The dream is finally becoming a reality for Dan Lanning. Spring football is here, and he gets the chance to lead his team onto the field for the first spring as a head coach.
He compared his excitement for Thursday to a kid waking up on Christmas morning — a feeling of unparalleled joy.
"My favorite holiday is Christmas, so last night was like Christmas Eve," Lanning said. "Like going to bed and couldn't fall asleep, and you wake up early. Just excited to see your guys get out there and move."
The 35-year-old first-time head coach met with reporters after the Ducks' first of 15 spring practices on the schedule, including the spring game. He described the juice that the team played with on the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex practice fields in the crisp Eugene sunshine.
"I told our guys I haven't been around a lot of bad first days, and I certainly still feel that way," Lanning said. "Today was not a bad first day. There was great energy, enthusiasm, and a lot of buy in. Obviously our first chance as coaches to see what our guys do with the ball in their hands, and we saw some explosive plays out there on both sides of the ball."
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This isn't the first time that Lanning and his coaching staff have seen his team on the field, as they've held practices since January. But he remarked that the Ducks played with an extra jolt on the first day of spring.
"I thought our guys played with a different speed and enthusiasm than we've seen so far," Lanning said. "Obviously, that's going to happen on day one, so really the challenge for us is to see what we're going to do with this next day and the day after that."
Lanning said there was an "overwhelming" understanding of the players' hunger to compete, and it was evident on the field.
"There was a little chatter out there between both sides of the ball. You like to see that a little bit as a coach, but obviously we're on the same team."
In terms of personnel, there were plenty of headlines arising from the spring roster that was released on Thursday. Most notably were some of the position updates, including Seven McGee listed at wide receiver, Adrian Jackson moving to inside linebacker, and Jackson Powers-Johnson and Jonah Miller testing their skills on the defensive line.
These moves aren't set in stone, however, as Lanning's philosophy on cross-training compares to that of Mario Cristobal's, but extends to both sides of the ball rather than mainly the offensive line.
"Every situation is fluid. We're not going to throw our head in here and say that there's only a limitation on what one guy can do," Lanning said. "Every guy in our program is gonna learn multiple positions. But we're starting it right now where we think they can impact Oregon football the best."
Another key headline was the players left off of the roster from last year's team — safety JJ Greenfield, defensive tackle Jaylen Smith, and wide receiver Lance Wilhoite.
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Lanning declined to speak on the status of those players, saying the team is "really just focusing right now on the guys that are here."
One of the guys that is in Eugene is Anthony Jones, who is the only 2022 signee in Eugene as spring ball begins. Jones, who flipped from Texas during the early signing period, has impressed Lanning with his demeanor and his development early on.
"I think Anthony found out quick that it really doesn't matter how old you are anymore," Lanning said of the freshman linebacker. "He certainly has a lot of areas for growth, but we're also not babying him along the way. He's coming along really well. He's working really hard, and I think he has super high expectations for himself."
Another linebacker that will have plenty of eyes throughout spring as he recovers from injury is Justin Flowe. Now six months removed from his injury, Flowe is slowly getting back to full strength, but Lanning said that the staff is "continuing to assess" his health.
"I hate to put a timeline on anything just because if it's up to me, we'd have him out there yesterday, but we've got to do it the right mode and temperament," Lanning said. "Justin's ready to be out there, ready to roll, and we're going to continue to progress him and work him in as he can. As he continues to take steps forward, we'll keeping pushing the envelope there but obviously keeping his health and safety at the front of our approach."
Flowe will be learning his third defense in three years once he steps back onto the field. With so many defensive minds on the staff like Lanning, Tosh Lupoi, and Matt Powledge, it remains to be seen what kind of schemes the Ducks run.
Certainly the Ducks' staff has been working relentlessly to build a championship-caliber defense "from the ground up" as Lanning said, but similarly to Tim DeRuyter's philosophy last year, throwing an entire new system at them with brand new terminology will only slow players down.
"I've kind of always been a guy that feels like you can throw it all at them and then we'll see what sticks," Lanning said. "But that being said, we're certainly gonna be a little bit more limited in our menu than we've been in the past. Today wasn't a super limitation. Today, you want to go out there and you want to see your guys play fast, so if we're making a bunch of schematic errors on offense or defense, than we're doing too much, and that wasn't the case."
There's a long way to go for Lanning and his staff to fully install the new systems and put a team on the field that's ready to compete, especially with a season-opening date against Georgia that will require the Ducks to play their best football from Week 1.
Despite the pressure that a first-time head coach at a program like Oregon must feel right now, Lanning is proud to be in the position he's in and isn't taking anything for granted.
"I'm excited and extremely blessed," Lanning said. "We're not going to be a team or a coaching staff that has the 'poor me's.' We realize how fortunate we are to get to wear the 'O.' I'm certainly encouraged and thrilled to be a guy that gets to wear the 'O' and excited to see where this team goes."
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