Troy Dye

Jim Leavitt, Part 1: Enamored with state's beauty, Ducks' program

Jim Leavitt, Part 1: Enamored with state's beauty, Ducks' program

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt based on an extensive interview conducted for Talkin' Ducks, which first aired on Wednesday and will re-air several times in the coming week. 

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EUGENE - If you follow Jim Leavitt on social media, or have simply heard him speak, you already know how much he loves scenic views and tranquil areas where he can get in his daily runs.

So there should be no surprise that Leavitt has become enamored with the state of Oregon and its colorful trees, green landscapes and just the right balance of snow capped mountains and lush hillsides.

Leavitt, 60, first discovered the beauty of this state when he made his first professional trip to the Oregon as Colorado's defensive coordinator in the fall of 2015. The Buffaloes were set to play at Oregon State on Oct. 24 and the team stayed in Eugene. 

The day before the game, which Colorado won 17-13, Leavitt said he went for a run along the Willamette River and up to Autzen Stadium. The surrounding beauty mesmerized him. 

“I remember calling my wife, Jodie, and I said, ‘if I ever get the opportunity to coach at Oregon, Iʼm going to do it."

Fast forward to 2016 when a Colorado interception in an Autzen Stadium end zone preserved a 41-38 win at Oregon that in many ways got the ball rolling toward Leavitt ending up with the Ducks.

Ironically, the Buffaloes' defense surrendered 508 yards of offense in that game to an Oregon team that was minus star running back Royce Freeman. But that win for Colorado, coming off of a strong showing at Michigan, made it clear that the program had turned the corner. The loss for Oregon made the Ducks 2-2 and raised red flags about a program in turmoil.

The Buffaloes finished the season with one of the top defenses in the country and the team reached the Pac-12 title game with a defense that ended the season having allowed just 21.7 points per game. Oregon, which went on to allow 41.4 points per game, finished 4-8. That led to the firing of Mark Helfrich and the hiring of coach Willie Taggart last December.

Soon after, Oregon hired Leavitt and paid him $1.125 million to turnaround a Ducks defense that ranked 128th in the nation. 

"Iʼve known coach Taggart for awhile, but when he had called and allowed me to be here and with [athletic director] Rob [Mullens] and everybody, I was overjoyed, because Iʼve always been intrigued by Oregon," Leavitt said. 

After accepting the job, Leavitt chose to drive from Colorado to Oregon. He drove through Burns and Sisters, taking in the sights.

“That was really kind of important for me so I can kind of get to know the state a little bit,” he said.

Oregon's state-of-the-art facilities created awe, as well. But not as much as those working within the Hatfield-Dowlin complex

“You can say all you want about the facilities here, but what has been the most impressive thing to me is the people,” he said. "Everything about Oregon is about championships and I like being in that kind of environment. So thatʼs been really impressive to me."

Part of Leavitt's appeal as a coach to his players is his boundless energy. 

"He's very enthusiastic and very upfront about what he wants from us on defense," senior linebacker Jimmie Swain said. "It's great having him around and having that enthusiasm out there on defense."

Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye said keeping up with Leavitt is difficult, even for the players.

"I didn't know he was in his 60s until he told us," Dye said. "I thought he was mid-40s, early-50s, something like that. He's always out there running with us...You've got to respect that type of energy."

So, where does that energy come from?

Leavitt joked that it might be the Pepsi he drinks religiously. Or, maybe it's his "love for the Lord." 

"I just feel so grateful for the opportunities that I have, certainly here at Oregon, every day I get here on the field," Leavitt said. "I just have learned to appreciate the opportunities that Iʼve had and appreciate being able to coach these guys, that these players allow me to coach them."

Also keeping him hopping are his two youngest daughters, Sofia, 7, and Isabella, 5.  

"I got Sophia, who just ran a 10k with me," he said. "And she went all the way. You know whatʼs funny is we ran the first two miles and she goes, 'dad, Iʼm a little tired, I might want to just walk a little bit.' Little did she know, I was praying, I was hoping so bad that she would say that so I could start walking. I was tired. So we walked a little bit, and then she looked at me and said, “letʼs go!” and I go 'oh my gosh here we go.'"

Then there's Isabella.

"That's my little tiger," Leavitt said. [They are] 18 months apart and they are something else, they really are."

They, too, have embraced Oregon. 

"They love the Ducks and theyʼve already got the Ducks cheerleading outfit on and they really have fun," he said. 

It's a new adventure for the Leavitt family. His career to date has been successful, even though controversy sullied is tenure as head coach at South Florida. He hopes to one day return to being a head coach and recognizes that turning around Oregon's defense would be a step in the right direction.

That quest begins in the fall. For now, he will take as much time as possible in between recruiting trips to soak in all that the state of Oregon has to offer someone who appreciates the outdoors. 

“I went out golfing and it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been,” he said. “Just the hills, the trees, everything is so green and of course I know about all the rain and it ends up making everything so much more beautiful this time of year.”

It will remain so in the fall. But at that time, Leavitt will be knee-deep in trying to fix something that has been anything but aesthetically pleasing to watch the past two seasons. 

Next up: Part 2 - With big money comes big expectations

Oregon's "#TheMovement18" recruiting blitz must scoop up impact defensive linemen

Oregon's "#TheMovement18" recruiting blitz must scoop up impact defensive linemen

Oregon's coaches are killing it on the recruiting trail. They are Tweeting up a storm complete with the fresh hashtag, "TheMovement18," while using plenty of Emojis, GIFs and photos of Ducks swag in order to appeal to the talented teens they are pursuing.  

So far, the high-energy and social media-savvy recruiting tactics under new coach Willie Taggart have worked well and have fans giddy about the future. Oregon's 2018 recruiting class currently ranks No. 11 in the country, according to Rivals.com. That's coming off of a No. 18 ranking for the 2017 recruiting class, completed last February. 

Just one problem: Where are all of the impact defensive linemen?

I know, I know, it's early. Signing day is nearly nine months away. But let's be clear: All of the bells and whistles and hyped commitment gatherings won't mean squat in the end unless the new coaching staff can make a habit out of landing high-end defensive line recruits. Just ask the former coaching staff whose failure in this department from 2013 through 2016 contributed greatly to a defense that last season ranked 128th (518.4 yards per game) in the nation in total defense and 121st (246.5) against the run during a 4-8 season. 

The defensive line is so depleted with veteran talent that Taggart went out and signed graduate transfer defensive lineman Scott Pagano. The former Clemson part-time starter will instantly become the Ducks' best defensive lineman, if not best defensive player. 

Oregon must sign the Paganos of the world on the front end of their careers, not at the back end. The Ducks are trying. According to 247Sports.com, Oregon has issued offers to 24 defensive ends and 10 defensive tackles. Of those 34 players, 21 are rated as 4-star recruits, or better. However, just one is even listed as being "warm" on Oregon while 17 have either already committed, or are listed as "cool" toward Oregon. 

Here is the overall recruiting situation thus far: 

Oregon's big weekend during the spring game included receiving commitments from six recruits followed up by another on Monday. Five were rated as four-star recruits by Rivals.com while 247Sports rated six as four-star prospects.

But zero defensive linemen were included in the haul. 

