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The crucial change needed in Oregon football

In the Gang Green Rose Bowl season in ’94 Nick Aliotti’s defense won games  22-7, 23-7, 10-9, and 17-13. 

In the 2002 Fiesta Bowl Colorado came in with a vaunted rushing game that was supposed to crush the Ducks, but Aliotti devised a plan that held them to 49 yards on the ground in a 38-16 victory.

His guys, his way: one of Nick Aliotti’s great strengths as a defensive coordinator is his devotion to his players. Exchanging a pre-game handshake with Terrance Mitchell before the spring game last season, the warmth and affection is genuine and deep. That’s the way he leads and teaches.

 

When the Ducks went to 2011 National Championship Game, Oregon held Cam Newton and the pride of the SEC to 22 points. 

Last season the Men of Oregon won their second straight BCS bowl as the defense shut down Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and Kansas State, 35-17. An offensive machine in the Big-12 that year, the Wildcats managed 283 yards, 4.04 per play, and turned the ball over twice.

Yet this year the Ducks have faltered, and defensive struggles were a big part of it. In two losses the front seven was gashed by Tyler Gaffney and Ka’Deem Carey, giving up 42 points to Arizona as a 22-point favorite. Falling out of the national championship race and then coughing up an opportunity to play for the conference championship and the Rose Bowl, Aliotti’s crew allowed 859 yards of offense and 69% conversions on third and fourth downs. The loss of confidence and the apparent absence of a will to compete was a misery to watch, and the Ducks didn’t look much better defensively in wins over Utah and Oregon State. The Beavers hadn’t had a 100-yard rusher all year, but Terron Ward torched the UO D for 145 yards and 8.3 a carry as the visitors rolled up 545 yards in a game Oregon was losing until the last 29 seconds.

The 21-year veteran of the UO staff probably went through two water bottles in the fourth quarter as his group made two key stops, altogether coming up with three turnovers and three turnovers on downs in the 36-35 Civil War victory.

Passionate and committed, Nick Aliotti knows how to coach. He’s still the same coach whose defense held UCLA to 14 and Washington to 24 when the Ducks were 8-0, and he hasn’t forgotten how to use greaseboard in the space of five weeks.

The fiery ex-running back from Northern California is a magnet for message board dissections. Sports fans always want to somebody to blame, and from the safety of their computer keyboards, Aliotti becomes an easy target. Fire Allow-alotti, the screed goes. It’s the presumption of a quick fix. Get Ed Orgeron or Will Muschamp. Bring in Tosh Lupoi. Find out if Clancy Pendergast wants to hop on a plane.

People forget what’s been accomplished. They forget the 46 wins in the decade, the four BCS bowls, and the six ten-win seasons. They forget the big stops, the key turnovers, and the three BCS trophies in the Hatfield-Dowlin Center. For Phil Knight’s $68 million, they want something more.

Any discussion of what’s wrong with Oregon football and the Oregon staff has to begun with a careful acknowledgement of what’s right with it. Whatever shortcomings the Ducks have had in falling to 10-2, fans have to respect the man, the program and the commitment that has brought 21 years of steady improvement to Autzen Stadium. The offense got the headlines, but none of those wonderful moments, beating Michigan in the Big House, trumping Pete Carroll on Fright Night, sending the Beavers home empty six straight times and the Huskies ten, happen without some great coaching and leadership from Nick Aliotti.

Which doesn’t mean he gets a pass. A stand-up guy with big principles, he’s never asked for one. After the Stanford game he said:

“Good football team. Well-coached football team. I hate to say that they dominated the line of scrimmage because I don’t want to sell my guys short. That’s the only reason I hate saying that. They dominated me because my guys are awesome and warriors and they fought to the end, We almost had a chance there had we had a little bit more time; time just ran out.But they didn’t dominate my guys.They won the game, they won the line of scrimmage, don’t write anything negative about those kids. Write about me.”

Aliotti’s never ducked responsibility. He’s expressed frustration over officiating and notably had an embarrassing profanity-laced tirade about Mike Leach running roughshod over his third team in the fourth quarter of a 62-38 Oregon win, one that cost him $5,000, but he’s never ran away from a microphone or evaded a question. He’s owned the losses as well as the wins, and his commitment to teaching and improving has never wavered.

Fans ask, “what’s wrong with the Oregon defense?” and the first answer is that Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay and Dion Jordan graduated. The Ducks replaced three defensive stars with juniors and sophomores, and it shows. Linebackers aren’t getting to the holes and fail to finish plays. Bishop Sankey, Gaffney, Carey and Ward all ran downhill with impunity.

The Oregon 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense is predicated on defensive linemen tying up blockers and plugging gaps, with linebackers flowing to the football. The key component of a 3-4 is the nose tackle. Lined up over center, he has to command double teams on every play, and if he is to be a credible force in the defense, he has to defeat them a good percentage of the time.

