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How Oregon is importing the SEC to the Pac-12

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EUGENE, Ore. — After a long day of practice and on-campus recruiting visits, Mario Cristobal is finally catching his breath. It’s nearing 5 p.m., but Oregon‘s head coach still has to meet with a group of high school coaches and crank his energy back up for a few more recruiting pitches before finally crawling into bed.

He’s soaking up the temporary peace and walks a reporter to his giant, wooden bookshelf on the right side of his spacious office, which overlooks the Ducks’ practice fields.

There sit 12 championship rings spanning his time as an assistant at Alabama, the head coach at Florida International and a two-time national champion offensive lineman at Miami (1989, 1991). Their diamonds shimmer in the waning light.

Cristobal picks up his 1989 national title ring from Miami and smiles.

“That feeling — brother — to be able to say to the whole world I am the best at what I do this particular year, that’s unbelievable,” Cristobal says. “That, to me, is a game-changer.

“Addiction through the roof. I gotta have it. Gotta have it.”

Cristobal knows winning. During his time as a player at Miami and an assistant for the Hurricanes and at Alabama, Cristobal won three national titles and six conference championships. As FIU’s head coach from 2007 to 2012, he brought one of the nation’s worst football programs its first conference title in 2010.

Now, in his second year as Oregon’s head coach, he’s getting the winning feeling again following a 9-4 debut after replacing Willie Taggart, who left after a year for Florida State. Cristobal has 17 starters back, including the possible top 2020 NFL draft pick, quarterback Justin Herbert, and five NFL-caliber offensive linemen.

He has the nation’s best 2019 high school prospect already on campus — and primed to start this fall — and most of the way-too-early preseason Pac-12 prognostication is quacking in his favor.

Oregon, a premier college football program just a few years ago, is crawling back, and Cristobal senses urgency within the program. With a struggling Pac-12 wide open and Oregon holding arguably the conference’s most talented roster, it feels like championship or bust in Eugene.

“We all came to Oregon knowing what it needs to be again,” Cristobal told ESPN in April. “There’s so much momentum and so much ground being gained toward being that, that I see it as nothing but hunger and drive right now. I don’t see it any other way, I don’t feel it any other way inside.

“To me … I see this team as a team that can win multiple championships and continue to not only sustain but continue to elevate.”

Bringing the SEC out west

If you’re going to compete with the best, you have to know what the best are like — inside and out. So this spring, Cristobal and his staff went to Alabama and Georgia to take a deep dive into the DNA of two programs operating at the highest level in the sport to see how Oregon compared.

Cristobal soaked up the practices, meetings and atmosphere with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart like a giant sponge. He studied the bodies, movement and speed of the SEC athletes in Tuscaloosa and Athens, silently comparing them to the physical makeup of his own team.

Before Cristobal and his staff left Southern soil, he came away with an exciting realization.

“We’ve closed the gap considerably,” Cristobal said. “We have gained so much ground toward what we want to be.”

Cristobal is on a mission to duplicate SEC-like success and development at Oregon, and he thinks the gap between Oregon and his Southern counterparts is closing because he has taken a lot of what he learned from Saban and implemented it into his own program.

He’s building from the trenches up, which really started when he signed 6-foot-6, 349-pound left tackle Penei Sewell in 2018. Oregon also has moved to a more functional strength training program that balances strength, speed, agility and flexibility under former Georgia assistant strength coach Aaron Feld.

The fantastically mustachioed Feld, who received a one-year contract extension through January 2021 and a salary bump from $200,000 to $310,000 for this year and next year, has been more technical than previous strength coaches, emphasizing workouts that prepare more for football movements than brute strength. It hasn’t made workouts easier, as the Ducks actually lifted more this spring, hitting the weight room three to four times during practice weeks.

“Coach Feld changed our life, man,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Shane Lemieux said. “We thought we were working before, but it was nothing.”

“Every single thing we do helps us on the football field, every single job, every single run. You know we’re not doing wind sprints to kill us, we’re doing wind sprints to prepare us for football.”

