As Mark Helfrich walked off the field at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Oregon he looked, understandably, defeated. Oregon had just suffered a 34-24 defeat to Oregon State, losing to their in-state rival for the first time in nine seasons. It was just one of many Duck football streaks that came to an end this past season, along with consecutive seasons beating Washington (12), consecutive seasons with a 1,000 yard rusher (10), consecutive seasons leading the Pac-12 in rushing (11), and consecutive seasons with a bowl appearance (11).
Helfrich was 37-16 in four years at Oregon, but eight of those losses came just last season. The Helfrich era saw a steep drop in both the on- field product and recruiting. Although this season was the first where Oregon was markedly worse than they’d been in years, the issues leading to Oregon’s decline began much earlier. Oregon’s recruiting classes have been steadily declining ever since Chip Kelly left for the NFL, resulting in a drop in talent, particularly on defense. The first real sign of Oregon’s demise came in the 2015 Alamo Bowl, where they surrendered a 31-0 halftime lead to TCU. While true they lost Vernon Adams, their dynamic quarterback, as well as their starting center to injuries during the game, any competent coaching staff should be able to maintain that kind of advantage.
Last season, the wheels came off completely. Oregon went just 4-8, their worst season since 1991. The defense was especially inept, surrendering 518 yards per game, which ranked 126 out of 128 FBS teams. While head coaching stability has been a hallmark of the Oregon program for 40 years, since Rich Brooks was hired in 1977, it was obviously time, despite heated debate within the Oregon football community, to show Helfrich the door. On November 29, 2016 Oregon fired Helfrich. A little over a week later they hired South Florida’s Willie Taggart as their next head coach.
Taggart’s charisma and enthusiasm make him somewhat the anti-Helfrich. His outgoing personality is a sharp contrast to Helfrich’s quiet and reserved demeanor. From the moment he was introduced, Taggart promised an immediate change in culture and has delivered. Oregon hauled in a Top 20 recruiting class this cycle, which is huge for a program undergoing a coaching change and coming off such a dismal season. He also convinced running back Royce Freeman and wide receiver Darren Carrington to return for their senior seasons. Freeman and Carrington’s return can’t be overstated. They’ll provide a veteran presence both on the field and in the locker room. Both players cited Taggart as a major factor in their decision to return.
Taggart seems to be a coach players want to play for. Just ask 4-star CB commit Thomas Graham, who signed with the Ducks in mid-December, citing Taggart as a major reason. Or 4-star CB Deommodore Lenoir, who de-committed from the Ducks in late November, but reacted to Taggart’s hiring by saying “I can’t wait to meet him.” On signing day, the Ducks got him back. These recruits are just the beginning. Several other big-time prospects, such as 4-star QB Braxton Burmeister, 4-star LB Isaac Slade-Matautia, and 4-star CB Jaylon Redd could all make an immediate impact.
Recruiting is far from the only area where Taggart has made a splash since arriving in Eugene. He put together an impressive coaching staff, geared toward fixing the program’s biggest issues. In December, he poached defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt from Colorado, whose defense ranked second in the Pac-12 last season. In January, Taggart secured OL coach Mario Cristobal from Alabama, known for being one of the nation’s top recruiters. With the staff he’s put together, the big recruits he signed, and the offensive talent he has coming back, Taggart and the Ducks look poised to rebound from last season’s debacle and #Dosomething this year.