Haloti Ngata isn’t walking through the locker room door with four fresh years of eligibility. Last time, he left after three, and ten years later, he’s still one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in pro football.

Stop right now and read this very carefully: the issue with Oregon’s defense is not size. It never was. Former Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award Winner Nick Fairley, who single-handedly dominated Oregon on the line of scrimmage in the 2011 championship game, measured 6-4, 291 at the NFL Combine four months later. Will Sutton is the 2013 PAC-12 Player of the Year. The Arizona State defensive tackle comes in at 6-1, 305. He played at 275 last year and was actually dramatically more effective, with 63 tackles,13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss as a junior (42/3.0/10.5 in 2013). The current Oregon d-line two-deep features:

Ricky Havili-Heimuli 6-4, 314

Wade Keliikipi, 6-3, 306

Alex Balducci, 6-4 297

Taylor Hart, 6-6 287

DeForest Buckner 6-7, 286

Arik Armstead 6-8, 280

They’re big enough to be effective. They’re in the wrong defense.

Against Stanford and their jumbo packages, Oregon should have been ready with a five or six-man line. Aliotti said they practiced some adjustments but said they weren’t sure they could recognize the Stanford personnel groups and get extra big bodies on the field in time. He’s paid to be sure about things like that.

True 3-4 nose tackles are rare in college football. To play this defense and execute it, you need a fierce, mean, unblockable monster over the ball, and four linebackers who can stick and move. The Ducks linebackers didn’t develop this year as quickly as Oregon fans would have hoped, and there wasn’t a true Mike linebacker on the roster. Derrick Malone was a warrior trying to be one at 6-2, 212. Rodney Hardrick has the right physical profile at 6-1, 243, but he’s a year away in terms of experience and recognition in real football time.

Malone led the team with 102 tackles, and beat his body to a pulp getting them. After twelve games he looks like Rocky in the scene where he says “Cut me, Mick.” Hardrick has had some great moments, including a blocked field goal for a touchdown and a 66-yard run with a fake punt. Defensively, he’s turned in 60 tackles and 3 fumble recoveries.

As a group, the Oregon linebackers have 6 sacks all season, 14 tackles for loss. That’s Malone, Hardrick, Rahim Cassell, Tyson Coleman. Boseko Lokombo and Joe Walker combined, for 12 games. Last year Jordan, Clay and Alonso combined for 225 stops, 14.5 sacks, 34.5 TFLs. Replacing three seniors of that caliber was a monumental task. Results suffered. 

It should be noted that Jordan’s replacements at the hybrid DE/OLB position, Tony Washington and Torrodney Prevot, actually out-performed him statistically. Washington has been stellar this year, the Ducks most productive pass rusher with 56 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 12 TFLs. Opponents contained him too well in the second half of the year, however. In his freshman season Prevot showed tremendous promise in spot play, 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, including one in the Civil War, a forced fumble, a recovery, even a pair of pass breakups on freakishly athletic plays.

There are two main problems with the Oregon defense. One, it’s too complicated. The Ducks run one-gap, two-gap, 3-4, 4-3 and a myriad of slant, stunt, blitz and coverage packages. Young players get overloaded and out of position. Players are thinking too much.

After the Arizona game, Aliotti told the media, “When it gets to be a game like that, when A tries to do B’s job, and B tries to do C’s job…who’s doing A’s job? That’s the best way that I can explain it to you.”

“When a team can run the ball as efficiently as they did, and boy did they, a lot of things open up.”

The mere fact the coach answered in this way reveals something critical about the Oregon defensive scheme: it’s getting in the way of players being physical and flying to the football. They’re not cohesive. They’re tentative. The scheme overwhelms them when things aren’t working.

The best defenses in football history were relentless and attacking. The dominated opponents and destroyed what they wanted to do. A big part of that is outstanding personnel, but another is want-to, and a scheme that frees athletes up to play with passion and aggressiveness.

A second part of the problem for the Oregon defense is that the current scheme doesn’t fit the personnel. With young linebackers and a deep, experienced defensive line, the Ducks should have been in a 4-3 this year, unleashed that athletic front four to attack the backfield. Forget about soaking up blocks and funneling running backs to the linebackers, who were having trouble getting there. Knock them on their can. Beat the man in front of you. Don’t plug gaps. Destroy them. 

During the year Taylor Hart, Wade K and DeForest Buckner, (all of them, really) had moments when they used their athleticism to destroy a play. Even a series of plays. But the heavily grease-boarded complex x’s and o’s of the Oregon system hamstrung this group. It needed to be simplified, and it needed to be reworked to take advantage of their exceptional athleticism and motors. Let them get after people. Keep it simple. Attack.

