Justin Herbert and Troy Dye represented Oregon Ducks football at last month’s Pac-12 media days in Hollywood. That’s noteworthy, given both are true sophomores at an event typically designated to showcase upperclassmen.
Their inclusion can also be chalked up to strategy.
The impending season marks Willie Taggart’s first as the Oregon Ducks head coach, and — like other first-year head coaches — every decision fits into the big picture of crafting a new identity for his program.
Taggart’s situation is unique in that he inherits a program just three years removed from playing for a national championship and producing a Heisman Trophy winner, so the pressure to produce immediate results may exceed that of other programs.
At the same time, Taggart and his staff must avoid the pitfalls of chasing immediate success while failing to cultivate an identity for the long run.
Building for the long term has been a specialty of Taggart’s. He left Western Kentucky and USF on much stronger foundations than when he arrived, as detailed in The Open Man’s “Making The Program” feature.
“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 explained.
A certain while, in Oregon’s case, is four decades.
Rich Brooks was in Taggart’s position as a first-year Oregon Ducks in 1977, beginning an immediate line of succession that ended with Mark Helfrich’s firing after last season’s 4-8 finish. Each head-coaching regime had its own concepts and styles, so Taggart and his staff aren’t tasked with something so complicated as retooling 40 years of identity.
Still, there’s something uniquely symbolic and historic about this particular coaching change. As such, putting his signature on the program immediately is the savviest approach Taggart can take.
And that brings us to the youngsters in Hollywood.
Justin Herbert and Troy Dye are indeed two of the Oregon Ducks’ best and most important players for the 2017 season. Herbert took over as starting quarterback midway through the tumultuous 2016 season and performed about as admirably as could be expected of a freshman in a trying situation.
Herbert completed almost 64 percent of his pass attempts for 1,936 yards with 19 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Not content resting on the impressive accomplishments of his freshman season, Herbert approached the challenge of re-earning his starting job with a fervor Taggart called, “awesome.”
“It seemed like Justin went to bed one night and woke up and said, okay, it’s time to go,” Taggart said. “He’s just changed, whether it’s in the weight room or competing with other guys.
“He’s changed his body,” he added. “He’s gained about 15 pounds since last year, and Justin’s walking outside with his shirt off now. And if you all know Justin, that wasn’t him before.”
Herbert’s evolution has him positioned to lead the Ducks for as long as he’s in the program — and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, that’s least two more years. The quarterback and coach are linked in this crucial phase of establishing the program’s identity and direction.
Dye earned his way into the starting lineup with an impressive summer and shined as the Ducks’ leader in tackles (91), tackles for loss (13), and sacks (6.5). He won Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, and will be a cornerstone of new Oregon Ducks defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s unit.
Dye said he no longer felt like a freshman, “after the first game.” That comfort and feeling of experience is meaningful in shaping the identity of new-look Oregon Ducks football.
Like Herbert on the offense, Dye should be the fixture of the defense for at least two seasons. And it might take until Year 2 for Oregon to see substantial progress back toward the heights the program reached just a few years ago.
Taggart’s previous rebuilding jobs at Western Kentucky and USF endured growing pains his first year. Likewise, Leavitt’s defensive reconstruction at Colorado didn’t produce results until his second year in the program.
Relying on seniors to shape the first year in the new era might well leave Oregon starting all over in Year 2. Taking the underclassmen through the trials of Year 1 is a more effective means of setting the tone for the seasons beyond, hence Taggart’s openness to giving true freshmen prominent roles in the season to come.
2017 will indeed bring with it a Youth Movement for Oregon Ducks football. The movement’s already under way, right from the first major event of the season.
“[Representing at Pac-12 media days] shows you can be a young guy and be a leader. The game knows no age,” Dye said.