The Ducks on Friday did receive a commitment from Mohamed Diallo, a three-star defensive lineman out of Arizona Western Community College. He's a nice get. At an athletic 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, Diallo could become a good player for the Ducks at nose guard in 2018. But he must be an addition, not the center piece, to what has to be a much stronger class of defensive linemen. 

Taggart made a big splash in his first recruiting go around, but not at defensive line. UO signed three, but only one is a four-star recruit, freshman early enrollee Rutger Reitmaier. He committed to Oregon last June, five months before Taggart took over the program following the firing of Mark Helfrich.

A quick turnaround for the Oregon Ducks will mostly depend on dramatic improvement from the defense, and that will require a head-turning upgrade in play from the defensive line. So give credit to the Ducks for addressing this problem with the addition of Pagano. But the future of the defensive line remains in serious doubt and must be upgraded through recruiting. 

One of the knocks on the previous staff was that they failed to recruit impact players on defense after 2012, especially within the front seven. Under former coach Chip Kelly In 2012, the Ducks signed maybe their best defensive line recruiting class ever with the additions of four-star recruits, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci. Buckner and Armstead both went on to become first-round NFL Draft picks by the San Francisco 49ers. Balducci signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent and is now a center with the New York Jets.

Kelly's final recruiting influence came in 2013 before he moved on to the NFL. That class, which included 13 of 19 players who committed to Oregon under Kelly, ended up with just two defensive linemen: Torrodney Prevot and Doug Brenner. Prevot actually ended up playing linebacker while Brenner played offensive line. Elijah George, a two-star recruit offensive lineman in that class, is now a reserve defensive lineman.

Let that all sink in for a minute.

The Ducks sought to recover in 2014 with the addition of five defensive line recruits. Only one, however, was rated as a four-star player and that was junior college transfer Tui Talia. Of the four three-star recruits, Justin Hollins and Jalen Jelks have had the only impact. Both remain tweeners who might be undersized to be more than pass rushers. Eddie Heard, who ultimately played linebacker, and former starter, Austin Maloata, were removed from the team following their respective troubles with the law last year. 

Oregon tried again with five defensive line recruits in 2015. Again, just one was a four-star get. That was Canton Kaumatule, who appeared to have the potential to become the next Armstead or Buckner before repeated injuries and concussions slowed his development. He retired last season.  

The other four signees, all three-star recruits, remain projects. Junior Rex Manu and redshirt sophomore Gary Baker are the top returning defensive tackles. They will now play nose guard in UO's 3-4. Redshirt sophomores Drayton Carlberg and Gus Cumberlander will be competing for time at defensive end. 

UO signed four more defensive linemen in 2016. Redshirt freshman Hunter Kampmoyer and sophomore Bryson Young, a four-star recruit, have shown promise. However, Ratu Mafileo retired due to injury concerns and Wayne Tei-Kirby, thrust into action as a freshman, has transferred to BYU. 

To put all of this into perspective, consider that over the last five recruiting cycles Clemson has signed 10 four-star defensive linemen, including Pagano in 2013, and two five-star defensive linemen.

Oregon, during the past handful of years, did just fine signing players at most every other position, especially on offense. Running backs. Wide receivers. Offensive linemen. Even at quarterback where the Ducks at least signed promising four-star recruits, Morgan Mahalak (2014) and Travis Jonsen (2015). Mahalak has since transferred while Jonsen has yet to meet his potential. But, the Ducks hit big on Justin Herbert in 2016. 

Recruiting at defensive back and linebacker has been mixed, but at least some bright spots exist at those two positions. The defensive backs improved greatly last year over 2015, but a lack of a run defense and adequate pass rush left the secondary hung out to dry.

That all said, the linebacker position also needs an upgrade. Even with Balducci, Buckner and Armstead, Oregon's defense got steamrolled in the national title game by Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. One reason was Elliott's talent, another was Oregon's lack of future NFL prospects at linebacker.

But we've seen and are seeing inroads being made at the second level of defense. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is a budding superstar. Commit Adrian Jackson, is rated as the No. 11 outside linebacker in the nation. The 2017 class featured linebacker Sampson Niu, who committed to Oregon last June under Helfrich and was rated as the No. 12 outside linebacker in his class. 

Oregon must match that level of recruiting along the defensive line so that transfers such like Pagano are viewed more as nice additions, such as 2015 transfer center Matt Hegarty, rather than as saviors, like 2015 quarterback Vernon Adams Jr..

The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Pagano could be an immediate starter opposite Mondeaux in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's 3-4 defense. Or, the former Clemson defensive tackle could also play nose guard. Figure he will play all over in different situational packages. 

Pagano's presence will prevent Leavitt from having to depend on a young end or nose guard that might not be ready to stand up to the rigors of the 3-4 defense.

Freshman nose guard Jordan Scott, a Taggart get, turned heads during spring drills with his athleticism and size but shouldn't be relied upon to carry the load in the middle next season. It's likely going to be up to Manu and Baker to get it done inside. 

But Pagano only buys Oregon time. All of the young defensive linemen have time to develop under position coach Joe Salave'a, considered to be a great recruiter. Helfrich's recruits could ultimately pan out. Regardless, the Ducks must move away from waiting for linemen to develop and step into an era of having a revolving door of impact defensive linemen with NFL potential flowing through the system. 

So while it's nice for Oregon that this staff has brought high energy to the recruiting trail and has landed commitments and signatures from promising recruits at many positions, the reality is that unless they can sign some Buckners, Armsteads and Balduccies, the Ducks' future will include more teams padding their offensive stats against Oregon's defense.  

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

The Willie Taggart-era at Oregon on the practice field began this morning when the Ducks opened spring drills, which will include 14 sessions before the Spring Game on April 29. 

Oregon enters spring with a new staff but most of the same players who were largely responsible for a 4-8 season in 2016, a year that led to the firing of former coach Mark Helfrich and a staff that featured some assistants who had been in Eugene for as many as 20-plus years.

In order to win right away, Taggart must do so with the players recruited by the former staff. That's not impossible. In fact, it's highly likely. Oregon played mostly a young and battered group in 2016. It's a core that should be considerably better in 2017 after taking their collective lumps during the program's first losing season since 2004 (5-6). 

That development process began during the winter and continues this spring. Many questions linger for this staff to sort out, but here are five that must be addressed this spring: 

1. Will a quarterback controversy develop or will Justin Herbert re-establish himself as the guy for this new staff? The only quarterback in Oregon history who at the same age could have beaten out what we saw from Herbert as a freshman would be Marcus Mariota. Maybe. That's how good Herbert is. So, when Taggart says that the position is open, he is essentially hoping that either redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr. or redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen demonstrates some Mariota-level skills.

We shall see. 

Herbert took over as the starter in week 6 and in seven starts completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,986 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Project those numbers out over 13 games (with a bowl) and you get 3,688-35-6. Those numbers are almost identical to what Mariota put up in 2013 (3,665-31-4) as a redshirt sophomore while playing on a much better team.  No doubt Taggart witnessed all of Herbert's skills while reviewing game video from last season. 

Still, Taggart points out that UO won just four games, so whatever Herbert did last season wasn't good enough. Truth be told, Herbert won just two of those four (Arizona State and Utah), but Mariota wouldn't have won much more with the defense Oregon put on the field. 

Taggart does liked the physical abilities he saw from Wilson and Jonsen during winter workouts, but added that Herbert has also looked great, so far. 

