Jim Leavitt

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 6 - LB La'Mar Winston Jr.

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 6 - LB La'Mar Winston Jr.

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr

The Ducks need a young linebacker other than Troy Dye to emerge and Winston could very well be that guy. 

Dye has been moved to inside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's 3-4 scheme after last season being that side of the ball's only impact player while operating at outside linebacker in the 4-3.

Dye's move inside likely means that senior Jimmie Swain will move outside while fellow senior A.J. Hotchkins remains inside. That still leaves one outside linebacker spot unaccounted for and Winston, a four-star recruit in 2016, could be the guy to fill that role. 

Winston, out of Portland's Central Catholic High School, appeared in 11 games last year, mostly on special teams, and had five tackles. Even if he doesn't become a starter in 2017, the Ducks could certainly benefit from him developing into a quality backup capable of starting in the future. 

There is some urgency for Winston to develop rapidly or potentially get left behind. The Ducks have signed some quality linebacker recruits and have received commitments from potential stars at the position for the 2018 class.  

Winston is every bit as talented as those on their way to Eugene. Rivals.com rated him in 2016 as the No. 8 athlete in the nation, which should foreshadow success. The time for that to happen is now. 

 

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

Jim Leavitt Part 2: With big money comes great expectations

Jim Leavitt Part 2: With big money comes great expectations

This is Part 2 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. 

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

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EUGENE - After two seasons of horrible Oregon defense the Ducks finally decided to ante up and hire a big-time, proven defensive coordinator. 

Jim Leavitt received a king's ransom of $1.125 million per year to rebuild the defense. That's more than the combined salaries of his two predecessors, Brady Hoke ($700,000) and Don Pellum ($400,000).

Such a high price tag will result in even higher expectations. Maybe unattainable expectations. Leavitt said he isn't phased by the pressure that comes with the hefty paycheck. Oregon, he said, has had great defenses in the past before falling on hard times. Now it's his opportunity to help lift the defense out of the basement and back to where it belongs. 

"All that tells me is there's an opportunity for greatness," he said. "I know if we build a great defense here and we get the ball back to our offense, weʼre going to win a bunch of games. If we donʼt, we wonʼt. And I like that. That fires me up."

Over the past few seasons, the defenses for Oregon and Colorado passed each other along the Pac-12 scoring defenses list as the Ducks plummeted while Colorado went on a dramatic rise. 

Nick Aliotti had mostly great success at the defensive coordinator for more than two decades at Oregon. Pellum took over in 2014 and produced a strong defense that allowed 23.6 points per game to help UO reach the national title game. That same season, Colorado allowed 39 points per game, 11th in the conference.

Oregon's defense fell to 115th in the nation the following year while allowing 37.5 points per game, last in the Pac-12. That same year, Colorado hired Leavitt and jumped to sixth in the conference at 27.5 points allowed per game.

Pellum was demoted back to linebackers coach in 2016 leading to the hiring of Hoke, who had never before been a defensive coordinator at the college level, and paid him well to rebuild the defense. However, the Ducks fell to 128th in the nation in total defense and allowed a whopping 41.4 points per game (11th in the Pac-12).

Over in Boulder, Col., Leavitt had the Buffaloes' defense humming while allowing just 21.7 points per game, third fewest in the conference.

To be fair, Hoke was not entirely to blame for last season's defensive debacle that greatly contributed to the team's 4-8 record and the firing of coach Mark Helfrich. Oregon had an extremely young defense that Hoke didn't recruit. Still, he became the lightning rod for detractors. Now, those same folks are hailing Leavitt as the savior primarily because he had one wildly successful season at Colorado. 

Colorado's 2016 defense was loaded with experienced senior starters, many of which were in their third year as contributors. Leavitt hopes to take the same trek with Oregon's defense. 

