Deommodore Lenoir

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

EUGENE - Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was all smiles when he met with the media on Wednesday outside of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. He was also very anxious to get out to the practice field. About 90 seconds into the interview session, Leavitt moved one foot toward exiting while asking, "Anything else?"

Well, yeah. Can't get away that easily when we get you once a week and the defense is getting lit up as of late. The Ducks (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12) have given up 143 points (35.6 per game) in four Pac-12 games after allowing just 69 in three non-conference games. So, who could blame Leavitt for wanting to get the practice. Like the Ducks' offense - 17 points in the last two games - the defense has plenty of work to do.

But unlike the offense, which is operating without quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks' defense doesn't have an obvious excuse to lean on. The main 11 starters have remained mostly the same with a few depth chart changes and a couple of players missing games here and there. Only inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu has been lost for the season. 

What's happened to the defense is simple. It went from playing very average offenses to facing quarterbacks that can put points on the board. UO has allowed 12 touchdown passes in four Pac-12 games and now faces the challenge of contending with UCLA's Josh Rosen, who has thrown for 17 scoring passes this year. UCLA hosts Oregon at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Rose Bowl. 

It's bad enough giving up touchdown passes. But Oregon isn't even intercepting any to balance things out a bit. After intercepting six passes in non-conference play, the Ducks have picked off just one pass in conference. 

"We do it all of the time in practice, we've just got to translate it into the games," Robinson said.

Getting interceptions against scout team quarterbacks is not the same as facing Pac-12 starters. The quarterback foursome of Arizona State's Manny Wilkins, California's Ross Bowers, Washington State's Luke Falk and Stanford's Keller Christ have given the Ducks problems. Even Bowers, sacked seven times, managed to throw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The one interception for UO in conference came at Stanford on a dropped and tipped slant pass in the end zone that landed in the arms of freshman cornerback Deommodore Lenoir.

Maybe the most concerning problem is that those same quarterbacks have had poor games against other teams. Falk threw five interceptions in last week's 37-3 loss at Cal. Bowers threw four in a loss to USC. Wilkins threw two at Stanford. Chryst had two picked off at San Diego State. So, they've given up the ball. Just not to Oregon. 

Back to Rosen. He threw for three interceptions and zero touchdowns in a 47-30 loss last week at Arizona. He now has eight on the season, tied for the second most among conference starting quarterbacks.

He is a bit of a gunslinger that likes to take chances. So, if Oregon is going to pull off the upset, the Ducks must find a way to pluck a few of his passes out of the air. 

"We're always focused on turnovers whether that's stripping the ball out, punching it our, quarterback throwing it and get it," UO safeties coach Keith Heyward said. "We just haven't made plays."

Leavitt pointed out that the Ducks have had chances at intercepting a few more during conference play, but failed to catch the ball. 

"Those are missed opportunities," he said. 

With the offense struggling so badly, the defense can't afford to not force turnovers. The mediocre play of backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister, a true freshman, has resulted in too many short drives that result in no points. Oregon's defense was on the field for 37 minutes during its 49-7 loss at Stanford. That's too much pressure to put on a young and rebuilding defense. 

"Obvious we feel like we have to stop the opponent no matter whether the offense is playing like it was before or playing like we are now," Heyward said. "We just have to take care of our own side of the ball and get stops."

Part of the problem is some of the youth of the secondary. The Ducks are have started safety Nick Pickett and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. Lenoir has seen his playing time increase. They represent the future of the Ducks' secondary. Sometimes growing pains can be tough. 

"They're trying," Leavitt said. "They're doing the best they can. They are going to be great players. I'm really excited about them."

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Oregon at UCLA

When: 1 p.m., Saturday, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: UCLA minus 6 1/2.

Records: Ducks (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12), Bruins (3-3, 1-2).

Last week: UCLA lost 47-30 to Arizona (4-2, 2-1). Oregon lost 49-7 at No. 22 Stanford (5-2, 4-1).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-48, 4-3 at Oregon); UCLA's Jim Mora (44-27).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Oregon should run wild but unless the Ducks get some big plays from Burmeister they won't have much of a chance of keeping pace with Rosen and his fleet of receivers.

Redshirt sophomore tight end Caleb Wilson leads the Pac-12 with 7.6 receptions per game over five games. He has caught 38 passes for 489 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt senior wide receiver Darren Andrews is second at 7.3 receptions per game. He has made 44 receptions for 591 yards and seven touchdowns. Redshirt junior Jordan Lasley leads the conference in receiving yards per game (108.4) over five games while catching 54 passes for 543 yards and three touchdowns. 

Final pick: UCLA 44, Oregon 30.  Burmeister will improve enough to help the offense break 20 for the first time in three weeks but it won't be nearly enough. 

