Since Rich Brooks left for the Rams Oregon has rarely been a team to rely on the defense. In as many ways as possible the Ducks are tradition-busters, inverting stereotypical formulas like “defense wins championships.” Chip Kelly made them into a Top Five team winning games 52-31 and 53-32. It’s just a better fit with the neon yellow shoes.
Even so, in every season there will be a game or games where the offense falters, and key moments where the team needs a key stop or three in a big game.
Rapping up: in just a few days the Ducks begin four weeks of squashing each other in hopes of finding the rhythm and the beat that will make them a Top Five act in 2014 (Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports images).
To do that, the Ducks need some key improvements on defense, leaps of maturation by three key players. They lose six defensive starters from the 2013 squad, though the replacements have plenty of experience in most cases.
It’s time for Arik Armstead to emerge as the player Duck fans hoped he would be. Now a junior, the 6-8, 296 defensive linemen has the size and agility to be an NFL player and a dominant force in the PAC-12, but he has to put together the technique and tenaciousness. Last year he recorded 15 tackles and one sack, adding two tackles and a sack in the Spring Game.
When he came to Eugene as a five-star prospect (a rating he earned chiefly for his potential as an offensive tackle, given his ideal dimensions and attributes for the job, long arms, good feet, big body) fans had visions of the next Haloti Ngata, unblockable and destructive, the monster in the middle the Ducks have enjoyed only a few times in their history, Rollin Putzier and Vince Goldsmith among the others.
So far Armstead has been too upright and too passive. He’s hampered somewhat by the defensive scheme, one that often requires interior linemen to tie up blocks and play caddy for the linebackers rather than attack. That might change some under Don Pellum, who favors aggressiveness, discipline and cohesiveness in his defense. The subtle changes Pellum makes will be something to watch in the season’s early games, especially with the Ducks facing some key challenges early, Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State in game two with a very strong running game coupled with effective play-action passing, a road game facing Washington State’s Air Raid in game four, and another road game versus Brett Hundley in UCLA in game six. The changes, adjustments and maturation have to come early. The Oregon defense has to come together on the fly.
If Armstead doesn’t make the leap to be that guy, Duck fans have to hope that DeForest Buckner or Alex Balducci do so. Junior college transfer Tua Talia should add some strength and depth to the unit. He’s 6-5, solidly built and exceptionally active and quick. Talia had five tackles in the Spring Game, including a TFL, with one pass breakup, making a bid to play immediately. At the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position, Tony Washington has earned three letters and emerged as one of the leaders of the team. He forced four fumbles last season while leading the team in both sacks and tackles for loss (7.5, 12).
Last year Oregon missed Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso in the middle, Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews before them. The Kelly Ducks had an unbroken chain of headiness and athleticism at inside linebacker in these four, players who were high-volume tacklers, smart, invariably in the right place at the right time. Two of the biggest plays in recent UO defensive history were turned in by Matthews and Alonso, Matthews punching the ball out in the fourth quarter against Cam Newton in the National Championship Game, Alonso diving for a crucial fourth quarter interception against Wisconsin in the 2012 Rose Bowl.
In 2013 the Ducks struggled on third and fourth down and couldn’t stop the run. Derrick Malone, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and departed safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson were making all the tackles, too often four to eight yards downfield.
Despite losing some depth when Rahim Cassell, Tyrell Robinson, Oshay Dunmore, and Brett Bafaro were lost to attrition, the Ducks need the linebacker group to get tougher and smarter this year. Rodney Hardrick and Joltin’ Joe Walker have to anchor the middle along with Malone, who is undersized but gritty as a strongside/middle linebacker. Young players Danny Mattingly and Jimmie Swain have to be rushed into contributing roles, and Tyson Coleman has to shake off a history of nagging injuries and boost his productivity. Now 6-1, 240 and a junior, he has the seasoning and the physical power plant to be an explosive and intimidating linebacker, but he needs consistency and determination to take that place. Coleman had 21 tackles last year, a career-high five starting against Washington State. Walker has to overcome a tendency to overrun plays. He knifed in for three tackles and a sack against Texas in the Alamo Bowl, four tackles in the spring game, so he may be coming around.
The key to the group is Hardrick. A first-year starter last year with 65 tackles, the 6-1, 231-lb. junior from Colton is a very dedicated football player who puts in his work in the film room and the weight room and plays with a lot of desire. He rumbled 66 yards with a fake punt last year against UCLA, erupted for 9 tackles against Stanford. He’s tough and physical, and the hope is that in his second year starting his recognitions will be more fluid and he’ll be able to play with a higher level and instinct and aggression. Hardrick is solid and driven, honorable mention Academic All-Conference last season. He and Malone could develop the kind of unspoken communication and synergy the Ducks got from Clay/Alonso and Matthews/Paysinger.
Torrodney Prevot, Mattingly and Swain are as physically gifted and athletic as any linebackers the Ducks have had since Blair Phillips and Wesley Mallard, all three four-star recruits. The challenge for new linebackers coach Erik Chinander is to bring their level of understanding up to the point they can be counted on to be in the right place and execute at speed, but it’s the best raw material Oregon has had in a long time.
The Ducks haven’t had many of the physically dominating linebacker types that make legends. Although there have been some very good ones, fans can’t point to a Dick Butkus or Junior Seau figure in Oregon history, except maybe Dave Wilcox back in the sixties. (Wilcox, a Hall of Fame LB with the San Francisco 49ers, played defensive end and offensive guard with the Ducks.) Part of the reason is that at Oregon great linebacker prospects wind up at tight end, kids like Dante Rosario or Colt Lyerla. Maybe Lyerla would have done better as a Duck if he’d played middle linebacker and gotten the opportunity to work out his aggression.
They’re getting a visit from a good one this weekend, Tevis Bartlett of Cheyenne, Wyoming, 6-4, 215, a remarkable athlete who plays quarterback on offense and compiled a 138-5 record as a three-time state champion in wrestling. He’s tough and smart, and the experience at quarterback will help him as quarterback of the defense as a collegian. Bartlett, though, is only a remote hope for the future: he might wind up at Stanford or Colorado, or even playing quarterback for his home state Wyoming Cowboys. For this season the Ducks have to find heart and toughness in the front seven that they have, and now they have just eight weeks to get ready.