"You know, just like at Colorado, there was deficiencies, different places in the defense, and itʼs a little bit different than here," he said. "We might be stronger at some things whereas Colorado may have been stronger in others. But you know, Colorado wasnʼt very good. They were 120th in the country and thatʼs not real strong and even after the first year we got to 70th in the country. Everybody thought we were doing all these great things but 70th isnʼt very good, and I wasnʼt real happy with that."

Oregon fans would probably be over the moon if the Ducks' defense reached the 70s range in Leavitt's first season. But Leavitt said he won't approach this year worrying about statistics. 

"I donʼt really want to put that ceiling on it," he said. "Why canʼt we do great things? I think it comes down to leadership in our defense, you know obviously you want to stay healthy, you know itʼs important. Weʼve got to put them into a position where they can be successful."

For that to happen, the Ducks must improve their overall communication. Player to player. Coach to player. Coach to coach. All areas were deficient last season. 

"Whatever happened last year happened last year," Leavitt said. "I donʼt know if they communicated well or not, I donʼt really care. Bottom line is you have to communicate. In our system it is very, very important and we made a big point about that. We got to have guys who are great communicators, who understand concepts and deliver the right language to get people lined up in the right positions. And Iʼm going to have a hard time playing guys who arenʼt good at doing that, who arenʼt good communicators. Sometimes Iʼll have guys back there playing that might not be as athletic as other guys, but they can line everybody up and they have great passion for what theyʼre doing."

As for staff communication, Leavitt doesn't foresee a problem. New coach Willie Taggart sought to hire a staff devoid of egos. 

"And all of them are pros," Leavitt said. "Everybody on this staff is confident in what they do or they wouldnʼt be here. They understand their position very well, but they also understand we've got to do it together."

All is glorious right now with UO football. Recruiting is going well. The staff is displaying great enthusiasm and energy. The players appear to be responding. But the Ducks are 0-0 under Taggart. The real test for Leavitt and the staff will come when things go south, which they inevitably will to some capacity. 

"Well, donʼt lose. If we donʼt we don't have to worry about it right?" Leavitt said. "Of course you know Iʼve been in a lot of situations from the NFL and every level in college and everybodyʼs going to love you when you win, and if you donʼt win, youʼll hang in there for a bit but not long. You canʼt get distracted about those kind of things. The way to win is you play good football. The way you play good football is you teach fundamentals, you teach people how to play. All those things we talked about discipline, line up right, tackle, play after play after play and do that for a series of plays throughout the game, if you do that enough, youʼll win the game. If you donʼt, you wonʼt."

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Next up: Part 3 - Players respond well to Leavitt, but is there enough talent?
 

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

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 3 - NT Jordon Scott

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 3 - NT Jordon Scott

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

Updated: Information added regarding Rex Manu being done for the season.

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No. 3: Freshman nose tackle Jordon Scott

The legend of Jordon Scott is starting to take root and will surely explode the first time the 335-pound nose tackle rips past an offensive linemen to make a for loss or a sack at Autzen Stadium. 

Scott should receive plenty of opportunities to do so after making it clear during spring drills that his combination of bulk, strength, speed and low pad level could combine to make him a force. 

Scott, out of Largo, Fla., has had to shed some weight since his arrival last winter. 

"Iʼm really proud of him," Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said. "He came in about 358 lbs. and is down to about 330 pounds, in that area. Heʼs always been strong. Heʼs a very explosive guy and he has great character and he has great demeanor. And he has great confidence and knows what he wants. He knows what he wants to do in life, and those qualities are very, very important."

What's important for the Ducks is that they find someone, anyone, to hold up the middle of the defensive in Leavitt's 3-4 scheme. 

Junior Rex Manu is out for the season leaing redshirt sophomore Gary Baker as the primarty candidate to start with Scott as the backup. Graduate transfer Scott Pagano, from Clemson, could also play the nose position. 

But it's Scott who is the most intriguing. With his natural physical gifts, he has a chance to work his way into becoming an impact player - down the line. 

