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Don't expect a drop off offensively at Oregon in 2017

New coach Willie Taggart, center, keeps an eye on a pair of starters -- running back Royce Freeman, left, and quarterback Justin Herbert -- during spring drills. Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP

EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert's responsibilities have changed dramatically in the past year.

Last April, living at his parents' home about a mile away from Autzen Stadium, he was tasked with leading his high school baseball team, finishing his homework on time and cleaning up after the family dog, Lola (his least favorite chore).

Now, with seven collegiate starts under his belt for the Ducks, he has been given the reins to an offense aiming to return to its former glory in its first season under new coach Willie Taggart thanks to an abundance of returning starters and talent.

"I'm really excited," Herbert said. "We've got a lot of tools, a lot of pieces of the puzzle. We just have to put them in the right places."

And while Taggart will be tasked with getting those pieces in the right places, it will be Herbert who will be left as the puzzle master on the field, finding the pairs and connections. Lucky for both of those guys, their puzzle is one that seems to already have the border completed.

The Ducks return eight offensive starters, the second most of any Pac-12 team. And more important, they haven't lost more than one starter out of any given position group.

Unlike last season, which featured four first-year starters on the offensive line, the Ducks will now start a unit that -- while still young -- has basically played together for the past year. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal says he has seen flashes of that trait this spring. Given that cohesion and the growing pains the group has already experienced, the Ducks are probably looking only for a starting offensive guard to fill the spot vacated by Cam Hunt; beyond that, Oregon is just building depth and fostering competition.

Running behind that line is not only Royce Freeman, who surprisingly decided to return for his final season of eligibility, but also backups Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit, who both proved themselves as go-to players last season when Freeman was sidelined because of injury. "The three-headed monster," as coaches have dubbed the unit, features varying skill sets that have all proved effective at gaining yards.

"It's a heck of a combination," Cristobal said. "It's kind of like baseball. If you just have a fastball pitcher, eventually they’re going to hit one out of the park. If you've got a good fastball, a curve, a slider, it's a little bit harder to defend or hit it. For us, with those different types of backs, I think it makes us a little more dangerous on offense."

During the past two seasons, that trio has combined for nearly 71 percent of the Ducks' rushing yardage and 44 of Oregon's 63 rushing touchdowns.

Oregon's pass game, however, has suffered some departures. The Ducks lost wide receivers Devon Allen (retirement), Dwayne Stanford (graduation) and Jalen Brown (transfer) in the offseason as well as Oregon's top three tight ends from a season ago (Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis).

Taggart hasn't used tight ends heavily in the pass game in his Gulf Coast offense -- neither of his top two tight ends at USF caught more than two passes in a single game in 2016 -- but even so, Herbert says he thinks Oregon's tight ends are "such a mismatch that we need to use." In that category, the Ducks return Jacob Breeland, a 6-foot-5 rising redshirt-sophomore who was on the receiving end of Herbert's first first-down completion of his Oregon career.

And even if the puzzle doesn't always call for connections between Herbert and Breeland, Herbert will still have Darren Carrington II (who led the Ducks in receiving in 2016 and was the team's second-leading receiver in 2015), Charles Nelson (the team's second-leading receiver in 2016) and Dillon Mitchell (who played six games as a true freshman last season) to lean on. And he'll get a bit more help with the coaches moving Malik Lovette from defensive back to wide receiver.

"They're an athletic bunch," Herbert said. "We're going to try and get them the ball in space and have them make plays."

With eight returning offensive starters and playmakers all over the field, Taggart is excited to get rolling and to bring Oregon's offense back to a level that brought eyes to the West Coast every Saturday night.

And Herbert -- who a year ago was still just a kid living at home with his parents -- is excited, too. Which is fair, because being the puzzle master of this enticingly dangerous offense seems like far more fun than cleaning up after Lola at the Herbert household.