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 10 - Taggart will need several incoming freshman to contribute

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 10 - Taggart will need several incoming freshman to contribute

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. 10: Several freshman must deliver.  

We've already listed several freshman in this list. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister will likely be the backup now that Travis Jonsen and Terry Wilson Jr. have transferred. Cornerback Thomas Graham could start, he was that good during spring. Nose tackle Jordon Scott will be needed in the middle, especially now that junior Rex Manu is out for the season following an injury suffered in a car accident. Slot receiver Darrian McNeal must provide depth at a thin position made thinner by the dismissal of senior Darren Carrington Jr. from the team. Safety Billy Gibson could be in the mix at a very uncertain position. 

All of the freshmen above were around for spring drills as early enrollees. But what of the incoming freshmen who have just arrived on campus? Well, several of them might be needed to perform this season, as well.  

Here is as look at a handful:

Austin Faoliu, defensive line: Oregon is excited about the three-star recruit with five-star potential. At 6-foot4, 295-pounds, he fits the mold of being a big defensive lineman with attitude that could provide instant impact. This is the first defensive line recruit corralled by famed defensive line coach and recruiter, Joe Salave'a. Four-star recruit Rutger Reitmaier's decision to transfer following spring ball makes Faoliu's development more imperative. 

Deommodore Lenoir, defensive back: The No. 1-rated athlete in the nation - as named by Rivals.com - should find his way onto the field in some capacity. He could see time at cornerback or safety, positions that have bodies but little in the way of consistency. 

Sampson Niu, linebacker: The four-star recruit could find his way into the linebacker rotation right away. Ultra athletic and tenacious, if Niu can pick up the Ducks' schemes he might have the same impact Troy Dye had last season as a freshman. But at 217 pounds, Niu must bulk up in a hurry. 

Bruce Judson, wide receiver: The four-star recruit is a shifty playmaker that could push for time in the slot and might also be in the running to make it on the team's depth chart at quarterback. 

Cyrus Habibi-Likio, linebacker/safety/running back: A tremendous athlete, Habibi-Likio could play all over the field. Chances are he won't be in the running back mix this season - Oregon is loaded there - but he could find some action on defense. 

 

The Finished 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 Alex Ofodile, Malik Lovette and Darrian McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DBs - Graham and Lenoir could push for instant playing time

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DBs - Graham and Lenoir could push for instant playing time

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 lineLinebackers

Today: Defensive backs.

New Ducks: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. (6-0, 175, Rancho Cucamonga H.S., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) and safeties Deommodore Lenoir (5-11, 183, Salesian H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.), Nick Pickett (6-1, 187, Salesian H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.) and Billy Gibson (6-1, 185, Miami Southridge H.S., Hialeah, Fla.). 

Projected starters: Cornerbacks Arrion Springs, Sr., (5-11, 205) and Ugo Amadi, (5-10, 195). Safeties Brenden Schooler, Soph., (6-2, 190) and Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205).

Key backups: Cornerbacks - Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205),  Malik Lovette, RSo., (5-11, 200) and Jihree Stewart, RSo., (6-0, 182). Safeties - Khalil Oliver, RJr., (6-0, 205), Juwaan Williams, RSr., (6-0, 200), Brady Breeze, RFr., (6-1, 205), Mattrell McGraw, RJr., (5-10, 195) and Fotu T. Leiato II, Jr., (6-1, 200). 

The situation: Oregon's landed two potentially elite defensive backs in Graham and Lenoir. Both should push a secondary that certainly didn't play impressive football in 2016. 

Graham, a four-star recruit rated by Rivals.com as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation, has a chance to push Springs and Amadi for a starting cornerback job. Lenoir, a four-star recruit rated as the top athlete in the nation, definitely could start at safety or be moved to cornerback.

Remember when Budda Baker got away from Oregon in 2014 and landed at Washington? Lenoir is his potential equivalent as an athletic safety. None of Oregon's returning safeties is a lock to start. Robinson, Schooler, Williams and Oliver could all be surpassed by Breeze, who redshirted last season. Add Lenoir to the mix and new safeties coach Keith Heyward will have a serious mess to sort through. 

Gibson and Pickett, both three-star recruits, don't figure to be candidates to push their way through a crowded field of safeties, but one never knows for sure until they start practicing. 

At cornerback, Springs and Amadi are the favorites to start with Robinson potentially remaining at cornerback. Experience will heavily favor the returners but none have lived up to their potential as of yet. That will open the door for Graham to make a move, especially as an early enrollee.   

The verdict: The secondary battles are going to be fun to watch. Unless Gibson or Pickett turns out to be a big surprise, both should redshirt behind a host of capable and more experienced safeties.  It would be a disappointment, however, if both Graham and Lenoir do not at least see time as backups in 2017.