Jim Leavitt

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. 

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. 

Oregon at ASU won't reveal much unless Ducks lose

Oregon at ASU won't reveal much unless Ducks lose

The No. 24 Oregon Ducks enter Pac-12 play under Willie Taggart as a mystery team. That probably won't change much come late Saturday night. 

For the first time this season UO will face an opponent capable of putting up numbers on offense and getting after the quarterback on defense when the Ducks (3-0) play at Arizona State (1-2) Saturday night in Sun Devil's Stadium. When the game is over, Oregon should be 4-0 and by Sunday morning ranked as high as No. 20.  Yet, this game probably won't reveal much about what these Ducks are really all about. That is, unless, of course, they were to lose. 

How could that happen?

For starters, unlike previous opponents, Nebraska and Wyoming, the Sun Devils have some pop on offense and they will spread that talent out across the formation seeking mismatches. UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said facing such a team loaded with speed on the outside and at running back will be a challenge for UO. 

"We haven't seen athletes like these guys, yet," he said. 

Oregon redshirt senior safety Tyree Robinson said he believes ASU, averaging 412 yards and 34 points per game, will try to establish the run with 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior running back Kalen Ballage, who runs with power and speed.

"We have to gang tackle," Robinson said.

Maybe. Then again, ASU is averaging a weak 97 rushing yards per game on 2.5 per carry.

ASU, according to Robinson, will use a lot of formations and motions in an attempt to catch Oregon's defense napping. 

"We just have to do a good job of communicating and being in the right place," Robinson said. 

Surely tested will be true freshmen defensive backs Nick Picket and Thomas Graham Jr. They have performed very well so far but have yet to see a wave of plays and athletes coming at them over and over like they will on Saturday.  ASU quarterback Many Wilkins is a threat to run and will certainly extend plays better than Wyoming's Josh Allen did last week. Wilkins has thrown seven touchdown passes with zero interceptions. He is certainly a threat to make some plays on Saturday. Enough to win? Probably not. 

Oregon's defense might allow its share of points but the Ducks certainly won't get run through like many teams did to them last season. More importantly, Oregon's offense should have its way with ASU's defense, which has allowed 37.7 points and 505.3 yards per game.  

For that reason alone, UO should leave the state of Arizona with a win. Only a flow of turnovers could derail Oregon. Yes, the Sun Devils lead the conference with 13 sacks. And yes, they will throw heavy pressure at UO sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. It simply won't matter. Herbert gets rid of the ball too quickly, which will lead to big plays against pressure. Plus, let's not forget, that last year he tied a program record with 489 yards passing against ASU in one of his only two victories as a starter last season. 

The Ducks will score a ton of points and win. They might even score a nice chunk of those points in the second half, which would be a departure from the previous two weeks. 

Maybe the most significant fact that will come out of a win Saturday is that Oregon would have matched last season's win total (4-8) four games into the season. By any measure, that's great progress. We just won't know if the Ducks are very good, or simply better than the mediocre competition they would have faced to date. 

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Oregon at Arizona State

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 14 1/2.

Records: Oregon (3-0), Arizona State (1-2).

Last week: The Sun Devils lost 52-45 at Texas Tech. Oregon won 49-13 at Wyoming. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-45, 3-0 at Oregon); Sun Devils' Todd Graham (89-57, 40-28 at ASU).

Sun Devils' impact players: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a pretty hot start, averaging 308 yards passing with seven touchdown tosses and has yet to throw an interception. He has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Wilkins, a redshirt junior, was the No. 6-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation when he came out of high school in 2014.

"This will be the first time we've had a good mobile quarterback that we've had to go against," Taggart said. 

Senior running back Kalen Ballage has rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. 

Sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is Wilkins' top target. The 6-foot-4 Harry has caught 24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. 

ASU's defense is led statistically by two freshmen. Defensive end Jojo Wicker has three sacks on the season and linebacker D.J. Calhoun is averaging 10.3 tackles per game. 

Linebacker Koron Crump (knee), who leads the conference with four sacks, is out for ASU. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5.  It's a road game. It's a conference game. It's against what will be by far the best offense the Ducks will have faced this season. There's a lot to be worried about for Oregon. However, ASU is about as bad on defense as the Ducks were last season. If the Ducks take care of the football they would once again surpass 40 points. We will know after this game if UO's defense truly has bite if it can keep the Sun Devils in check. 

Final pick: Oregon, 47-33. 

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Whenever the down marker flips to "3" on opposing offenses, Oregon's punt return team jumps to attention and the offense becomes antsy. It's becoming a pavlovian response.

