A.J. Hotchkins

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

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's injuries not an excuse, but a serious reality

Oregon's injuries not an excuse, but a serious reality

When a player goes down for Oregon the team emits the battle cry of "next man up."

It's a valuable mindset that means the following: Nobody is going to feel sorry for you because of injuries. Don't allow injuries to be an excuse. Someone must fill the void. 

That's all well and good but every team has its breaking point and Oregon's rash of injuries cannot be ignored as having played a factor in the Ducks' 2-3 start that could easily move to 2-4 after UO faces No. 5 Washington at home on Saturday.

The loss of left tackle Tyrell Crosby for the season hurt the offensive line. The speed of wide receiver Devon Allen, out for the year with a knee injury, is also missed. 

The pass rush has been decimated by the five missed starts from freshman linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt sophomore defensive end Jalen Jelks (knee). They share the lead for sacks with two each in just five combined starts. Let that sink in for a moment. Both missed the loss at Washington State and its quarterback Luke Falk had all night in the pocket. 

Super star running back Royce Freeman missed seven quarters of action between the Nebraska and Colorado losses. 

And so on, and so on. 

To Oregon's credit, nobody on the team has blamed injuries for the team's poor start. Nevertheless, this is one of the more injury-plagued seasons the Ducks have experienced in recent memory.

Here is a look at some of the key injuries Oregon has suffered this season:

Tyrell Crosby, junior left tackle: Out for the season with a foot injury and being replaced by promising redshirt freshman Brady Aiello. The Ducks are starting four redshirt freshmen along the offensive line. 

Devon Allen, redshirt junior wide receiver: The Olympian and team's fastest receiver had a breakthrough game against Virginia (141 yards and a touchdown) only to suffer a season-ending knee injury the following week at Nebraska. 

Johnny Ragin III, senior linebacker: He was lost for the season when he suffered a leg injury at Washington State. He leads the team with 29 tackles. 

Royce Freeman, junior running back: Injured his right leg during the first quarter at Nebraska then missed the following week's loss at home to Colorado. The Ducks likely wouldn't have called a fade pass to Darren Carrington II from the seven-yard line that was intercepted in the final minute against the Buffaloes had Freeman been in the backfield. 

Troy Dye, freshman linebacker: Already the team's best defensive playmaker, Dye was limited to special teams play at Nebraska due to an illness and missed the team's trip to Washington State because of a concussion. He is expected to return this week against Washington. Despite missing so much time, Dye is tied for third on the team with 27 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two sacks. 

Jalen Jelks, redshirt sophomore defensive end: Jelks had two sacks in the teams' win over Virginia but has not seen the field since due to a knee injury. He is likely out again this week against Washington.

Johnny Mundt, senior tight end: Injured his leg in season opener and hasn't played since. Could return this week.  

Jake Pisarcik, offensive lineman: The backup lineman has missed four games because of injury.

A.J. Hotchkins, junior middle linebacker: He missed the Nebraska loss with a lower leg or foot injury (undisclosed) after being seen wearing a walking boot and limping days before the game. 

Pharaoh Brown, senior tight end: He missed the team's loss against Colorado with a leg injury. 

Drayton Carlberg, redshirt freshman defensive tackle: Carlberg became a starter at Nebraska, got injured and has missed the last two games.  

Dwayne Stanford, senior wide receiver: He left the WSU game after getting injured and fumbling in the third quarter. He is likely out this week against Washington. 

Kani Benoit, redshirt junior running back: Injured his right shoulder when being hit after catching the first ever completion for freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. Benoit is likely out this week against Washington, according to sources. 

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Oregon entered the season with holes that have been magnified by youth and injuries. Yes, all teams suffer from injuries, but not many teams could survive this list of afflictions and still remain a contender. 

 

Ducks' defense still struggling with "alignment and assignment"

Ducks' defense still struggling with "alignment and assignment"

EUGENE - Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke appeared to be a bit irritated following the Ducks' final scrimmage of fall camp on Thursday. 

Once again, the defense looked more like the one that ranked 116th in the nation last season and not the more disciplined and potent version the Ducks hope to see under their new defensive leader. 

"We have a long way to go to be a defense that's going to be effective in this league," Hoke said. 

