Justin Herbert received the snap, electing to keep the ball and ran after quickly diagnosing the Wisconsin front. As Herbert neared the first down marker, freshman receiver Mycah Pittman frantically gestured towards junior receiver Johnny Johnson III, alerting him to quickly rotate his body and block an oncoming Badger defensive back.
Pittman sprinted ahead to take on a second oncoming Badger as the duo allowed Herbert to go untouched the rest of the way to the end zone.
“It’s a rare opportunity,” Herbert said of his run. “It’s something I haven’t experienced too often. But it was great, and Johnny and Mycah did a great job blocking on the outside. And that’s what led me to get in the end zone, and a big thanks to those guys for leading the way.”
It’s unsung plays like these; the little ones that fly under the radar, that define Oregon’s 2019 recruiting class — head coach Mario Cristobal’s first official cycle.
Oregon’s highest-rated class of all time delivered.
The Ducks, who were a top 10 team for much of the season, received an unprecedented collection of contributions from their freshman class in the program’s best season since 2014.
Some of them were stars and instant impact freshman. Others played key roles as backups, bolstering and deepening already sound position groups. And like every freshman class, plenty didn’t see the field at all.
Despite the varied roles, though, the group has much in common. They all trust their coaches and in doing that, have forced their coaches to reciprocate the same level of trust they had previously given to them.
“It starts with having a plan,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “You have to show them the plan and show them the vision and they have to believe in it.”
The freshmen worked hard and competed, learning from their upperclassmen peers while challenging and sharpening them simultaneously.
“He’s a special player,” Penei Sewell said of freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. “Every day we make each other better, and he’s getting better every day. I can’t wait for what his future holds.”
Nothing was handed to the young recruits, not even the class’ elite prospects. No matter their role, position or health status, they made an impact wherever possible.
After receiving high praise in both spring and fall camps, Pittman suffered an injury that would keep him out four games to start the year as fellow receivers Jaylon Redd and Johnson began breakout campaigns.
“It was tough,” Pittman said. “It was tough on my faith, it was tough on my family, tough on myself. It really hurt.”
Even once he did return, he didn’t receive consistent playing time or targets, and once he had finally grasped a steady role, he broke his arm.
Pittman missed three more games before returning for the Rose Bowl. He didn’t quit, though, and when Redd missed the game for personal reasons, he finally had his chance.
Along with crucial blocks, Pittman’s tough third-down conversion across the middle helped ensure an Oregon win late in the fourth quarter.
He wasn’t the only success story.
Thibodeaux showed that Oregon is the program to beat on the west coast, validating his decision to leave his home turf in California. He patiently waited behind Gus Cumberlander and when the senior was lost for the season due to a knee injury, he stepped in and produced nine sacks, which led the team.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better and I’m going to continue to get better,” Thibodeaux said. “You could say it’s only up from here, as long as I keep putting in the work.”
Another California native found success, too, albeit in a role not many expected. Cornerback Mykael Wright made plays for a deep secondary, but ultimately became Oregon’s best kick returner, taking two to the house.
Linebacker Mase Funa battled through rehab from a season-ending knee injury his senior year of high school. He changed positions and began thriving in his new home on the edge of the line, collecting four sacks. Now, Funa figures to be a mainstay in what could be one of college football's most fearsome front sevens in 2020.
Some of the less heralded recruits chipped in, too. Keyon Ware-Hudson, Josh Delgado and several three stars, such as Trikweze Bridges, DJ James and Brandon Dorlus all had moments in the spotlight.
Having worked so hard to become contributors, the group won’t soon give up their jobs, at least not without a fight. They will, however, continue to be pushed. Not only will they have to battle with upperclassmen and another incoming recruiting class, but with the many members of the 2019 class who are still hungry for a piece of success.
“The focus always has to be on getting better,” Cristobal said.
With such a motivated and goal-driven head coach, who stresses preparation, accountability and attention to detail, it’s not surprising that his first recruiting class adheres to a similar mentality.