To get some inside information on the Oregon football team, Daily Bruin Sports reached out to the Daily Emerald – Oregon’s student news publication – and asked sports editor Jack Butler a few questions about the Ducks before their upcoming game against the Bruins this Saturday.
Daily Bruin Sports: Oregon’s quarterback Justin Herbert was injured against California and Braxton Burmeister has pretty much played in his place. How do you assess Burmeister’s performance so far?
Jack Butler: Well, I think it’s been pretty rough. I think he’s a true freshman and it looks like it. And that’s obviously a really difficult thing to ask a true freshman – to go and lead an offense – especially one that was producing as such a high level for such a long time and any expectation of sustaining that is really difficult.
I think it’s been really difficult for down field throws, deep balls. Herbert was able to complete a lot of those at least efficiently and it’s been really hard for Burmeister to connect with any wide receivers or tight ends down the field, so I think it has sort of shrunk the field, in a sense, and really makes it so defenses can focus in on the Oregon running game that’s still really powerful.
Flat out, he struggled to throw the ball. And any time that you can’t do that no matter how good your running game is, the defenses can just stop the run and then it’ll be difficult to move the ball. He’s been turnover prone and he doesn’t really look ready out there. I think something they’re going to have to do is use his legs a little more because the quarterback depth is pretty bad.
But I think at this point through the two and a half games he’s been in there, they’ve combined for 17 points. That doesn’t sound very Oregon-like. So they’re just going to have to try everything. And I think the next thing is really just trying to make him run. Get him comfortable. I mean, getting him some first downs with his legs and just giving him confidence will maybe stretch out the defense or make them think a little bit. Overall he has certainly struggled.
DB: If it weren’t for Bryce Love, Royce Freeman would probably be the premier running back in the conference. Also, he’s running behind a pretty experienced offensive line. What’s been different this year compared to years in the past in terms of Royce Freeman’s production? Especially like you said, Burmeister hasn’t been very effective, so maybe the opponents are keying in more on Freeman, but he still manages to turn out a lot of productions.
JB: I mean, he’s huge, in terms of he’s really thick. I mean you stand up next to him and he’s clearly a really durable guy. I mean he’s been playing since he was a freshman so the fact that last year was kind of the only year he really struggled with some injuries is pretty impressive.
I think, in a sense, like his sheer size and ability to hit defenders and not so much get hit has really helped him. When Burmeister’s out because the defense is flipped. They know the run is coming so I think he’s been able to do a really good job of sort of staying healthy in a way, and he has underrated footwork. He’s a big guy. You know you said Bryce Love. Well, Love is obviously going to make you miss, he’s got that “make you miss” sort of footwork, and I think Royce not as much but can still make guys miss. And you know he has underrated speed. You think you might be taking the right angle and then it turns out, as a defender, you’re off.
And Oregon also has two other really good running backs in Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, who at times are able to take the pressure off of him, which I think is really good for him. It’s not necessarily all up to him, but if I had to say there’s a reason why he’s been so successful over a long period of time, especially with defenses knowing exactly what Oregon is going to do, I would just say it’s kind of his durability and his sneaky ability to avoid big hits. I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever seen him really get hit.
DB: Can you talk a little bit about the defense? I see that the Oregon defense already has 24 sacks on the year, and last game UCLA gave up five sacks to Arizona. What’s been the key factor in terms of generating pressure up front for the Ducks?
JB: Well, I think it’s, at least for me, been a big surprise that they’ve been able to do that.
Last year it was basically nonexistent, but I think part of the reason they were able to do it is that the guys are starting to fill their potentials. So I think the new coaching staff is helping, but the guys that maybe the Ducks thought were ready a year ago weren’t ready and they are now. So Jalen Jelks has been fantastic, Justin Hollins has sacks (and) Henry Mondeaux; these guys were all projected last year to break out and this year they’ve been able to.
I think that year of struggles has really gone a long way in their experience. Last year, Brady Hoke was the defensive coordinator and he had a 4-3 scheme, and for the longest time it was 3-4 (but) he changed it … and now with Jim Leavitt, they’re back to a 3-4, so I think guys … fit the defensive role and what they’re asked to do, than one season ago.
It’s kind of surprising, and freshmen like (defensive tackle) Jordon Scott who is 333 pounds or something, just huge, rushing up the middle, they don’t necessarily get the sack but they deserve some credit. I think just sheer coaching and just the guys finally reaching that potential (for which) they were recruited in the first place … maybe a year late, but it’s there.
DB: We both know that Freeman is probably going to be a big focal point of the offense but if you were to name any other player as an X-factor for Saturday’s game, who would it be? And as a final question, what would be your score prediction for Saturday’s game?
JB: As far as X-factor is concerned, I’m thinking somebody like wide receiver Charles Nelson. He’s a senior, has been around for a long time. He was actually injured for a lot of the season, like three or four games I think, but he’s back, he was against Stanford. They said he wasn’t necessarily 100 percent, but regardless he needs to step up because Burmeister needs all the help he can get. And I’d imagine since they haven’t had any success throwing deep, and Charles Nelson being 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9 isn’t really a deep threat but he’s great at screens, he’s a really good spot guy. I think for some shorter completions they’re going to need him to get some extra yards.
He’s somebody that Burmeister can have confidence in because he hasn’t found that go-to guy and it wasn’t helpful that some of the wide receivers were injured, and some of them are returning now. I’d say he’s the X-factor, or at least somebody that needs to step up.
As far as score, I think I saw that UCLA was favored by 6.5 and I think they certainly beat the Ducks by more than 7. I would say 38-21 is where I’d put it. I haven’t seen anything to really show me that the Ducks, when push comes to shove, can really get the yardage in the air. … At some point you’re going to need to pass the ball.