That's because 79 percent of the time this season, the Ducks' defense has stopped opposing teams from converting on third down, a dramatic shift from last season. And it all starts with attitude and desire. Oregon senior safety Tyree Robinson said he urges the defense on every third down to dig deep for that extra burst of energy that allows them to play harder so they can get off the field. 

“I think guys have really bought into that , which kind of makes us a special defense right now,” Robinson said. 

According to Oregon sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tirelessly preaches the importance of making plays on third down, or, the "money down," as he calls it. 

“We have to go out there and make that money,” Dye said. 

Right now, the No. 24 Ducks (3-0) are filthy rich. Opposing offenses have converted just 21.3 percent of the time on third downs, best in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year Oregon allowed a 48.5 percent conversion rate, 11th in the Pac-12. 

The Ducks' defense has shown dramatic improvement over last season in every category imaginable. A low third down conversion rate for opponents and eight turnovers forced have been two of the most important areas of improvement. They lead directly to the team allowing 23 points per game, down from 41.7 a year go. 

Wyoming (1-2) on Saturday managed to convert just 4 of 15 third down attempts during Oregon's 49-13 victory. Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska converted just 2 of 14 attempts during a 42-35 loss at Autzen Stadium. 

"It's great to see those guys get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

He credits the success to the defense doing a great job of studying opponents and having an idea of what they like to do on third down. Also, they have done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Oregon already has 10 sacks after getting just 25 last season. The Ducks sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen twice on Saturday while pressuring him all evening. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Allen managed just 64 yards passing against Oregon. 

“When you can get to the quarterback, and he didn’t have time to pass the ball, that’s what usually happens," Taggart said. "And if you can get to him early, he will start looking at the rush and I thought that’s what he did.”

Dye said the defense entered this season with something to prove and a chip on its collective shoulders following such a poor season in 2016 when the Ducks ranked 128th in total defense. Robinson said the experience gained last year by so many young players forced into action has paid off this season. 

“It’s awesome to have a defense that we have so much confidence in," UO quarterback Justin Herbert said.

But will it last? Oregon hasn't exactly faced quality offenses to date. Wyoming's 14.3 points per game ranks 120th in the nation. Nebraska ranks 63rd at 31.7 points per game. Oregon won 42-35 over Nebraska on Sept. 9. The Cornhuskers (1-2) lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. 

The Ducks begin Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday at Arizona State (1-2). There are 11 teams in the conference averaging better than 31 points per game, including the Sun Devils. Most teams have great passing offenses that will challenge the Ducks' Pac-12 leading 89.7 passing defense efficiency rating. 

ASU junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is averaging 308 passing yards per game with seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

The Pac-12 is going to be a challenge, one the UO defense is looking forward to facing. 

“Oregon is not just an offensive school anymore," Dye said. "We play defense, too.”

Why not rest players earlier when games stretch long past 3 hours?

Why not rest players earlier when games stretch long past 3 hours?

A few bouquets and boos from my college football weekend:

  • I've said it frequently, but coordinators make a difference. Oregon was brutal on defense last season and then Jim Leavitt shows up as defensive coordinator. All of a sudden Oregon is bringing a crowd to the football and not missing tackles. There is organization instead of chaos. Now I understand the opposition is going to get tougher, but this is a night-and-day difference. Leavitt knows what he is doing.
  • Portland State drew only 4,442 in its home opener Saturday afternoon and sent those loyalists home with a disappointing 37-14 defeat. That program just can't seem to find a groove. I wish I had an answer. Well, I do have an answer -- winning. But I just don't know how that's going to happen.
  • Oregon State? Offense was much better at Washington State but the defense is awful. As I said, coordinators matter and you wonder if somebody is going to walk the plank on the OSU coaching staff.
  • Oregon's running game is terrific and certainly Justin Herbert is an NFL quarterback in waiting. But against better competition you have to wonder if the lack of experience at wide receiver is going to hurt.
  • What has happened to Stanford?
  • Football coaches have always bewildered me with their reluctance to remove starters -- particularly their valuable quarterbacks -- late in games. Oregon kept a good part of its offense on the field past the halfway mark of the fourth quarter with a huge lead. Washington State kept Luke Falk out there way too long in a blowout. Oregon State was still sending Jake Luton on the field long after the Beavers' chances of winning were long gone. Luton, of course, got hurt.
  • Here's my deal: these college games today are taking forever to play. Instead of looking at the game clock and making a decision about taking players out, take a look at the wristwatch once in a while. Three hours is a long time to stay on the field. I get tired just watching these games and I can't imagine what it's like to keep trudging back out on the field to take more hits as long games crawl to a finish. Resting players is not only a precaution, it's a chance to allow the backup kids who are killing themselves in practice all season to get some game time.
  • One more thought about Oregon: It was an impressive enough win at Wyoming that there was no need to go for it on fourth-and-two in the third quarter with a 42-10 lead. And there was certainly no reason to be throwing to the end zone with 11 seconds left in the game. Yeah, I know -- you want the backups to get some experience. If that's the case, put them in earlier.

