HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — When Willie Taggart left for Florida State, Oregon football players took a vote and decided they wanted offensive line and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to take over.
They got their wish.
“First time [Cristobal] came in the room, I could see the smile on everyone’s faces,” redshirt senior defensive end Jalen Jelks said. “He walked in with the biggest smile on his face and I was like, ‘this was going to be great.’ I could just tell from the way he walked in from his demeanor.”
In Cristobal’s one season at Oregon as an offensive coordinator, the Ducks offense rushed for an average of 268 yards per game, and 40 rushing touchdowns — the most since 2015. The former Alabama assistant head coach and offensive line coach managed to retain some of his staff.
“They try to balance the work with us whether that’s extra time outside or extra time in the weight room,” Jelks said. “I don’t think we’ve really had a staff that’s contributed that much to players.”
Cristobal was the interim head coach in the Las Vegas Bowl, which the Ducks lost 38-28 to Boise State. Oregon goes into this season with high hopes and expectations of nine or 10 wins by bowl season.
“This season has nothing but opportunity in front of it, and we’ve got to do it,” Cristobal said. “There is no way to sugar coat it or try to dance around it, there is not. We’ve just got to get it done.”
That positive energy that Cristobal brought into the locker room when he officially took charge as the head coach has players believing in the staff’s plan.
“I think what coach Cristobal brought in was a commitment to each other, to the family of Oregon and that’s something that’s really apparent in everything we do,” quarterback Justin Herbert said. “It’s something that shows in the way we behave on and off the field and it’s something I can be behind more.”
After Taggart’s move to FSU and Cristobal’s promotion, retaining defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt became the top priority.
Oregon’s defense only could improve after finishing the 2016 season as one of the worst defenses in college football. In 2017, there was an improvement under Leavitt and the Ducks expect that trend to continue, but the team’s overall depth could present an issue this fall.
“I don’t think we’re as deep as some of the other schools,” Herbert said.
However, Leavitt has a system to keep the defense deep enough to compete.
“Coach Leavitt always says you pick your 11 guys and you always have your water pool — your pool of guys that if something hits the fan you can always pull them out the water, throw them back in the pond,” Jelks said. “He always has five or six guys on the backburner.”
The belief in Cristobal and Leavitt has the Ducks dreaming again. There’s a different feeling this time.
“I feel like all the positive buzz is coming straight from the coaches,” Jelks said. “They’re a very positive group.”
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter @ShawnMedow