“Really impressed with winter conditioning watching him run around and change directions, and doing those things," Taggart said. 

Now, Taggart wants to see Herbert, or another quarterback, become an established leader. 

“At the end of the day, I want to see who can lead this football team," Taggart said. "Who can get this team to rally around him.”

Let the QB games begin. 

2. Are there any young playmakers at linebacker not named Troy Dye? Dye made a name for himself last season as pretty much the only playmaker on defense. The Ducks will return to the 3-4, defense, which means UO needs three other linebackers to emerge. Seniors A.J. Hotchkins and Jimmie Swain must improve. Also, Oregon could use someone among the young group of sophomores La'Mar Winston Jr. and Keith Simms, and redshirt freshman Eric Briscoe, to breakthrough. 

"We have to get more athletic at that spot," Taggart said.

Translation: "We lack ballers."

Oregon will be looking for more of those this spring. 

3. Are there any playmakers along the defensive line at all? We must continue on with the defense because that side of the ball was so bad last season. So bad that there really weren't any bright spot along the defensive line to be found. 

Taggart, however, said he believes that some playmakers exist upfront. Mass confusion on defense last year, he added, led to a lot of young defensive linemen not being able to flourish. 

"Usually when you don't know what you're doing, you'll get your butt whooped," Taggart said. "But there's some potential."

Jalen Jelks, Henry Mondeaux, Gary Baker, Rex Manu, Drayton Carlberg, and others, all must develop this spring or opposing offenses will once again trample the Ducks. 

4.  Can Dillon Mitchell and Alex Ofodile ease concerns about depth at wide receiver? Oregon returns two wide receivers of consequence: seniors Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson. Taggart needs about four more receivers for him to be comfortable about the depth at this position. 

Sophomore Dillon Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile are both former four-star recruits and the next men up. But the jury is out on both. They could either emerge this spring or open the door for one of seven freshmen receivers to take their jobs. 

One such freshman already on campus is three-star recruit, Darrian McNeal, a quick elusive receiver in the mold of Nelson and former UO star, De'Anthony Thomas, but not quite as fast, according to Taggart.

Taggart said McNeal's love for the game shows in his play, play that could get him on the game field right away. 

But for this position to take off, Mitchell and/or Ofodile must take major strides in their development this spring. 

5. How will a new coaching staff mesh? Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and cornerbacks coach Charles Clark worked together in Colorado. Taggart brought two South Florida assistants, special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie and running backs coach Donte Pimpleton, to UO from his former team. Other than that, no other coaching connections exist on this staff. 

So, stands to reason that there could be some growing pains as the staff learns to work together. 

"Not everybody has been around me," Taggart said. "A lot of things I might not like and I'll continue to coach those guys up and get it the way that we want it."

So far, Taggart said, the staff has worked together very well. Camaraderie and enthusiasm have been high. Taggart said it helps that Leavitt and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal are former head coaches who get the process. 

We will see if harmony continues or if some feathers get ruffled along the way. Especially if the previous four questions go unanswered and the team is left floundering in a sea of mediocrity during year one of the Taggart era. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: LBs - Tough competition ahead

How Oregon's recruits fit in: LBs - Tough competition ahead

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsWide receivers/tight endsOffensive line, Defensive line, Defensive backs.

Today: Linebackers.

New Ducks: Inside linebackers Sampson Niu (6-1, 217, Madison, H.S., San Diego, Calif.) and Isaac Slade-Matautia (6-1, 206, St. Louis High School, Honolulu, Hawaii), and athlete Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis H.S., Mountain View, Calif.). 

Projected starters (3-4 defense): Outside linebacker Troy Dye, Soph., (6-4, 225), inside linebacker A.J. Hotchkins Sr., (5-11, 230), inside linebacker Jimmie Swain, Sr., (6-2, 235) and outside linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr., Soph., (6-3, 220).

Key backups: Inside linebackers - Danny Mattingly, RSr., (6-5, 245) and Keith Simms, Soph., (6-3, 235). Outside linebackers - Eric Briscoe, RFr., (6-3, 225), Justin Hollins, RJr., (6-6, 235) and Kaulana Apelu, Jr., (5-11, 200).

The situation: Oregon has plenty of young talent to work with here. Dye is a star. Simms and Winston were 4-star recruits in 2016. Hollins could be an interesting option if he moves to linebacker from defensive end. 

Only Dye is untouchable in the starting lineup with Swain and Hotchkins as the front-runners to start inside. However, they will have to fend off Simms and two very talented inside linebackers, four star recruits Niu and Slade-Matautia. 

Niu, ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 12 inside linebacker in the nation, has a chance to play right away assuming he adds some weight. Playing inside at 217 pounds likely won't cut it.  Slade-Matautia was rated No. 11 in the nation. He is listed at 206 pounds and must add bulk. 

If they live up to their billing, Niu and Slade-Matautia could have an impact in 2017. But that's a big if. 

There's reason to believe that the young outside linebackers, Winston and Briscoe, will take the next step and compete for playing time. They will be joined in that race by Habibi-Likio should he start off his career at linebacker. He could play safety, or even running back.  

The verdict: This competition should be wild. Oregon has seven linebackers that are freshmen or sophomores. Something has to give. On the inside, Swain came on strong late last year but Hotchkins was wildly inconsistent. Expect at least one of the two freshmen inside linebackers to play in 2017. Habibi-Likio might have a tougher battle in front of him on the outside because of the potential of Briscoe and Winston. But only Dye has established himself there. In other words, who truly knows what's going to happen? This could be the Ducks' most interesting position group to watch. 

Next up: Defensive backs

Oregon 2017 Outlook - LBs: Plenty of young talent to work with beyond Troy Dye

Oregon 2017 Outlook - LBs: Plenty of young talent to work with beyond Troy Dye

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsTight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Defensive backs

Today: Linebackers.

Key losses: Johnny Ragin III was the only senior starter on defense in 2016.   

Projected starters (3-4 defense): Outside linebacker Troy Dye, Soph., (6-4, 225), inside linebacker A.J. Hotchkins Sr., (5-11, 230), inside linebacker Jimmie Swain, Sr., (6-2, 235) and outside linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr., Soph., (6-3, 220).

Key backups: Inside linebackers - Danny Mattingly, RSr., (6-5, 245), Keith Simms, Soph., (6-3, 235). Outside linebackers - Eric Briscoe, RFr., (6-3, 225), Justin Hollins, RJr., (6-6, 235), Kaulana Apelu, Jr., (5-11, 200).

What we know: Dye is already a force to be reckoned with and he should only get better as he continues to grow physically. He led the Ducks with 91 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 6 1/2 sacks. He was the only consistent impact player on a defense that ranked among the worst in the nation and he should thrive in the 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jim Leavitt.

Swain began the season in the doghouse before emerging as a quality starter and finishing the season with 77 tackles, second on the team. He could be a candidate to start inside but must have more of an impact. His two tackles for loss last season won't cut it.

Hotchkins never discovered consistency and could be in danger of losing his starting job if he doesn't demonstrate great improvement after making just 34 tackles last year.

What we don't know: Will any of the unproven linebackers make an impact in 2017?