Oregon freshmen nose guards Scott and Failou will be tested by Nebraska

Oregon freshmen nose guards Scott and Failou will be tested by Nebraska

EUGENE - We will find out what Oregon freshmen nose guards Jordan Scott and Austin Failou are all about when the Ducks (1-0) host Nebraska Saturday at Autzen Stadium. 

The pair saw their first collegiate action during Saturday's 77-21 win over Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium and by all accounts played well despite neither registering a statistic in the game. 

"They didn't stumble," UO defensive line coach Joe Salave'a said. "That's a good thing. You always learn about those things. But those guys have a different temperament about the game and it's refreshing. With that, we'll continue to push and prod those guys to continue to advance and improve."

Both will receive a new education against the Cornhuskers, who return most of their offensive line from last season when Nebraska (1-0) averaged 162 yards rushing per game. The team rushed for 225 in its opener against Arkansas State with sophomore Tre Bryant going for 192 and two touchdowns on 32 carries. 

That Scott and Failou didn't register a tackle isn't a huge concern given that the nose position usually doesn't generate gaudy statistics. The position's job is to command a double team in order to allow the inside linebackers behind the nose to make plays. Sophomore Troy Dye had 10 tackles. Junior Kaulana Apelu made five stops. 

"Without them keeping the center off of me, keeping the guards off of me, I wouldn't be able to make the tackles that I did make," Dye said. "All of those tackles should go to them. They should each have five and I should have zero."

It's a nice sentiment, but one would think that one of the two nose guards would at least accidentally end up with at least an assisted tackle against a vastly inferior opponent. The last starting nose for Oregon was Alex Balducci (the Ducks ran a 4-3 defense last year). He made 40 tackles in 2015 with 7 1/2 for loss and 3 1/2 sacks. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart, when asked if Scott and Failou were ready to deal with a Nebraska offensive line that might shove them around, took exception to the word choice of "shoved."

"We're not necessarily going in thinking Nebraska is going to shove our guys around, or anything," he said. 

One would think not. However, there will be some shoving and some hitting and it will be done by a veteran offensive line that might not be as impressed with Scott and Failou and Oregon's coaches and players are. That said, Taggart pointed out that the pair has got in plenty of work against Oregon's offensive line. 

"They are young guys, they know how to play football," Taggart said. "Again, they've been competing against our offensive line all training camp and we've got a pretty good offensive line, as well...We feel like those guys are ready to compete and they will be read to compete against Nebraska this Saturday."

In the long run, we could see graduate transfer Scott Pagano (Clemson) become the answer at nose guard. He is working his way back from an injured foot. Pagano mostly played defensive end at Clemson but also dabbled inside. Ideally, he would be at defensive end opposite senior captain Henry Mondeaux. But if push comes to shove, and the Ducks' freshmen indeed are losing most of those shoving matches on the field, it could be time to turn to Pagano.

But, for now, the two freshmen have a chance to prove they can anchor the Ducks' 3-4 defense inside. 

"I thought they showed that they are good enough to play here," Mondeaux said. "Everyone has things to work on but they showed good motors and they ran around and made some plays. I think they did a good job at doing their job."

LB Justin Hollins ready to "cut loose" in Leavitt's 3-4 defense

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USA Today

LB Justin Hollins ready to "cut loose" in Leavitt's 3-4 defense

EUGENE - When Oregon announced that Jim Leavitt would be the new defensive coordinator last December, the first thought that ran through Justin Hollins' mind was, "what type of defense does Leavitt run?"

When Hollins discovered that Leavitt's scheme of choice is the 3-4 , the next thought that went through the redshirt junior's head was, "what position will I play?"

“I was praying that they would move me (to outside linebacker)," said Hollins, who played defensive end in Oregon's 4-3 defense in 2016. "I can’t do that defensive end thing, in the 3-4 especially.”

Leavitt eased those concerns with a single phone call.

“I got that call and he said I would be playing outside linebacker and I was real thankful,” Hollins said. 