Don't expect Scott to take the Pac-12 by storm next season. He likely won't be in physical condition enough to be the guy inside for most of a game. However, do expect Scott to be in the rotation, making plays, learning and working his way toward potentially becoming a special player down the line. 

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

Oregon receives commitment from 3-star DE Jonathan King

Oregon receives commitment from 3-star DE Jonathan King

Defensive end Jonathan King out of Tampa, Fl., has committed to Oregon, according to 247Sports.com, giving the Ducks 10 recruits on the oral hook for the 2018 recruiting class. 

King represents the first oral commitment Oregon has received since May 5. 

Listed at 6-foot-3, 230-pounds, King could very well become a great player for Oregon, but he doesn't fall into the category of being a virtual can't miss defensive lineman that Oregon must continuously sign in order to avoid the dramatic defensive downturn the team experienced over the past two seasons. 

King, who had offers from Penn State and Florida State, among others, is rated as a three-star recruit by both 247Sports and Rivals.com.  The latter ranks him as the 35th-best weakside defensive end in the nation. Rivals.com does not rate him within its top defensive ends. 

Given that the Ducks are moving back to the 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, it would appear that King will most likely play outside linebacker or a hybrid position, and not line up as a true, 3-4 defensive end. That would require him adding at least 40 pounds and might neutralize a lot of his quickness as a pass rusher. 

However, former Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner was listed at 245 pounds while in high school before blowing up to 290 at Oregon. 

As for the bigger picture, the Ducks still must sign marquee defensive line prospects in order to thrive. As pointed out in a previous article, the failure to recruit high-end defensive linemen from 2013 through 2016 proved to be devastating for the defense. 

So far the new staff under coach Willie Taggart has landed commitments from two three-star defensive linemen for the 2018 class on the heels of signing two three-star defensive tackles and one four-star defensive tackle for the 2017 recruiting class. However, the lone four-star recruit, Rutger Reitmaier, committed to Oregon last June, six months before Taggart became the head coach. 

The good news is that plenty of time remains for UO to add more defensive linemen. Oregon will host a satellite camp on June 24. 

The addition of King boosted Oregon's class ranking on Rivals.com to No. 14, up from No. 18. It's been as high as No. 11. UO's average star ranking of 3.3 ranks 18th. 

 

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.  

Five Ducks' spring game storylines: No. 5 - Coaching staff's "juice."

Five Ducks' spring game storylines: No. 5 - Coaching staff's "juice."

Oregon's spring game kicks off at 11 a.m. on Saturday.  Here is a look at one of the five reasons why you should care. 

No. 5: The coaching staff's "juice."

Oregon coach Willie Taggart requires his assistant coaches to bring "juice" to the party. 

Translation: Coach with infectious enthusiasm that energizes and inspires the players to want to get better. 

Practices are filled with dozens of moments of coaches reacting excitedly to great plays and strong effort put forth by efforts. 

They aggressively pat guys on the helmet, give them shoves, jump around like little kids and scream and yell with words of encouragement and affirmation for a job well done. 

The "juice."

"We'll always have fun," Taggart said. "It's football. We've got to have fun doing it. It's work, too. We're going to work. We're going to challenge our guys. We're going to coach aggressively. But we're going to have fun while we're doing it. I don't like being boring. We're going to have fun while we're doing this. I think sometimes we take it too seriously where we don't go out and have fun."

The coaching staff is split for the spring game with half of the team coaching Team "Brave" and the other half coaching Team "Fire." Given that there should be a good crowd at Autzen Stadium, and it's the first big event for this staff at Oregon, one would assume that energy and emotion could be high. 

Expect to see a bunch of coaches being quite animated on the sidelines. 

 

Other entries: No. 1 - QB Travis Jonsen; No. 2 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.; No. 3 - Search for WR depth; No. 4 - DL Jordan Scott. 