The Ducks signed six linebackers in 2016 (Darrian Franklin was kicked off the team last season after legal troubles). Dye and Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, started, but UO will need Winston, Simms and Briscoe to take the next step for this group to truly rebound from a poor season.

Simms contributed 10 tackles last season while Winston had five and Briscoe redshirted.  All three combine the combination of height, size and athleticism that's often been missing from Oregon linebackers save for Kiko Alonso, a former second-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Simms and Winston were both four-star recruits while Briscoe was listed as a three-star, according to Rivals.com. If all three live up to their potential, they, along with Dye, could form a very high-end group of linebackers down the road.

Hollins, a promising pass rusher, presents is an interesting case. He played defensive end last season in the 4-3 at 235 pounds. Unless he bulks up considerably there is no way he would survive as a 3-4 defensive end. He could fit perfectly as a 3-4 linebacker in the mold of former UO stars, Christian French and Dion Jordan. But Hollins would have to show that he could perform well in pass coverage.

No matter what Oregon calls Hollins, expect at the very least to see him on the field in obvious passing situations where he can use his athleticism and quickness to get after the quarterback. Hollins had 9 1/2 tackles for loss, including 3 1/2 sacks in 2016.

Final word: Former linebackers coach Don Pellum left the Ducks with a lot of strong, young talent at this position that ultimately will prove to have a major impact on Oregon's future success.

Position grade: C. If the young linebackers deliver, this grade immediately jumps up to a B.

Next up: Defensive backs.

Oregon coach Willie Taggart addresses workouts, strength coach following controversy

Oregon coach Willie Taggart addresses workouts, strength coach following controversy

Oregon coach Willie Taggart characterized the workouts his team conducted last Friday that led to three players being hospitalized as "warm-ups" designed to get the team ready for the more difficult tasks ahead during winter conditioning.

They were not, Taggart said, "military-style," treacherous and dangerous workouts that many painted them out to be after the story, first reported on Monday by The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, became a national topic of conversation and sparked discussion and conversation over player safety in college football.   

Redshirt freshman tight end Cam McCormick, redshirt senior offensive lineman Doug Brenner and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sam Poutasi were sent to Springfield PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend last Friday evening after experiencing symptoms of Rhabdomyolysis hours after completing a 6 a.m. workout during winter conditioning. 

The narrative left Taggart exasperated. The last thing, he said, that he and his staff would ever do is endanger players. What occurred, according to Taggart, was an unfortunate incident that has been blown out of proportion.  

“People are convinced that we’re (dumb) and don’t care about our players,” Taggart said. “We want our fan base to know that we do.”

The controversy that found its way into newspapers and onto websites and television networks across the nation abruptly ended what for Taggart had been about as good of a first month on a job as anyone could ever hope for. 

Taggart, hired on Dec. 7 to replace Mark Helfrich, hit the recruiting trail running by landing commitments within weeks, he assembled what appears to be a dynamic coaching staff, and he successfully rebranded the program, replacing "Win the Day" with "Do Something."

Then, in as much time as it takes to do a push up, Taggart found himself being forced to defend the workout regimen in question put forth by his strength and conditioning coach, Irele Oderinde.

Oregon on Tuesday suspended Oderinde for a month, and Taggart and UO athletic director Rob Mullens released statements in which Taggart took responsibility for the situation while Mullens emphasized that the University holds the well-being of its students in high regard.

All three players are expected to recover. Brenner has already been released. What happened was certainly unfortunate. The question is, was anyone at fault?

--- Introductory workouts

Oregon began winter conditioning last week. Workouts conducted by Oderinde were held last Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. 

The idea, Taggart said, was to ease the players out of winter break with workouts that didn't consist of running or weight lifting. Oregon missed a bowl game last season for the first time since 2004. That meant that returning players had an extra full month off from structured football activities that they weren't used to having. Their season ended with a loss at Oregon State on Nov. 26.

Typically Oregon's seasons end around the first of the year with a bowl game appearance. 

“We knew our guys weren’t in shape so we didn’t put them in the weight room or run them, or anything” Taggart said. “We’re going to build up to that. It all started with pushups and sit-ups.”

Oderinde used the same workouts under Taggart at South Florida and Western Kentucky. Oderinde played at WKU when Taggart was an assistant there from 1999 through 2006. Oderinde later worked as a strength coach at WKU during Taggart's tenure as the Hilltoppers head coach. By the time Oderinde made it to USF under Taggart in 2014, the strength coach had nearly 10 years of experience, according to the Bulls' website, with previous stops at West Virginia, South Carolina and Notre Dame

The workout sessions, which included planks, were designed to last 45 minutes with the team broken up into three groups with start times of 6 a.m., 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.  Workouts were extended if players didn't use proper technique and/or didn't follow directions, according to Taggart. Punishment involved up downs as a group even if one player botched the workout.

“The whole team is held accountable,” Taggart said. “Then they go back to pushups and sit-ups and do it right. It’s more about just teaching guys the details and how we’re going to do things the right way.”

During last year’s 4-8 season, which led to the firing of Helfrich, players slacked in some areas, namely preparation and attention to detail. Taggart has told the team that those days are over.

Reestablishing accountability, however, does not involve cruelty, according to Taggart. 

Players, Taggart said, were given breaks and allowed to get water whenever needed. Then they could resume the workouts when they were ready to do so.

“No one expected everyone to make it and do them all,” Taggart said.

For that reason, according to Taggart, coaches did not order players to continue working past their limitations. Only vocal encouragement was involved. 

“Coach O doesn’t even work that way,” Taggart said. “He’s not even that kind of guy. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t do any of that stuff.”

Many players, Taggart said, took advantage of the ability to take breaks when they reached their max. In fact, Taggart said, coaches knew that many players wouldn’t finish the workouts. Some assistant coaches and trainers were present for the workouts. 

“We had some guys struggling,” Taggart said. “We had some guys sit out and not finish.”

--- Overdoing it

The scene involving Brenner, Poutasi and McCormick, Taggart said, did not involve the players passing out on the field and having to be rushed to the hospital. 

According to Taggart, the hospitalized players participated in a 6 a.m. session on Friday (the fourth day of the workouts) then went to classes, and carried out the rest of their day before returning to the football complex for dinner.

It was then that Taggart said the three players complained about not feeling right and that their urine was dark, a symptom of Rhabdomyolysis. The condition, described on Webmd.com, is a rare and serious side effect caused by the breakdown of muscle tissue to the point where it could lead to permanent paralysis, and can cause serious kidney damage. Symptoms include muscle aches and dark-colored urine.

Extreme muscle strain can be a cause and it can become more dangerous if there is more muscle mass to breakdown. Brenner is listed at 320 pounds. Poutasi is 315. McCormick is 240.

Those suffering Rhabdomyolysis can experience muscle pain and have trouble moving their limbs. A product of muscle breakdown is creatine kinase, an enzyme found in the muscles. which can increase in the blood stream. Normal CK levels for a male over 18 is between 52 to 336 units per liter of blood. A marathon runner can reach into the low thousands. According to sources, the players hospitalized had CK levels well over 60,000.

Taggart praised head trainer Kevin Steil for recognizing the problem and responding the way that he did by examining the players and then having them taken to the hospital where they could receive intravenous fluids. Taggart visited them at the hospital.  

One potential cause of what happened is that the players were not properly hydrated before the workouts. Also, the players, pushed themselves too hard.