To put it mildly, Hollins didn't much appreciate his lot in life on the Ducks in 2016. No player on Oregon's team, and maybe in the Pac-12, played more out of position than Hollins, a 6-5, 238-pound athletic marvel who fits the mold of former Oregon standout hybrid 3-4 linebackers/ends Dion Jordon and Christian French. 

Hollins was recruited in 2014 to fit that mold. But when Oregon moved to the 4-3 defense in 2016, Hollins found himself at defensive end. He held his own with 51 tackles (27 solo) and finished second on the team with 9 1/2 tackles for loss and had three sacks. But he certainly ran into trouble when battling 290-plus pound offensive linemen. 

“It was hard,” Hollins said bluntly. “It was hard being a little undersized. But I got after it and did what I had to do.”

Playing defensive end in the 3-4, built for 280-plus pound defensive linemen, would have been even more difficult for Hollins. 

"I can't do that," he said. 

He won't have to. Instead, Hollins will be turned loose on the outside where his athletic ability should make him a devestating pass rusher as well as strong in pass coverage.

"He's looking good," UO coach Willie Taggart said. "He's a playmaker. We've got to know where he's at at all times. I've been really impressed with him."

Oregon's defense ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (246.5 yards per game) last year because the front seven offered little resistance. 

Even though Hollins, slowed by injury during spring drills, will move to outside linebacker, he still must improve against the run. Outside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie said the last thing he wants to do is allow a linebacker with pass rushing skills to ignore developing the skills needed to play well against the run. 

Woodie, who said Hollins is contending for a starting spot on a fluid depth chart, must play the run first to avoid getting out of position and allowing free running lanes.

"We're teaching him to play the run because we know he has some pass rushing ability," Woodie said. "If he gets that down, he's going to be a force."

Whether it's filling against the run, setting the edge, pass rushing or dropping into coverage, Hollins is simply happy to be playin the position he was meant to play. 

“I’m very excited about that," Hollins said. "I finally get to cut loose a little bit. Have fun with it again."

Leavitt and Oregon's defense will be judged by stats, not wins

Leavitt and Oregon's defense will be judged by stats, not wins

EUGENE - Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is clearly growing tired of being reminded about just how bad the Ducks' defense was the previous two seasons. 

"I don't think about the past," he said. "I'm just trying to get through the day."

Each time the subject of the recent past is brought up, Leavitt reminds anyone within earshot that he doesn't concern himself with what happened before his arrival. He also doesn't want to judge this year's defense by how it compares statistically to the debacles of 2015 (115th in the nation) and 2016 (128th in the nation). 

"Wins," Leavitt said when asked how he would measure his first season with Oregon. "If we play good enough defense to win, get the ball back to our offense. Our offense has a lot of weapons. We need to keep getting the ball back to those guys and let them perform magic."

It's a nice sentiment, but Leavitt's incorrect. He will most certainly be judged by the statistical improvement of the defense, and nothing else. He is being paid $1.125 million per year not to simply help Oregon win games but to build a monster on defense so the Ducks and new coach Willie Taggart can win a national title. 

Don Pellum's defense helped UO win a ton of games in 2014 when Oregon went 13-2 and reached the national title game with quarterback Marcus Mariota and a defense that allowed 23.6 points per game. Leavitt's Colorado defense allowed 21.7 points per game last season, leading to his fat contract with Oregon. 

Oregon won nine games in 2015 - the Ducks would have won at least two more had quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. not been injured - and Pellum got demoted. Why? Because the defense allowed 37.5 points per game. 

The entire coaching staff got fired after last year's 4-8 season, which would have been 8-4 if not for a defense that allowed 41.4 points per game under defensive coordinator Brady Hoke, who wasn't to blame for a unit void of impact talent.

Now, here we are. 

Leavitt took Colorado's defense - loaded mostly with already developing talent he didn't recruit - and got them to improve tremendously in his two seasons there. He should be given ample time to do the same with Oregon, but he most certainly will be judged by his side of the ball's statistical growth. There's no way around that. 

The hype surrounding Leavitt, and the disrespect shown Hoke by many Oregon fans, members of the media covering the team and indirectly by university president Michael H. Schill during Taggart's introduction, mean that the energetic 59-year-old is expected to work miracles. 

If Oregon goes 10-2 but can't get over the hump nationally because the defense is allowing 37 points per game, that will fall on Leavitt while the 10 wins won't matter much. 

It's tough to put a number on what exactly Oregon's defense should look like in Leavitt's first season. But it's fair to expect no more than 33 points allowed per game and a total defensive ranking south of 85. 