The recruiting strategy almost mirrors Saban’s in the attention to detail in yearly evaluations and the type of athlete they’re bringing in, especially along both lines of scrimmage.

Cristobal even deployed a Saban-like attack on the psychology inside Oregon’s football facility, demanding a new kind of confidence and bullish mentality out of his players, coaches and any staff members inside the Casanova Center.

“The DNA of the program has to ooze out of everybody that’s in the building,” Cristobal said. “It has to feel different when you walk through the door.

“You have to understand, I played at Miami. Our idea of pregame was Tolbert Bain standing up on the bench and saying, ‘Hit, stick, and must stick. And what else? Talk s—!’ And just go out there and whoop ass.”

That approach is changing the way Oregon operates. Chip Kelly went 46-7 with four straight BCS bowl berths at Oregon with a high-flying, blazing-fast offense. Cristobal isn’t dumping all that speed and tempo, but he’s working to build a more physical team on both sides of the ball.

While he admits he’d like to go faster on offense, Cristobal’s mission is to make Oregon fun and nationally relevant again by operating with a more run-first, almost power-spread approach.

And players are on board. While last year’s offensive numbers were decent (Oregon was third in the conference with 427.2 yards per game, but sixth with 5.86 YPP), Cristobal understands that inconsistency in games against Washington State, Arizona and Utah — all losses — and the ugly 7-6 bowl win over Michigan State can’t continue if the Ducks are going to make title runs.

Cristobal thinks he now has more receiving targets to help Herbert, who threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first full season as Oregon’s starter last year. Freshmen Mycah Pittman, who had a solid spring, Joshua Delgado and Lance Wilhoite — all ESPN 300 members — are expected to make immediate impacts. Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson, who stands 6-4 and weighs 230 pounds, should complement veterans Jaylon Redd and Brenden Schooler, as Oregon tries to replace record-setting receiver Dillon Mitchell.

But the heart of this offense will be the running game, something that was sneaky good last year for the Ducks. The freshman duo of CJ Verdell and Travis Dye registered 1,757 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns (5.1 YPC) last season, and the plan is to feed them even more this fall.

The run-first mantra has Lemieux excited. He and his starting line buddies, who have accumulated more than 150 starts after enduring three different offenses in three years, are embracing this SEC-type training and style because they get to embrace their physical sides more.

“We feel like we’ve trained the hardest in the Pac-12 and when you look across at somebody when you’re about to run block them, [you think], man, this guy’s not done anything that I’ve done,” Lemieux said. “You think about all the stuff that you’ve done in the past and how much more mentally and physically stronger you are and how much more you’re going to dominate [them].”

It’s the same with the defense, which is moving to a base 4-3 but will still have looks out of 3-4 and 4-2-5 formations. The thought of having a more exotic defense was hatched after former defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and the school mutually parted ways, making way for former Boise State DC Andy Avalos.

Cristobal said he targeted Avalos because of how his defenses “really understand how to tie in the front to the back,” but with so many different types of players for the different schemes this group has seen over the last few years, multiple looks make it easier for more guys to fit in.

“We have the personnel to run any type of defense in the nation,” senior linebacker Troy Dye said. “Because of the chaotic way that we’ve had to recruit over the last couple of years, we have a lot of different body types that can be either defensive ends or outside linebackers. We have big guys who can run, and good, intangible pieces that I think Coach Avalos’ defense is going to show that this year.”

The California pipeline

Cristobal is sitting in the back room of a dimly lit restaurant, inhaling his favorite dish at one of his favorite dining spots.

Green curry, brown rice, double chicken, medium spice.

He just came from hosting recruits at another dinner down the street, but with so much mingling, this is his first meal in hours, and it’s being shoveled off his plate at an alarming speed.

When it comes to recruiting, food can be an afterthought, and Cristobal is learning that more and more at Oregon.

“It’s an ungodly amount of time, effort,” Cristobal said. “But you have to, man. You have to take a deep dive into your guys.”

