, inheriting a winless program that he turned around with back-to-back winning seasons.
When Taggart was hired by Oregon in December, he said he had three basic tenets: “Make no excuses, blame no one, do something.” Hence the tagline.
The Taggart Turnaround may not be immediate, but he does have some talented pieces to work with, including sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert, and Heisman hopeful Royce Freeman. They’ll be tasked with leading Taggart’s so-called “Gulf Coast Offense,” a wide-open spread.
But he’ll also have a defense that has to be reworked following a disastrous attempt at a 4-3 scheme installed by former Michigan coach Brady Hoke in his lone season with the Ducks. Taggart’s defensive coordinator is Jim Leavitt.
Taggart said his main challenge is making sure the team is aligned with his philosophy.
“Anytime you come into a new program, changing the culture is probably the biggest thing and the hardest thing to do because they have been doing it a certain way for a while,” he said. “So it’s hard changing behaviors.”
HERBERT GETS COMFORTABLE: Herbert was thrust into a role as Oregon’s starting QB as a freshman last season when graduate transfer Dakota Prukop struggled. Herbert would go on to play in eight games, throwing for 1,936 yards with 19 touchdowns.
A year older and wiser, Herbert has been bulking up and working on becoming a leader. He went to the Manning Passing Academy this summer.
“Last year I think I didn’t do a good job of being vocal or talking very much. So I think it kind of hurt us from a strategy standpoint. I didn’t have the comfortability to go to the offensive linemen or the running backs or the receivers,” Herbert said. “But I think just being more comfortable around them has been super helpful.”
FREEMAN’S DECISION: Oregon’s prolific running back said he had multiple reasons for returning to the Ducks for his senior season, but getting his degree is the first thing he mentions. This summer he completed his degree in General Social Science with an emphasis on crime, law and society.
“It’s something that I valued highly,” he said. “And then just coming back and finishing on a better note than I did last year.”
Despite being hampered by injury, Freeman was the Ducks’ leading rusher last season with 945 yards in 11 games. He has rushed for 4,146 yards over three seasons with the Ducks, second only to LaMichael James (5,082 yards) on Oregon’s career rushing list.
ABOUT THOSE UNIFORMS: The start of the season doesn’t seem complete without a word about Oregon’s uniforms. But Taggart is shutting down the weekly fashion show put on by the Ducks in years past.
“We’re going to be sharp,” Taggart said. “But you won’t see as many different combinations. We want to play football.”
KEY GAMES: A big test will come the second week of the season, when Nebraska — and former Oregon State coach Mike Riley — visit Autzen. The Huskers went 9-4 last year in Riley’s second season at the helm, falling to Tennessee at the end in the Music City Bowl.
The Ducks play reigning Pac-12 champ Washington on Nov. 4 in Seattle. But the scheduling gods were on Oregon’s side in Taggart’s first year: The Ducks don’t face USC, picked in the preseason to win the conference.
PREDICTION: Herbert and Freeman are known weapons for the offense, so Oregon’s defense seems to be the biggest mystery. Can the Ducks overcome last season’s obvious confusion and turmoil on that side of the ball?
“I think going back to the 3-4 is going to help a lot of these guys because a lot of them were recruited to play in a 3-4 system, so hopefully that helps,” Taggart said.
Expect the Ducks to fare a bit better than last season, and perhaps vie for a bowl game at the end of the season. But a return to the national championship will have to wait.