Things could really come together for the Oregon defense this season. There are some strong reasons to believe they’ll improve significantly on last season, with improvements in attitude, leadership, approach and experience (Scott Olmos, USA Today Sports Images).
In 2013 the Ducks ranked 6th in the conference defensively in rushing defense, allowing 3.82 yards a carry, and big rushing days by Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State at the end of the year. Even in the 30-7 Alamo Bowl win, the Longhorns’ Malcolm Brown pounded them for 130 yards, 5.0 yards a carry, a yard shy of his season high. Nick Aliotti’s last unit gave up a 40% conversion rate on 3rd downs, 46% on 4th down. They looked soft at times, particularly as the season wore on. (Stats from collegefootballstats.com.)
The 2014 Ducks have gotten to work this off season and came into spring practice visibly stronger. Sam Kamp, Alex Balducci and Stetzon Bair led a group that made significant gains in weight and strength, as much as 25 to 30 lbs. Balducci is at 305 now, and Kamp is listed at 287. When they lined up against the offense in the Spring Game there were some tree-trunk arms, with deep visible veins running through them, more power and push. It was a theme in spring camp interviews, the commitment to getting tougher, with an eye to snapping the Stanford losing streak at two. The Ducks get The Cardinal in Autzen on November 1st, a game that could feature two Top Five teams, with ESPN Game Day returning and a national spotlight.
The Cardinal, meanwhile, have challenges of their own. Ted Miller reported yesterday at the ESPN PAC-12 blog that Stanford returns just 15 starts on the offensive line this season, the fewest in the PAC-12 North. Statistically, offensive line experience is a key indicator of college football success. They’ll still be contenders, however, with a great system, good coaching and a tough, physical defense, plus they return an experienced quarterback in Kevin Hogan. They’ve recruited brilliantly over the last several years, and the new starters up front are four and five-star players who have contributed in the rotation. The one returning starter is massive left tackle Andrus Peat, a future early-round NFL draft pick.
The Oregon players and coaches aren’t looking ahead to that game, at least not publicly, but the memory of two frustrating defeats over the last two years helps drive their preparation. They know they have to get more physical, stronger, no longer pushed around at the line of scrimmage.
Some people forget before these last two low-scoring losses in which the men from Palo Alto dictated the pace, tempo and character of the game, Oregon hung 50+ on Andrew Luck and Stanford in 2011 and 2010, on their way to three straight conference championships. As Scott Reed pointed out last week at Duck Sports Authority, first Stanford had an Oregon problem, then Oregon developed a Stanford problem. Fans could be ready for another cycle in what has become the highest profile rivalry in West Coast football since USC got blasted with sanctions. That ends this year too.
In addition to the commitment in the weight room, the Ducks have several other factors that should help them make more of a dent in opposing helmets and on the stat sheet. Although they suffered some losses to graduation, they return a key leader at every level of the defense, DeForest Buckner and Tony Washington up front, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick at linebacker, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who may be the nation’s best defensive back, at lock-down corner. These five should provide continuity, and Erick Dargan has been a top interceptor and ballhawk off the bench in his first two seasons. After a discipline issue late last year he seems to have developed new maturity and leadership ability.
Together this group of veterans will anchor the defense, and there is a lot of speed, depth and athletic ability around them. Players like Torrodney Prevot, Tyrell and Tyree Robinson are potential starters, physically gifted and aggressive. Fans will like what new outside linebacker coach Erik Chinander brings to the squad. The son of a high school football coach who worked with Jerry Azzinaro on the Philadelphia Eagles staff the last two years, Chinander brings extreme attention to detail to his work. He was a graduate assistant and intern at Oregon from 2010-2102, and Andrew Greif of the Oregonian reported this spring, “When asked to break down film, Chinander delivered detailed notes in return, with additional observations in the margin.”
Chinander’s a grinder, a youthful, high-energy guy who could develop into a future defensive coordinator, maybe with the Ducks when Don Pellum retires a few years from now. He relates well to players and he’s a tireless recruiter. From Azzinaro he learned the value of intensity and demanding constant effort. As an undersized guard at Iowa, he learned how to work hard and get the most out of technique and film study. From his father, he learned to love the game.
Surrounded by veteran coaches with long histories of success in developing next-level players, Chinander adds the new blood and the willingness to spill a little. His presence will make the Oregon defense play with more urgency and abandon, the productive swagger Don Pellum was talking about when installed as the new defensive coordinator this winter.
It’s no knock on Aliotti, who did a great job in his 20 years at Oregon. He won a lot of big games and coached three Rose Bowl teams, including one in 1994 that got there specifically because of his defense. But the infusion of a new attitude, increased physicality, a fresh approach and new leadership will make the Ducks a more determined and effective defense in 2014. They’ll fly to the football, get more key stops, and turn the ball around the other way.