Football is ultimately more about matchups than scheme. “It’s not the x’s and the o’s…” But scheme can enhance or inhibit a group of athletes. This group was handicapped by what they were asked to do, and the linebackers were asked to do too much. Prevot, Tyrell Robinson and Danny Mattingly are tremendous talents. To get them in the lineup and playing earlier with abandon and purpose, the Ducks have to make what they’re doing more understandable and less confounding. The Ducks lost a promising four-star linebacker in Anthony Wallace of Skyline High School in Dallas, Texas, a true middle linebacker at 6-0, 235, partly because he couldn’t grasp the system, and his father was an ex-NFL player who’d tutored him since he was six.

People often say, why can’t the Ducks get the big SEC hog-mollies? They need to get bigger in the defensive front. Yes and no. That forgets that half of the PAC-12 is now running up-tempo spread offenses. The Ducks not only have to compete with Stanford, they have to prepare for spread attacks that run a play every 15 seconds. That takes versatility, mobility and agility. Big, fat guys, just for the sake of beefing up the roster card, aren’t the answer. It takes guys who can play in space and run in a conference full of speed. Not every successful defense is beefy. The dominating Miami Hurricanes of the ’90s and early 2000s are a notable example. Dennis Erickson built some incredibly physical defenses at Oregon State turning linebackers into defensive ends and strong safeties into linebackers, emphasizing quickness and aggression over size.

But most great defenses are physical, attacking and relentless. The ’83 Chicago Bears. Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants. The Ray Lewis Baltimore Ravens. They get after people. They knock people down. They have players who are perfect components in a cohesive system that understand their roles and have a clear purpose. They disrupt and destroy. There’s not a lot of pointing and confusion before the snap, except on the other side of the ball.

Oregon is recruiting plenty of athletes defensively now. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is one of the best in the country. Arrion Springs, who’s coming next summer, is in the same category, potentially. Don Pellum had a home visit this week with Jimmie Swain from Houston, Texas, one of the best young linebackers in the nation, 6-3, 229, with the frame to play at 235 as he matures.

People say, we need stud defenders like they have at Alabama, but those guys are rare, 20-30 of them available in the entire country in a given year. True 3-4 nose tackles are the scarcest of all. Oh, you can find a guy with the right dimensions, but finding one with the strength, quickness, intelligence, desire and intensity is another thing altogether.

Tonight Rika Levi, a 6-2, 350-lb. DT from College of San Mateo, announced he wouldn’t be taking a scheduled official visit to Washington this week in the wake of the coaching upheaval there. He’s a juco teammate of Hanitei Lousi, a 6-5, 295-lb. offensive linemen who visited Oregon last weekend. He’s big enough, but can he get off the ball at the PAC-12 level?

In highlights he looks strong and nasty, moves around very well for his prodigious size. Ron Aiken will give him a look. With JC guys, the trick is getting them graduated and into school, then getting them acclimated to a higher level of competition. It doesn’t always pan out, but the Ducks got tremendous results from Zac Clark, a stalwart on the 2010 PAC-12 Championship team and a contributor on the 2009 Rose Bowl squad. Clark, by the way, played at 6-2, 270, 42 tackles, 4 sacks and 9.5 TFLs as a senior, quick and disruptive.

Elite defenders don’t want to play in a system that will limit their pro potential or rein in what they can do. They want to be unleashed. They want to get after the quarterback and make plays, not merely tie up the guard and center and serve as a butler for a linebacker. 

After an incredible run at Oregon, Nick Aliotti has earned the right to call his shot on when to call it a career. Aliotti enjoys an occasional night of karaoke with family and friends, and the next time he goes, he should fire up “My Way.” He deserves to go out on his own terms, and the purpose of this website isn’t to scapegoat anyone or propose drastic and oversimplified solutions. The landscape of college football is littered with schools overrun by overzealous fans and boosters who demanded rash, quick-trigger decisions that destroyed continuity: Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, Colorado and California have each made a series of fire-the-old-guy/hire-the-hot-commodity decisions that sealed the doom of their once-fabled programs.

Success takes stability and a sound plan. There’s no place for scapegoating and unrealistic expectations, fly-blown, half-baked speculation. Neither Ed Orgeron and Tosh Lupoi have the track record or the credentials or the integrity to replace Nick Aliotti. When Coach Nick decides to leave, the logical and rational choice is John Neal. He’s a tremendous recruiter, a great teacher and motivator, a coach who teaches a philosophy of aggressiveness and always competing. He was the defensive coordinator for a Top Ten defense at Alabama-Birmingham before coming to Oregon. He’s a keen student of the game who understands the Oregon culture, tireless and intense. 

Neal will put a defense on the field that is prepared, physical, and relentless. When the time comes, he’s the perfect man for the job.

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