Jim Leavitt pleased with progress of Oregon's defense

Jim Leavitt pleased with progress of Oregon's defense

Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is as bubbly as ever. Even after three weeks this spring of coaching what was one of the worst defenses in the nation last season hasn't appeared to kill his buzz.

Maybe it's the soft drinks he consumes early in the morning. Or, maybe it's because he has taken on reclamation projects before and says he is pleased with what he's seen from the Ducks so far during this latest endeavor. According to Leavitt, UO's defense is getting better each day, grasping fundamentals and progressing. While he admits that is all coach speak, he also stated that at the end of the day, all spring ball is about is making daily progress. 

“It’s not all about winning the spring, to me, it’s about winning in the fall," he said following Friday's practice. "So we’re looking at the big picture on everything. I’m proud of the guys. I think they are working very, very hard.”

Oregon's spring game will be held at 11:30 a.m., April 29 at Autzen Stadium. 

Oregon ranked 128th in the nation in total defense last season while allowing 41.5 points per game. At Leavitt's previous job, he took over a Colorado team that had allowed 39 points per game the year before his arrival in 2015. Leavitt coached up that defense to the point where it allowed just 27.5 points per game in 2015 and then 21.7 last year. 

Now he's trying to do the same at Oregon, which is paying him $1.1 million per season to build a dominant defense. Leavitt said that moving form being the linebackers coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 to coaching at Colorado led him to enter this job with higher expectations. The move from the 49ers to Colorado involved steps to figure out what to use and what not to use at the college level.  Figuring that out may have slowed down the rebuilding process a tad at Colorado. Having gone through that before, he said, should lead to a smoother rebuild this time around.  

“We’ve pushed a lot more on them then I ever did at the last job,” Leavitt said. “I think they’ve handled it fairly well. They’ll drive me nuts at times, but that’s just because the expectations are very, very high. We want to knock that ceiling out.”

Should that happen next season, Leavitt would have to be considered a miracle worker.  It's going to take time for the defense to get to where Leavitt wants it to be. But he's not necessarily in a rush. 

“What’s really important is that you don’t’ want guys to be thinking about a scrimmage tomorrow or a spring game,” Leavitt said. “You want them thinking about today.”

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. 

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

The Oregon defense, which ranked 128th in the nation last season, will receive some extra tender love and care under new coach Willie Taggart.

During a lengthy one-on-one interview this week that will air later this month on CSN, Taggart said that special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie has recently been handed the extra assignment of also coaching outside linebackers. That will leave defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to coach only the inside linebackers instead of the entire linebacker crew. 

Oregon already has two defensive backs coaches with Keith Heyward handling safeties and Charles Clark directing the cornerbacks. 

Assistant head coach Joe Salave'a will coach the defensive line. 

The reason for the use of multiple coaches at two different position groups on defense is simple. Taggart said the defensive side of the ball needs more work in the areas of development and communication, a big issue for Oregon the past two seasons when the defense ranked among the worst in the nation. 

The decision to have two defensive backs coaches, something Leavitt used as the defensive coordinator in Colorado before Oregon hired him away during the offseason, is to increase communication within a group that is spread out all over the field. Plus, the group must communicate coverages with the linebackers. 

"We're trying to create a synergy throughout the defense," Taggart said.

Teaching a new defense to what was a very young group last year with just one senior starter will be challenging. Having two defensive back coaches working to make sure there is at least proper communication will help accelerate the growth process, Taggart hopes. 

"It's a lot easier if guys have two coaches back there," Taggart said. 

The same could happen with the linebackers. Oregon will have seven linebackers that are going to be either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Getting them up to speed as fast as possible could make all the difference next season, but especially by 2018 when four out of that group will likely make up the starting lineup. 

While the defense will have five full-time coaches handling position groups, the offense will have four. Co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal will take on the running game and the offensive line. Co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo will handle the passing game, quarterbacks and tight ends with the help of a graduate assistant. Michael Johnson will coach wide receivers and Donte Pimpleton will handle the running backs.