Canzano: Dan Lanning is pulling the Oregon Ducks back together
Spring scrimmage was a bridge between past and future.
EUGENE — Former University of Oregon receiver Keanon Lowe was here.
So was Marcus Mariota, along with his wife and their new baby daughter, Makaia. At one point on Saturday, former Ducks great Royce Freeman stood beside Dennis Dixon who was not far from ex-UO stars Nick Pickett and Jevon Holland.
Down the way — Tyrell Crosby.
Beyond him — Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Jeff Maehl.
UO held its spring football game on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. The “Green” team beat the “Yellow” team 23-20. I have some football takeaways. But the one thing that became evident to me on Saturday was that coach Dan Lanning is a unifier of people.
Remember the letter?
It was signed by 14 former players and sent to Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens a few days before he hired Lanning in December of 2021. The letter implored the AD to consider and value the program’s rich past when it hired the next football coach.
Mario Cristobal was gone to Miami. Before him, Willie Taggart ditched Oregon for Florida State. The former players wondered if UO had forgotten its roots. The program was built on the backs ex-players who felt deeply connected at one time. Now, they felt adrift.
Part of the letter read:
“This feeling comes not from wins and losses, but rather, the idea that in the attempt to chase a national championship, we are losing what made us great in the first place. This is not a Blue Blood program. Our success was built on the continuity and hard work of the players and coaches in the 30 years prior to 2016 and we, as players, feel we are dangerously close to losing our identity.”
Lanning got the job. The ex-players gave it their polite blessing. Some of them figured the hire of another outsider — Georgia’s defensive coordinator — signaled they would remain disconnected from the Oregon athletic department. But something else happened instead.
Lanning opened his arms wider than any coach in recent history and a line of former players walked back through the door. And there was no greater evidence of the bridge between the program’s past and future than the scene that unfolded on Saturday.
Spring games sometimes turn into lip service. It’s difficult to tell if anyone is really that talented — or bad — when the roster is splintered up. But I’ve never seen a collection of alumni stand in such proximity to current players and recruits taking it all in. The program unity was notable.
Some other takeaways from the spring game:
• Troy Franklin is special. The Oregon receiver caught five passes for 78 yards and a touchdown in the scrimmage. He emerged last season as Bo Nix’s top target and I expect Franklin may challenge UO’s single-season record of 77 receptions shared by Maehl and Samie Parker. He might also make a run at the school’s single-season receiving record of 1,184 yards (Dillon Mitchell).
• Offensive coordinator Will Stein stretched the field with both quarterbacks. Kris Hutson caught a 70-yard strike from Ty Thompson. And Tez Johnson hauled in a 63-yard reception. It’s apparent that UO has what might be its most gifted group of receivers in some time. They’re going to give opposing defenses fits.
• Defensive end Jordan Burch is a load. The South Carolina transfer is physically imposing and could be a problem for opposing defenses this season. Oregon’s defense needed to grow fangs and Burch’s arrival is a nice development.
• I had two photographers present at Autzen Stadium on Saturday. Naji Saker and Serena Morones combined for an amazing joint photo gallery. It’s worth a look and captured the event beautifully.
• Long-time Autzen Stadium public-address announcer Don Essig, 84, told me that he’s working with some “tricky” names this season. Count Matayo Uiagalelei (pronounced: ooh-ee-UNGAH-ley-ley) among them.
Lanning clearly paid attention to that letter. The sideline at Autzen Stadium near the end of the scrimmage was a fun scene. It could have been titled, “The Ghosts of Oregon Ducks Football Past.” I watched as Mariota slapped backs with a few players on the “Yellow” sideline, including sophomore offensive lineman Dave Iuli.
After the game, I tracked down offensive lineman Jackson Powers-Johnson. He was standing off to one side, watching the Pac-12 Network staff talk with Nix and Franklin. I walked over and asked Powers-Johnson what he was thinking.
“This is going to be a good football team,” he told me. “We’re already closer than we were last year. We’re spending more time together. We’re just really comfortable with each other and close.
“We love each other.”
Then, he had to hurry off. All of the Oregon linemen, starters and reserves, were posing for a group photograph on the field. They huddled together, sweaty and smiling, in the sunshine. Powers-Johnson ran up and sprawled himself on the ground in front of the group, posing.
A lot of coaches preach family. I think Lanning means it. Saturday’s scrimmage had the feel of a family reunion that spanned multiple generations. No better place to chart the future than to look back and grasp an understanding of how you got to the present. That’s culture. That’s legacy building.
A few minutes before that group photo, Lanning walked past and saw me talking 1-on-1 with Powers-Johnson.
“Give him the scoop,” the Ducks coach shouted.
Coach, the story on Saturday was difficult to miss.
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I"m reminded of the long time great coach for Oregon named Len Casanova who in his 90's was still promoting, attending and connected to his players, coaches and the school. In fact Bill Moss once said, "Everything Oregon athletics is today we owe to Len Casanova." Possibly, a bit of Len C will emerge in Dan L...
Love it! This is what true sports are all about.
Go Coach and give these players a sense of community and togetherness!