“A lot of that comes with wanting to impress the new coaches,” Taggart said. “But all of the trainers were out there. It wasn’t like coach ‘O’ was out there just beating them down. You’ve got certified trainers out there with them.”

Trainers are required by the NCAA to be beholden to the department and not a specific team. This prevents coaches from hiring their own trainers and then influencing them to overlook workouts or injuries that might put an athlete’s health at risk.

One veteran player, speaking anonymously, said he enjoyed and completed the workouts. He added that they were clearly designed to test the will of the players but stated that there was no pressure to complete the tasks beyond one’s limits. If a player reached their max, they could stop. 

Taggart said it was made clear to the team that players were not going to win starting jobs in January and to take care of themselves as they push through a new regimen of workouts they were not used to.

“We want you to go hard but not to a limit that you’re going to kill yourself,” Taggart said.

While some players backed off, Brenner, Poutasi and McCormick did not.

“These guys were tough guys and wanted to show the coaches,” Taggart said. “That’s probably what was part of the problem. They didn’t want to be the guy that quit. There were other guys that quit and they didn’t want to so they probably pushed themselves to a limit that they shouldn’t have.”

Moving forward, Taggart said his staff must do a better job of making sure players are properly hydrated, something he said was routinely emphasized, and explaining to players that they shouldn’t feel pressured to push themselves too far beyond their physical limits. 

A narrative floating around that the hospitalized players were too “soft” or "out of shape" bothers Taggart. 

“Those guys finished the workout,” Taggart said. "Others did not. The fact that those guys finished like that, it says lot about them. I hate that they had to go to the hospital, but it says a lot about them.”

Some fans on social media have stated that the hospitalization of players following the first week of winter workouts further proves that Ducks were slacking under Helfrich. Taggart doesn’t agree.

“That’s a bunch of baloney,” Taggart said. “People are going to have their opinions. It’s just different philosophies on workouts. I hate it because when they call our guys ‘soft,’ they are calling me soft too.”

Nobody, Taggart said, is being labeled as anything other than trying to get in shape for a long season ahead.

--- #FREECOACHO

Taggart said players seemed to enjoy the workouts and were excited to get back out there for more. That statement is supported by their reaction to the controversy through social media.

“They are ticked off because they were enjoying the workouts,” Taggart said. “Even the guys that were in the hospital.”

Several players took to Twitter to support Oderinde, whom some refer to as “Coach O," and started a #FreeCoachO hashtag. 

Junior cornerback Ugo Amadi Tweeted that the workouts weren't nearly as difficult as the media made them out to be. 

Redshirt junior safety Mattrell McGraw also defended Oderinde.

https://twitter.com/mattmcgraw_/status/821188300777996288

“The response that they have given, to me, says a lot,” Taggart said. “They wouldn’t say that if it were someone that didn’t have their best interest at heart and was trying to kill them. He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. He’s not military. He’s just a good dude.”

Taggart has gotten good results from Oderinde in the past.

“I trust him,” said Taggart. “I love what he did with our football team at South Florida and I know what he could do with our guys here. But now a good guy, a good strength coach is being portrayed as somebody just whipping our kids’ butts and that’s wrong.”

Former USF players certainly appear to support Oderinde, according to a recent report in the Tampa Bay Times.

Players said that nobody they ever played with under Taggart and Oderinde ever ended up in the hospital after a workout.

Former Bulls offensive lineman Mak Djulbegovic said to the Tampa Bay Times that Oderinde isn't “gonna make you do something that's not reasonable."

"Sure, it'll be very difficult," Djulbegovic continued, "but if you don't take the right steps to be ready for these things, you might wind up in the hospital as these kids found out. Hopefully they learned their lesson."

The goal is to make the team bigger and stronger beyond what they have been used to at Oregon. It’s not that the Ducks didn’t seek size under former football strength coach Jimmy Radcliffe, but the emphasis at many positions had been more about speed and stamina given the pace of the offense under former coaches Chip Kelly and Helfrich. 

Many UO players, sources say, are excited about the prospects of getting bigger, which could help increase their NFL potential. 

“Guys are saying they want to get bigger, they want to get stronger,” Taggart said.

Taggart, who declined to discuss the details surrounding Oderinde's suspension, said his workout philosophy is no better or worse than what was being done under Radcliffe, it’s just different. Clearly Oregon experienced great success in the recent past.

While a couple of player parents wondered if the workouts might have been over the top since three players went to the hospital, some told CSN, anonymously, that they and their sons didn’t have a problem with them and were excited to continue working with Oderinde.

A department source said there is no doubt in his mind that the coaching staff cares about the players and their well-being. He said that they talk about it as a group.

The ridicule, Taggart said, has come up on the recruiting trail.  Taggart said parents of recruits have asked assistants about what happened and he believes opponents have used the hospitalizations as fodder for negative recruiting.

“All they hear is a ‘military-style workout,’" Taggart said, "and so now everybody is saying ‘they don’t know what they’re doing, they are hurting the kids, they don’t care about the kids’ welfare,’ and it’s not like that. And again, that’s why our players were so upset because they are putting a negative spin on it.”

In the end, Taggart believes that the players will perform better after going through his staff’s plan, just as players did at Western Kentucky and South Florida.

"We believe in what we're doing," Taggart said. "It’s one of those unfortunate situations that we all can learn from."

 

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

It's tough to believe, and difficult to sell, but there is a strong chance Oregon's defense will improve greatly over the next two seasons.  

The Ducks' defense is very young and banged up. While those facts might sound like convenient excuses the reality is that nothing derails a unit more than youth and injuries. On the flip side, nothing repairs those problems like experience and healing. 

Oregon (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12) has been forced to go with youth and inexperience on defense this season because of failures in recruiting during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 cycles that left the unit void of any adequate amount of impact seniors and juniors to lead the way. 

Picking up the slack are numerous players from the 2015 and 2016 classes that are nowhere near ready to carry the load without the leadership and savvy of upperclassmen guiding the team. 

On the positive side, those younger players are gaining valuable experience that should pay off down the line, assuming they continue to develop and learn from their mistakes. The Ducks are set to return 10 starters on defense next season along with a host of others who have made spot starts or have seen extensive playing time.  

It seemed almost inconceivable that Oregon's 2016 defense could be worse than the 115th-ranked mess the Ducks put on the field in 2015. 

Yet, here they are, ranked 127th while allowing a mind-blowing 43.5 points per game.

To put that into perspective, Washington and Stanford are each allowing 17.9 points per game. Oregon's 2014 team that reached the national championship game allowed 23.6 points per game.  

Last year, a young secondary let down a solid front seven. This season, a somewhat improved secondary has played behind an inexperienced front seven that generates little pass rush while also offering weak resistance to opposing running games. 

Next year? Well, the entire secondary returns and six of the regular front-seven starters. For the first time in three years the Ducks will have enough experience up and down the defense to expect improvement. 

How much improvement? Well, let's not get carried away. We're not talking about a run to the top 20 in the nation here. But even a defense ranked in the top 80 while allowing south of 30 points per game would give the Ducks a chance to turn things around in a hurry because the offense, ranked 22nd in the country with a freshman quarterback and four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen, will certainly be stacked. 

Experience leads to better play in most situations, and Oregon's defense should be no different. 

