Quarterback Justin Herbert is one of the favorites to win the Heisman trophy this season. In order to do that, he needs to make big, flashy plays. That also means he needs highlight-reel plays by wide receivers, which have been hard to find the last couple seasons.
Oregon needs to manufacture those plays from someone, and the like candidates this season are Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson III and Brenden Schooler. All three performed well in their first meaningful opportunities last season, which impressed Herbert.
“Those guys are playmakers,” Herbert said. “It makes my job easier.”
Wide receiver production has declined since Marcus Mariota’s 2014 Heisman season. That year, wide receivers had 2,796 yards, and that is discounting the 1,003 yards leading receiver Byron Marshall had out of the backfield.
In 2015, Vernon Adams Jr.’s one year at quarterback, receivers had 2,450 total yards. Last season, wide receivers had 1,618 yards. Some of the decline was due to Herbert missing five games because of a broken collarbone. Oregon also won’t have Charles Nelson working the slot as both a big-play threat and a security blanket for quarterbacks.
The offense would realistically need at least a 950-yard increase in receiving yards from last season — averaging between Mariota and Adams Jr. — for Herbert to get an invitation to New York.
Schooler, one of those much-needed playmakers, performed well in his first season at receiver. The former safety netted three touchdowns and averaged 13.7 yards per catch. Now, with a full year of practice and the playbook, he has shifted his focus from learning to leading.
“Last year, I think [Schooler] was a guy that didn’t get the ball as much as he needed,” Herbert said. “[Schooler, Mitchell and Johnson III] are athletic, so they’ve been able to make plays regardless of the position.”
Mitchell led the team in both receptions (42) and receiving yards (517) in his sophomore season, but that didn’t slow down his offseason workouts.
“No matter how many years I’m here, it starts over each offseason,” Mitchell said. “If you don’t do anything in the offseason, I feel like it all goes away.”
Wide receivers coach Michael Johnson believes Mitchell will be a guy Herbert can lean on as the top receiver.
“If you’re gonna be the number one guy, you have to be a guy we can count on each and every week and it starts with habits,” Michael Johnson said. “We’re gonna make sure we get him to come to work every day. The older they get, the more they are able to handle that situation.”
Johnson III is the third major returner. He led the team with two catches of over 50 yards in his freshman season. That kind of big-play potential, paired with a healthy Herbert, should provide a major uptick in production.
“It’s great,” Johnson III said. “He can throw you open even if you aren’t all the way open. There’s just that chemistry on the field. It’s unspoken.”
Redshirt-freshman Daewood Davis, sophomore scout-team standout Demetri Burch, special teamer Jaylon Redd and early-enrollee Jalen Hall are some of the newcomers fighting for passes from Herbert.
“Our quarterback is pretty special,” Michael Johnson said. “Guys like being around him. He can get you the ball. All you gotta do is run and get open and he’ll find you. It’s a great opportunity for a young wide receiver.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack