EUGENE — There’s a wide open battle at quarterback for Oregon, just not at the top of the depth chart.
Anthony Brown Jr.’s spot as QB1 has not been seriously challenged this offseason, and though Jay Butterfield, Ty Thompson and Robby Ashford could each get some work with the starting offense in fall camp and during Saturday’s first fall scrimmage, the battle among the freshmen is primarily for who will be the backup.
“Their performances merit an opportunity and they’ll get it,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “We feel confident that that room is talented enough to play at a championship level.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said each of the team’s younger quarterbacks had solid springs and need to continue to improve their understanding of the offense. With one less scrimmage in fall camp due to offseason NCAA rules changes, Moorhead said the two Saturday game-like practices will “shine a brighter light on the evaluation process” than usual.
“Coach fosters an atmosphere of competition here and I think that makes everybody better,” Moorhead said. “At a certain point you’re going to have to name a 1, a 2, a 3 and a 4 for practice and rep purposes. But from the standpoint that that’s always going to be static and be the same throughout the whole season, we’re always competing and guys have opportunities. You don’t have to like the spot you’re in but you have to work to change it. …”
“I think you want to have a starter and then you want to have a 2 and a 3 behind him that are capable and ready if their number is called upon. In years past at different schools we’ve had two QB packages with guys in the game at the same time, but to me you want a starter, you want to go with that guy and have 2, 3 and 4 if their number is called upon.”
Cristobal said Oregon will not have its quarterbacks go live for full-contact during fall camp, so their elusiveness and mobility will be assessed with the eye test and metrics provided by GPS data.
Butterfield was consistently the second quarterback on the field during the spring and has showed the same level of arm strength in the opening days of fall camp.
The second-year freshman led touchdown drives in two spring scrimmages and is trying to get bigger and stronger heading into the season. Butterfield said he’s weighing between 220-225 pounds and wants to fill out a bit more as a traditional pocket passer.
“I’m not as athletic as the other guys coming in running 4.4-4.5 speed, they’re blazing fast,” Butterfield said. “I try to bring my intelligence and my book smarts to the table and my accuracy throwing the ball down the field, intermediate and short throws. I don’t think arm strength plays as much as the other things. Arm strength is obviously important, but I don’t rank it as high as the other things such as IQ.”
Butterfield is also taking in lessons from Brown and recognizes the importance of whatever role he’s able to earn this fall.
“Be ready for every opportunity I’m given, whether it’s the backup role, whatever it is,” he said. “(Brown)’s helmet falls off in the middle of the game or we’re blowing a team out and coach calls my name, no matter what I’m going to be ready to go in.”
Thompson, the highest-rated high school quarterback prospect to sign with UO, moved the ball well during the spring game (8 of 12 for 97 yards). He’s got the size and play-making ability with his arm and feet, but gaining more experience is crucial to Thompson’s development and he said decision-making is where he is always looking to improve.
While he obviously wants to play, Thompson is prioritizing team performance.
“My goal is to make as many plays as possible with whatever opportunities I’m given,” he said. ‘If I don’t ever see the field and we win however many games or however successful we are, I just want the team to be as best as possible in the best situation. I don’t have any personal goals as far as stats or anything like that; I feel like that’s superficial as far as the quarterback standpoint. The goal should be more winning football games and taking the team to the next level.”
Ashford closed the spring game with a touchdown throw and game-winning two-point conversion run. He threw on the first day of fall camp but didn’t during the early periods of practice on Saturday or Tuesday.
The second-year freshman said he’d like to go live in a practice to showcase his full mobility, but understands the coaches’ preference to avoid contact and that the position will still be determined largely by decision-making and throwing ability.
“Me being able to create plays with my feet, I feel like that’s where it can be a game-changer,” Ashford said. “If you have a quarterback that’s able to run — even (Butterfield), he’s not the most mobile but Butters can still make the plays that he needs to do with his feet. Ty can make the plays with his feet. (Brown) can. Our whole quarterback room can. We fit our offense great.
“I feel like being able to have that asset to my game and being able to stand in the pocket and throw it around with the great play calls we have called up has been great. Being able to make plays out of nothing and be able to tuck it and run when I need to has been my biggest aspect.”
Each of the younger signal-callers credited Brown for his tutelage, acumen and experience. Even though not officially announced yet, Brown’s spot is not in question.
“(Brown) has done nothing but earn those No. 1 reps,” Ashford said. “That’s not even up for discussion. A guy like him nobody really knows, everybody’s sleeping on him, which I love to see because I know how he is. He’s going to turn a lot of heads. … Being able to be under a guy like him has been great because he has so much knowledge, so much experience, he’s taught me so much.”