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