What do the Ducks have to work with moving forward? Let's take a look:

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This group hasn't been as bad as it might seem. A lack of a consistent pass rush in a league loaded with good passing teams has put the secondary in bad spots. Plus, the lack of a run defense has resulted in a relatively low number of strong down-and-distance situations for the secondary to operate under.

That all said, this group certainly has plenty to work on.  

The good news is that everyone playing will return next season other than redshirt senior safety Reggie Daniels, who fell out of favor this season to primarily become a backup.  

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Cornerback: Ugo Amadi, Jr., Tyree Robinson, RSr., Arrion Springs, Sr. and Malik Lovette, RSoph., Mattrell McGraw, RJr., Ty Griffin, Sr. 

Safety: Brendan Schooler, Soph., Khalil Oliver, RJr., Juwaan Williams, RJr., Fotu Leiato II, Jr., and Brady Breeze, RFrosh., Jihree Stewart, RSoph.

Position analysis: Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal has juggled his lineup in order to create depth and now has so much that he now has loads of budding talent to work with moving forward. UO will return seven defensive backs that saw extensive playing time this season.  On top of that, six of the top eight from 2016 will still be around in 2018.

The Ducks desperately need Amadi, a former four-star recruit, to finally reach his potential. Springs has loads of talent but can't seem to get out of his own way and stop making silly mistakes in coverage. Same goes for Robinson. If they can't get it together they could lose playing time to Lovette, and up-and-comer. 

At safety, Schooler appears to be a potential impact player. Oliver and Williams have been up and down during their careers, which could open the door for Breeze, a four-star recruit redshirting this season. 

LINEBACKERS

This position is a bit trickier than defensive back because the linebackers have been mediocre all season long, save for freshman Troy Dye. 

Oregon signed six linebackers in 2016 and will need many to rise up in order for this group to take the next step in 2017. Otherwise, it will be more of the same mediocrity next season. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Will OLB: Jonah Moi, RSr., Keith Simms, Soph., Kaulana Apelu, Jr., Eric Briscoe Jr., RFrosh. 

Mike MLB: Jimmie Swain, Sr., A.J. Hotchkins, Sr., Danny Mattingly, RSr.  

Sam OLB: Troy Dye, Soph., La'mar Winston Soph., Darrian Franklin, RFrosh. 

Position analysis: Simms and Winston, four-star recruits in 2016, have great potential. Dye, a three-star recruit, has played like a five-star recruit and future NFL draft pick. Franklin and Briscoe Jr., both former three-star recruits, are redshirting. Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, might grow after a year playing in the Pac-12. 

Most intriguing about Dye, Simms and Winston is that each is 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and either is already packing 230 pounds (Simms) or have the frame to bulk up past that weight. They could form the first trio of starting Oregon linebackers to all be in the 6-3, 235-pound range in recent memory. 

Swain, after a slow start to the season, has been among the team's leaders in tackles the past few weeks. However, total tackles can be overrated when many are made after big gains by the offense.  Moi, now playing defensive end, came to Oregon as a junior college transfer but hasn't always played like an experienced veteran. 

Dye is going to be special. Heck, he already is. But he needs help. Where this group must improve the most is with its awareness. Each week we hear from coaches how mental errors hurt the defense. 

A year or two getting destroyed might help all involve accelerates their learning curve. 

DEFENSIVE LINE

This is the area of greatest concern. The defensive line has been a mess. So much so that UO has been forced to dig deep into the depth chart to find bodies and the results haven't been pretty.

Oregon has played 11 defensive linemen this season that will return in 2017. Eight will be back in 2018. Six could still be around by 2019. That speaks to the youth of the group as well as the room that exists for growth. 

While there are obvious upgrades coming at linebacker, defensive line is far more unsettled. Oregon has needed somebody, anybody to rise up and become a force, but nobody has. Yet, that doesn't mean someone won't. 

Former Ducks, Alex Balducci, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, all in the NFL, were not dominant as freshmen in 2012. Taylor Hart redshirted in 2009 before playing minimally as a redshirt freshman and then blossoming as a redshirt sophomore. He is now in the NFL. 

Oregon needs a couple of young defensive linemen to improve the same way. They don't have to become future first-round picks like Armstead and Buckner, but the Ducks need a few players to emerge with some semblance of NFL potential in order to put up resistance against Pac-12 offenses that right now are running wild on UO. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Defensive end: Henry Mondeaux, Sr., Hunter Kampmoyer, RFrosh., Gus Cumberlander, RSoph. 

Defensive tackle: Rex Manu, Jr., Wayne Tei-Kirby, Soph., Gary Baker, RSoph.

Defensive tackle: Drayton Carlberg, RSoph., Elijah George, RSr. 

Defensive end: Jalen Jelks, RJr., Justin Hollins, RJr., Bryson Young, Soph.

Position analysis: Oregon should actually be set at defensive end next season. Mondeaux (one sack) hasn't had the impact year many expected, but that's partly because he has had little help upfront. Jelks has the ability to become an elite pass rusher, but injuries have slowed him down this season. Young, a former four-star recruit, and Hollins are athletic but woefully undersized at about 235 pounds to play defensive end. They need to add bulk. So does the 245-pound Kampmoyer, another promising talent. Cumberlander is 6-6, 260 with a frame to add more pounds. 

Defensive tackle is a huge problem and one of the reasons why teams run at will on Oregon. Manu is solid, but not very disruptive. He needs to get bigger, stronger and quicker this offseason. Carlberg is intriguing as a Taylor Hart-time at 6-5, 290 pounds. Carlberg became a starter early in the season but injuries have limited him to five games.  

Tei-Kirby, a former three-star recruit, has ideal defensive tackle size at 6-3, 315 pounds. Baker, at 6-4, 315, is another potentially good defensive tackle. The Ducks need at least one, if not both, to emerge as a consistent player next season.

Right now, the best thing about this group of defensive tackles is that they are all going to be around for two or three more seasons, which means there is plenty of time for them to improve.

----

There is a possibility that all of these young players could fizzle out as did many of their predecessors from previous classes that didn't work out. But odds are against it. Oregon has received limited production from recruiting classes before but never in the past 20 years has it continued through a second set of juniors and seniors. 

Again, this season has been a disaster on defense. So was last year, save for a few games late in the season. But the byproduct is that plenty of young, talented players have received extensive playing time that will accelerate their development. 

That all could payoff as soon as 2017. 

 

 

Oregon paying $10 million for a coach would be ludicrous

Oregon paying $10 million for a coach would be ludicrous

A Tweet stating that Phil Knight is willing to pay $10 million per year for a football coach to lead Oregon to a national title should be dismissed on arrival with a chuckle because it couldn't possibly be true. 

Or could it?

A question regarding ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell's tweet was posed to UO coach Mark Helfrich on Sunday, a day after the Ducks lost 45-20 at USC to fall to 3-6 on the season. 

His response: "That's the nature of the profession. It would be cool if it was that easy." 

After a pause, Helfrich added: "I take it, it wasn't me that's getting the $10 million?"

Laughter followed.

In actuality, Helfrich would be receiving $11 million in the deal. More on that later. 

What's more pressing is how such a report, if it's true, defines how perspective levels around Oregon's poor season have reached such gutter levels that one must consider that everyone remotely associated with the program - fans, boosters, media - have all lost their damn minds. 