Cristobal comes from the Saban school of ruthless, relentless recruiting that powers the elites. He’s the guy who helped get blue-chip prospects such as Cam Robinson, Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jonah Williams, Daron Payne, Quinnen Williams and Alex Leatherwood to Tuscaloosa a few years back.

Cristobal is starting off well, as Oregon’s 2019 class was the best for the Ducks ever on paper. They were ranked sixth by ESPN with 10 of the 25 signees being ESPN 300 members, including No. 1 overall recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux, a defensive end out of Los Angeles. Cristobal signed 21 ESPN 300 members in his first two classes.

What really stood out was the raiding of California, a pipeline that helped make Kelly so successful during his time in Eugene. Cristobal hit the Golden State even harder, signing 12 from there, eight being ESPN 300 members or four-star prospects.

With #ScoDucks lighting up Twitter as Southern California prospects’ Bat Signal, Cristobal took full advantage of the recent struggles of USC and UCLA by signing seven of the state’s top 50 players. USC and UCLA combined to sign eight.

Just like he did with the states of Florida and Georgia while at Alabama, Cristobal is making California, the most fertile talent ground on the West Coast, his staff’s primary recruiting area.

“The Oregon brand is pretty big in Southern California,” he said. “That’s got to be your footprint, right? The state of California, we see it as an extension of the state of Oregon. We just attacked it, man.”

‘It’s a battle every day’

Thibodeaux’s introduction to college football didn’t exactly go as planned. Admittedly very confident in his abilities, Thibodeaux strutted into his first Ducks practice with his head up and chest out, only to be pushed around and dinged up on Day 1. The speed and tenacity of a college practice was foreign to him, especially with only helmets on. It “knocked [his] spirits down” and the veteran offensive linemen opposite him quickly reminded him that he was no longer the biggest, baddest person on the field.

“It’s a battle every day,” said Thibodeaux, who could still be growing at 6-5, 240 pounds. “So if you don’t bring your A-game, you will get buried.”

Thibodeaux has since recalibrated and became one of Oregon’s most consistent spring performers, but his teammates say practices were a little nastier and more intense this spring. Lemiuex said that the previous two staffs weren’t fans of starters vs. starters during spring practice, but this staff loves it. It was grueling, but Lemieux said it paid off with the vast improvements he thinks this team made in 15 practices.

“Spring ball here is fall camp, man,” he said. “I like it that way, though. We’ve developed a standard of a culture of iron sharpens iron.

“Now we’re operating at such a high level that we set our standard as that. Our worst practice now would probably be one of our best practices of Coach [Mark] Helfrich.”

Cristobal wants his team to embody the blue-collar mentality similar to the one he had growing up in south Miami, where the smell of battery acid and oil sometimes filled the house with a mechanic father around.

And it will be important for that mentality to carry over to the very first game of the season: Week 1 in Arlington, Texas, against Auburn.

Auburn began last season by defeating eventual Pac-12 champion Washington in Atlanta 21-16, all but immediately erasing the Pac-12’s playoff hopes. Oregon players and coaches know that this season’s opener will likely go a long way toward reviving or ending the Pac-12’s 2019 playoff hopes.

Lemieux calls the opener a statement game for this program, especially with the changes made to get closer to looking like this exact opponent. But he also understands that Oregon has to “carry the torch for the Pac-12” as the conference looks to regain national respect.

That’s a lot of pressure for a team that won just nine games last year, but Lemieux and Dye, who have now seen three different head coaches in four springs, say a win would galvanize the conference and this program. If the Ducks want to deliver on their front-runner status and return some national respect to Eugene, beating Auburn is a must.

The hope is a win will also serve as a jump-off for a Pac-12 title and playoff run, two things the Ducks haven’t seen since losing to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship following the 2014 season. It has been a long road for some of these older Ducks, and now that there’s finally stability, they’re ready to matter again.

“My class’ goal was to take Oregon back like to what it was and leave it off better than how I found it,” Lemiuex said. “If we didn’t win a Pac-12 championship, Rose Bowl or playoff, we wouldn’t — I wouldn’t — live up my goals and our team’s goals.”

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