We won't truly know where the defense is until after maybe the third game of the season. Putting in a new scheme is never an easy transition. But the problems being revealed appear to harken back to last year's concerns. 

"We had a couple of missed tackles, a couple of guys late to get lined up," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. 

Those errors, some in the secondary, led to big runs from running backs Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James. Defensive backs missing tackles is not a sign of improvement for a team that allowed 35 touchdown passes last season.

When asked if the secondary had been responding to being held more accountable by Hoke, he said: "This isn't a good day to ask that question. I think as a whole we weren't very good."

Yikes. 

Hoke said he hoped the defense would be further along by now with the season opener just nine days away, Sept. 3 versus UC Davis. But maybe all isn't as bad as he made it appear to be. 

Helfrich said it was disappointing to see the defense perform poorly against an offense minus several key starters. However, he added that maybe their absence led to the defense letting up, which still isn't a good sign. 

But, the silver lining is that the shoddy showing could be blamed on a poor mindset rather than scheme and/or ability. Helfrich shrugged off the idea that the defense is struggling with grasping the nuances of the new 4-3 scheme, a switch from the 3-4 employed in years past. 

"It was a frame-of-mind thing more than anything," Helfrich said. 

Something, he said, wasn't cause for alarm. 

"That's just urgency," Helfrich added. "Very, very very correctable things." 

New Oregon starting middle linebacker A.J. Hotchkins, out of Tigard High School, echoed Helfrich's sentiments and broke it down as such: "Alignment and assignment."

The Ducks struggled with both on Thursday. 

"Some guys need to spend more time, myself included, in the playbook and just get everything down," Hotchkins said. 

On one hand, hearing that the struggles of the defense could be fixed with tweaks is a good thing. On the other hand, didn't we hear that refrain several times last season while opposing teams were booking frequent trips to the end zone?

Suffice it to say, it's time to start hearing something positive about the defense before teams on the 2016 schedule start making similar travel plans through the Ducks' defense. 

"Everybody has been working hard," Hotchkins said. "We just have to get some little details down and I think we'll be pretty good."

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 6 - Linebackers in flux

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 6 - Linebackers in flux

College football is back! The Ducks begin fall camp on Monday so we're breaking down each position to determine if the Ducks, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, and their fans will be smelling roses as Pac-12 champs during a trip to the Rose Bowl, or placing bets at a roulette table prior to watching a sixth-place UO team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Each position is graded using the poker hand scale.  

Today: Linebackers. 

Projected starters: Redshirt junior middle linebacker Danny Mattingly (6-5, 245), senior outside linebacker Johnny Ragin III (6-3, 225) and junior outside linebacker Jimmy Swain (6-2, 235).

Key backups: Junior (transfer) middle linebacker A.J. Hotchkins (6-0, 235), redshirt sophomore Justin Hollins (6-6, 230), redshirt junior Jonah Moi (6-4, 250) and senior De'Quan McDowell (6-1, 203). 

Smelling like roses: Oregon must hit on all three new starters in order to have a chance at contending in the Pac-12. Mattingly has the most overall game experience within the group, followed by Ragin. That's bad news considering Mattingly had 25 tackles last season and Ragin had 20 while Swain contributed a modest 15. This doesn't mean that trio couldn't combine for 225 tackles this season. It just means that they remain a mystery. Mattingly so much so that he could be challenged heavily by Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, who looks like the perfect middle linebacker. According to some reports he could have the inside track at starting over Mattingly. We shall see. 

Place your bets: This position group could be the defense's weak link after losing Rodney Hardrick, Joe Walker and Tyson Coleman.  UO could find itself rotating guys in and out of the lineup trying to find some consistency. Oregon, after shifting defensive philosophies to the 4-3, is going to have to adjust how it recruits this position moving forward. Chances are we see 3-4 elements in the 4-3 scheme this season as the defense adjusts.    

Odds are: Not good. This is not a championship-caliber group, on paper. Maybe they will surprise. 

Poker hand: Pair of 10s. While the secondary returns starters and the defensive line is loaded with bodies, the linebacking corps doesn't have much to hang its hat on at this point.   

Next up: Defensive backs.  

Other posts: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers/Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive lineDefensive backs.