There is not a coach alive that's going to magically bring a national title to Oregon no matter how much Knight, or anyone, pays that person. In fact, I don't think there is a coach alive who believes he could guarantee Oregon a national title, but there are plenty who would take the ridiculous paycheck and give it the ol' college try. 

The idea of throwing that type of money around sounds like an act of desperation rather than one born from deep thought. It's an overreaction to problem that will naturally correct itself. 

Maybe I'm not as alarmed by the current state of UO's program because I saw the eventual demise coming years ago, stated as such and wrote about it while at The Oregonian in 2012. I reiterated that point in 2014 when writing that the national championship window would close after Marcus Mariota moved on to the NFL, and prior to this season called it a year of transition for a young and inexperienced team.

I certainly didn't predict 3-6 at this point, but I did predict that the rest of the conference would catch up with the "blur" offense and the Ducks' talent level would not be able to sustain a string of dominant seasons without the benefit of a fantastical, yet gimmicky offense leading the way. 

However, I also believe that the program will recover when a new influx of talent, led by a transcendent star, were allowed to develop. That star is freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, who will at least become the second greatest quarterback ever to play at Oregon when his career is over (baring injury, of course). 

Allowing this all to play out requires minimal patience, something sorely missing in this day and age. 

What's happened is that fans and boosters have so attached their own egos and emotions to the success of UO's football program that they almost believe they created that success. So, now that things have gone south the first reaction is to punish someone. 

That someone is Helfrich, who had the misfortune of following Chip Kelly, propped up as a football God because he had four great years primarily because from 2009 through 2012, most of the conference had no clue how to handle the Ducks' dizzyingly fast-paced offense.

That has changed and here we are. Those with an open mind recognize that the downfall could have happened to Kelly, as well, and in fact partly did because the final two recruiting classes he oversaw had players all over the 2015 team, and some remain this season on a team virtually void of quality senior leadership.  

Those who believe in the Kelly mythology - and haven't been watching him getting crushed in the NFL - want to believe that Helfrich ruined a good thing, and that Kelly would have kept the gravy train going into eternity. 

Not possible. 

Every program in the conference has the same amount of scholarships and is also free to hire good coaches. Simple math and probability dictate that some of those teams were going to eventually become really good and that Oregon would eventually have a rebuilding season.

What's being ignored at an alarming fashion is that this team on paper had no chance to contend this season. It's far too young and inexperienced, and the Ducks have suffered a crazy amount of injuries.  

The answer to how Oregon returns to glory is not found in simply firing a staff that consists of most of the men who played a huge part in the Ducks' greatest successes. At least don't do so after one bad season. 

Allow me to repeat that: One. Bad. Season. 

Not two. Not three. Not five. One. 

Firing everyone two years after arguably the greatest season in program history would be the lazy thing to do. It requires no imagination. Requires no foresight. No thought. Place blame. Feel superior. Prop up someone else as the savior. Feel better about yourself. 

But there's just one little problem: Who ya gonna get?

I keep waiting for someone, anyone, to name this magical coach that for $10 million will bring the Ducks a national title and never, ever have a bad season. Ever. 

Is Alabama's Nick Saban coming to Oregon? Not a chance. 

Ohio State's Urban Meyer? Ha!

Even if either one did take Knight's money and head to Eugene, there is no guarantee that they bring UO a national title. Recruiting to Eugene is far more difficult than recruiting to Alabama or Ohio State, or their former stops, LSU and Florida. 

Saban, who makes $6.9 million per year, quit on the Miami Dolphins because he didn't have the talent-gathering advantages he enjoyed at LSU. I don't think he would relish trying to win it all at Oregon. 

And if either Saban or Meyer ($6 milllion per year) have trouble winning it all for the Ducks, then who else could possibly do it?

I would assume that this God of a coach already has a national title, correct? Helfrich and company have been to two national title games, one with him as head coach. So an upgrade would have to be someone with a national title already on his resume. 

So are we talking about former championship coaches who have fallen from grace such as Mack Brown, Jim Tressel, Gene Chizik? They could be had.

Maybe Oregon tries to steal Jimbo Fisher ($5.25 million) from Florida State, or Bob Stoops ($5.25 million) from Oklahoma.

Money talks. Anything is possible. 

But why would any of those men guarantee a national title for Oregon? All won big at programs with greater advantages than UO provides. 

Don't get started on the notion that Oregon should ride its facilities to uninterrupted successes. They get Oregon into the recruiting game on a national level, but they don't win that game. 

But let's say the Ducks do land a "big name," that would lead to the irony of ironies. Should that coach returns the Ducks to to prominence in 2017 or 2018, he would be doing so with Helfrich's recruits.

Oops. That would then destroy the narrative that Helfirch can't build a winning team. He already destroyed the idea that he couldn't coach a championship-level team by going 11-2 and 13-2 in his first two seasons. But his haters always seek to point out that Helfrich won with Kelly's recruits. So, to be fair, if a new coach wins early, Helfrich would have to be credited for putting the players together, starting with Herbert. 

If there is room for extreme blame to be placed at the feet of Helfrich and the coaching staff - that includes Kelly, former defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro and former offensive coordinator Scott Frost - its for the lack of an adequate amount of impact players on this team. Oregon is young and inexperienced at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker because the current starters beat out older players who didn't pan out. 

For example: Herbert is starting as a freshman only because Morgan Mahalak (2014 four-star recruit) and Travis Jonsen (2015 four-star recruit) didn't reach expectations. Similar scenarios have played out at other positions.

That has led to a young team simply not ready to win.  The staff certainly is to blame for this predicament. However, what those aching to release their venom are too blind to see is that the benefit of losing with a young team is that the players will gain experience and improve.  

We've seen this play out at Oregon before. 

The 2004 Ducks (5-6) and the 2006 Ducks (7-6) struggled with maturity and consistency, but the 2005 team (10-2) and the 2007 team (9-4) were top five teams before injuries at the quarterback position. The 2005-2006 Oregon basketball team missed the NCAA Tournament while losing many close games with four prominent sophomores and a junior leading the way. The following season the Ducks reached the Elite Eight.

There is every reason imaginable to believe that these current Ducks will also rise, and do so under Helfrich. Herbert is a superstar in the making. The offense line is loaded with four potential NFL players who need time to grow. The defense will return 10 starters next season, and there are a host of freshman and redshirt freshmen, other than linebacker Troy Dye and safety Brendan Schooler, that should be very good in the near future. 

But recognizing all of that requires effort. Vision. A willingness to think rather than react. To project, rather than punish. 

Let's forget about Helfrich for a second, because it's not all about him. A new $10 million coach would likely bring his own staff. Are those associated with the program ready to tell Don Pellum, Gary Campbell, John Neal, Jim Radcliffe and Steve Greatwood that it's time for them to go after one bad season in 10 years? 

"Thanks for helping Oregon become a national power but, you had one losing season every 10 years for the past 20 so it's time for you to go."

That doesn't seem right. 

The Oregon Ducks will rise again with the current coaching staff. No doubt. Then, it will have a down season at some point. 

A new coach could win big at Oregon. No doubt. Then he too would eventually have a down season. 

