In the words of the immortal Groucho Marx, nepotism is all right as long as you keep it in the family.
With Nick Aliotti retiring Oregon has both a challenge and an opportunity in hiring the next defensive coordinator.
After Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Marcus Mariota and Hroniss Grasu elected to stay in school, the Ducks are ranked #3 or better in the preseason polls. They're a national title contender in 2014.
Can we communicate?: Todd Orlando, Oregon defensive coordinator candidate, works practice this summer at Utah State, where he coached a group that allowed 17.1 points a game, 7th best in the nation while competing in the offense-happy Mountain West. They held USC to 17, shut out Colorado State, and topped Boise State 34-23.
The Ducks lose 6 starters from the 2013 defense, a defense that allowed 164.3 yards per game on the ground, the worst in five years. Five defensive tackles graduate, and in November, linebackers couldn't fill a hole.
Oregon needs a transformation on defense, a mix of innovation and will that maximizes its talent.
John Neal has done a great job for the Ducks as secondary coach. 247 Sports just came out with its national recruiting rankings and Neal is the highest rated Duck coach at 27th in the country (Scott Frost is next at 67). Neal's unit has been the top-performing group on the Oregon defense ever since he arrived 10 seasons ago.
He's groomed all-conference and all-pro players, lock-down cornerbacks and slobberknocking safeties, ballhawks against the pass, fierce in run support. In the Civil War there is no win without Ifo's interception in the end zone or Terrance Mitchell forcing a fumble at the 3. At the Alamo Bowl Avery Patterson ignited a 30-7 victory with a 37-yard pick six on the first series of the game. They play the way he taught them, competing on every play.
The 57-year-old from from Foothill JC and BYU earns $322,833 as defensive backs coach, and the hope is that he'll stay in the event that he's passed over for the coordinator job. They Ducks need him: with conference and national title hopes on the line they have to replace three starters in the secondary. Whether as coordinator or assistant, Neal is the perfect guy to mold a new back four around Ekpre-Olomu, coaching up part-time starter Erick Dargan, five-star verbal commit Arrion Springs, 3-year contributor Dior Mathis, and a bevy of young talent and kids that have waited their turn in the program.
In 2012, the Ducks led the country with 26 interceptions, returned for 502 yards and four touchdowns. They were playing the way Neal taught them to play, and he's been consistent in both his results and methods since arriving here from Alabama-Birmingham.
Neal's a tireless worker and a dedicated recruiter and teacher with a great knowledge of the game. He sharpens his skills at coaching clinics and in film study. As defensive coordinator at UAB he crafted a Top Ten defense using an aggressive 4-3 scheme. He's coached in the SEC.
Oregon's four principal candidates for DC are Neal, Clancy Pendergast, Randy Shannon, and Todd Orlando.
Pendergast and Shannon have impressive resumes, but neither is a long-term solution. Shannon coached five Top Ten defenses at Miami in the early 2000s, winning a national championship in 2001 with a squad that allowed just 9.2 points a game. He's a 4-3 proponent who emphasizes pressure and intimidation. The '01 championship team allowed just 12 touchdowns all year while scoring 7.
Pendergast transformed USC defense into a ferocious, attacking unit with his 5-2 scheme, employing three down linemen while playing the outside linebackers up close to the line of scrimmage. In his previous stop at Cal he shut down Chip Kelly's offense in a 2009 meeting, allowing just one offensive touchdown in a 15-13 squeaker at Strawberry Canyon.
The problem with Shannon and Pendergast is that their eyes are elsewhere: Pendergast has no taste for the recruiting wars and covets an NFL job. Shannon wants to be a head coach again after an unsuccessful stint with the Hurricanes and one-year rehabilitation tours as a linebacker coach at TCU and Arkansas.
Todd Orlando is the intriguing, compelling candidate.
Imagine how this intensity could transform the Oregon defense.
Orlando burns 5,000 calories a day in practice. He never stops teaching. Chip Kelly used to say that if coaches didn't take stretching seriously, players wouldn't either, and it's dramatic how the 40-year-old Utah State defensive coordinator starts employing the philosophy and the vision of his defense starting in warmups. A former inside linebacker for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, a three-year letterman who was a part of the Badger's first Rose Bowl win in 40 years, Orlando coaches with linebacker passion. He has a degree in Agricultural Economics, and his approach reflects both a love of the game and a thorough understanding of systems, logistics and motivation.
He's a rising star in coaching who combines the intensity of Nick Aliotti with the vision, and attention to detail of Kelly.