At the very least allow this staff the chance to grow this young roster. See if they can turn things around. Helfrich, an Oregonian from Coos Bay, cares about the program more than anyone else UO could hire. He will work his tail off to fix things. If he fails and the Ducks don't show improvement in 2017, by all means, make a change.

But firing him after one bad season, eating $11 million of buyout money, also buying out the assistants while firing such long-time fixtures, and then throwing crazy money at a big name out of desperation would be unseemly for the Oregon program. 

It would make the Ducks look desperate and common. Not special. Not unique. 

From Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Kelly to Helfrich, Oregon has done things the right way in the head coaching department, and it has paid off. 

Change directions now and UO would veer down an uncertain path that could lead to disaster, a revolving door of overpaid coaches in it just for the money who could ultimately leave the program in ruins. 

Helfrich talks Mullens, addresses reports of team strife

Helfrich talks Mullens, addresses reports of team strife

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said today that he had a conversation with UO athletic director Rob Mullens following the Ducks' 70-21 loss to No. 5 Washington but declined to elaborate on what was said. 

He did, however, say that he feels like he has the administration's support as he works to turn around a 2-4 season. 

"I feel like we have a ton of support," Helfrich said. "The most support we have is the players and we need to play better. We'll shield them from all the negativity."

With six games remaining, Oregon needs four wins to become bowl eligible, which could go a long way toward helping Helfrich keep his job, assuming that it is in jeopardy.  On Monday, Mullens avoided offering unwavering support for Helfrich during an interview on the in-house Duck Insider radio show. 

That interview has raised speculation that Helfrich's job security is at least precarious as he heads into the second half of the season. 

"Nobody is happy," Helfrich said about the team losing four consecutive games. "There's not one person in our organization that's happy with the result. And again, we have to be about fixing that."

Helfrich said practice during the bye week has been solid. He spoke of righting the team emotionally, working on fundamentals, ball security, pass protection, developing young talent and taking advantage of the extra time to improve before playing at California next Friday.  

Helfrich also addressed the numerous reports of players claims that some teammates are not giving maximum effort and simply do not care about winning. Helfrich said those sentiments expressed Saturday night by freshman linebacker Troy Dye, freshman safety Brenden Schooler and senior right guard Cameron Hunt are simply not true. 

"Certainly, absolutely guys are frustrated," Helfrich said. "And that's fine. Number one, you shouldn't say anything like that to begin with when that's not true. It's emotional. All those things. But then our job is to right the ship from an emotional standpoint, from a psychological standpoint and just continue to point out what's going on and why it's going on."

 

Fragile Ducks at risk of sinking into the Abyss

Fragile Ducks at risk of sinking into the Abyss

The character of the fragile Oregon Ducks will be put on display for the world to see over the second half of the season. 

These Ducks (2-4, 0-3 Pac-12) must collectively look in the mirror, search for some shred of dignity and figure out how they want to be remembered: As cowards who folded and put forth one of the most embarrassing seasons in program history that included a 70-21 drubbing Saturday night at the hands of No. 5 Washington? Or, as a group that discovered the word "resilient," embraced it, applied it and salvaged something positive out of this season that could propel them into next year, and save the jobs of the entire coaching staff, if indeed they are in danger.  

"It's a heart check," Oregon freshman linebacker Troy Dye said.

Heart, mind and soul.

Oregon has displayed none of the above, as of late. The Ducks, with their bye week here, have 11 days to figure this mess out before the season completely unravels. Right now, smart money says it already has. 

Washington (6-0, 3-0) exposed the Ducks' fragile psyche at Autzen Stadium. Granted, the already struggling Ducks had little chance of defeating the Huskies, who look like a legitimate national title contender.

But, 70-21? At home? After having already been whipped 51-33 at Washington State?

Seriously? Where's your pride, Oregon?

Apparently the Ducks have little. Just listen to the players speak. 

Dye said the team once again lacked "effort," and "energy."  Freshman safety Brenden Schooler said some players were giving off the vibe that they simply do not care.  

That comes from two true freshmen, who both appear to be heartbroken at where this program sits six games into their college careers. They didn't go to Oregon for this. They certainly didn't sign with UO to be the voices of reason for a clown show. 

There are front-runners and then there are leaders in sports. Front-runners jump on the bandwagon and ride high when all is well, then want credit. Leaders accept blame for the team's poor performance, look inward then rally the squad to improve. 

Oregon appears to have more front-runners who expected instant success the moment they signed their letter of intent, than it does leaders that can redirect this team toward success.

"I think everybody is thinking about the past," junior wide receiver Charles Nelson said, "all the great things we've done in the past and not focusing on the now."

A players-only meeting on Sept. 26 was supposed to have fixed that mentality. Clearly it has not.

What's most disturbing is that the Ducks are not this bad. Not even with four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen starting, not even with freshman quarterback Justin Herbert now leading the team, not even with six new starters in the front seven, and not even after a glut of injuries ravaging the roster. 

This team lost by three points to both No. 10 Nebraska (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and Colorado (4-2, 2-1). The Ducks are not 59 points worse than Washington, which defeated the likes of Rutgers by the count of 48-13; Portland State, 41-3; and narrowly escaped Arizona with a 35-28 win in overtime. 

UO's once-dominant running game has been a mess the last two games. The defense has allowed 522.3 yards of offense per game (126th in the nation) and 41 points per game (124th). 

A defense must work really hard to stink that badly. 

Oregon's coaches certainly must accept culpability, and they have. But the problems could run deeper than Xs and Ox.  There are grumblings that players have quit mentally and that coach Mark Helfrich has lost the team. If true, the coaches must curb that trend in a hurry. 

Let's not forget that the staff has won before. Most have done so numerous times at Oregon under multiple head coaches. Most of the players, save for a handful that contributed to the 2014 team, have never seen a championship at this level. 

So, are these players who have allegedly quit doing so because of bad coaching? Or, is it because they are front-running quitters?

The truth is that the decline is the fault of everyone involved. It's up to the coaches and the players to dig the team out of this hole. What we know is that the coaches have been here many times before and survived. Some players have, as well. Oregon began last season 3-3 before winning six consecutive games. Will these Ducks find enough fight to win four of their final six to become bowl eligible?

Failing to at least reach a bowl game would be completely humiliating for the program. Experiencing a down year is one thing, going 5-7, or worse, would be an abomination for a program that just two years ago went 13-2, won the Rose Bowl and reached the national championship game. 

The remaining schedule is favorable for the Ducks. California (3-3, 1-2), up next for Oregon on Oct. 21, has a defense (122nd in total defense) almost as bad as the Ducks'. Arizona State (5-1, 2-1) is solid but definitely beatable with the 120th-ranked defense. So are Stanford (3-2, 2-2), USC (3-3, 2-2) and No. 21 Utah (5-1, 2-1). The there's the Beavers (2-3, 1-1), who took down the Golden Bears on Saturday to record their first conference win since 2014. 

If Oregon plays like it did during the first four weeks of the season, the Ducks will go 4-2 to finish 6-6 and reach a bowl game. 

If the Ducks play like they have the past two weeks, they will finish 4-8, at best.

"It's not about just being here, it's about putting in the work and actually winning..." Schooler said. "We have to pull together. We can't fall into this hole, because as soon as you get in, it's hard to get out."

Sorry, Brenden. The Ducks are already in that hole. 

The steep climb out begins right now.