If not, Leavitt owes Oregon a partial refund. 

 

Jim Leavitt Part 3: Players respond well to Leavitt, but is there enough talent?

Jim Leavitt Part 3: Players respond well to Leavitt, but is there enough talent?

This is Part 3 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. Ducks begin fall camp on Monday. 

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

Part 2 - With big money comes big expectations

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EUGENE - New Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt doesn't want to hear about the talent the Ducks don't have on defense following a season that saw that side of the ball rank No. 128 in the nation. As far as he is concerned, UO has enough gifted athletes to become formidable right away. 

“There are no excuses,” Leavitt said during a television interview with CSN.  “I donʼt want to hear excuses. 'We donʼt have this and we donʼt have that.' We have plenty. We donʼt have to wait to recruit for two years and all that, weʼll take the guys we got right now and roll. Weʼll go to bat with those guys."

Leavitt has been paid $1.125 million per year to turn around the Ducks' defense after he did a dramatic job of whipping Colorado's into shape the previous two seasons. The Buffaloes went from allowing more than 30 points per game before Leavitt arrived to 27.5 with him in 2015 and then last year giving up just 21.7, third fewest in the conference.

That rapid rise influenced Oregon to make Leavitt the highest paid assistant in the Pac-12. Colorado had no chance of keeping him. 

"We weren't able to match the money that Oregon paid him," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said last week during Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, Calif. "When he told me how much he was making, I said: 'Why are you even sitting here? Move on.'  I hated to lose him."

Yet, Colorado believes it will be just fine without him. MacIntyre said Colorado will run the same schemes under new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.  It's a scheme MacIntyre installed in 2014 when a bunch of sophomores were anchoring the defense. By the time Leavitt had things in order in 2016, the team had nine starting seniors. 

So, was Leavitt's success at Colorado about him, the scheme or the personnel?

"Well, we had very good talent," McIntyre said. "I remember when I was telling coach Leavitt about coming to Colorado, I told him about all those sophomores we had that would be juniors, and then he would be able to work with them and mold them. Then they ended up being seniors. We got better and better, so that was a big part of it. He did an excellent job, there's no doubt."

Oregon is hoping that Leavitt will make all of the difference. But he can't scheme his way to success. He is going to need the talent to get it done. Right now, the Ducks don't have much in the way of proven talent on defense. Of course, that could change overnight. 

Leavitt exited spring practices "encouraged" by what he saw on the field. Encouraged, he said, because of the ability his players displayed. The group only needs to come together in unison. 

"I always tell a group of guys that ‘we donʼt have any stars,'" Leavitt said. "'Itʼs not about that. But together we can be a star, and thatʼs the only way itʼs going to happen.ʼ If we donʼt play that way and weʼre not fundamentally sound and we donʼt play with great discipline and we donʼt line up right and do all the things that weʼre supposed to do, then weʼre not going to be very good. And thatʼs something I believe very strongly that weʼll do."

Leavitt didn’t watch much Oregon game video from last season. He said he didn’t want to evaluate players playing in the 4-3 when he was putting in a 3-4.

“Quite honestly, it didnʼt matter to me," Leavitt said. "We were going to build a completely different defense. I wanted to come in and evaluate them through spring, through winter conditioning, and I told them that. I said, ‘Iʼll evaluate you based on what you are now.’”

So, does Oregon have the talent for a quick turnaround? Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is the only returning impact player from last season. Everyone else on the roster was marginal to mediocre.

That said, senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux played much better football in 2015 than he did last season. Transfer defensive end Scott Pagano certainly played well the past few seasons at Clemson. Senior cornerback Arrion Springs, one would think, is ready to put it all together and enters fall as the team’s top corner.

So, there are some pieces in place. And for all anyone knows, there could be many more gems ready to flourish in 2017. 

“We've got to take the guys we have right now and got to get them to do what we want them to do in our scheme and I think we got some guys that can do it,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt would like to return to being a head coach before he retires. His last stint at South Florida – where he built the program from the ground up – ended after he was accused of assaulting a player. Leavitt denied the accusations but ultimately lost his job.

He said he’s received other head coaching offers since but not in the Power Five or the NFL, where he would like to be.

But if it doesnʼt happen, then Iʼm ecstatic about being here, and hope to be here a very long time,” Leavitt said. “To do that you got to build a great defense. So I donʼt really think about it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesnʼt, it doesnʼt. Again, I canʼt control those things. All I can do is try to get our defense to practice well each day and play great in games.”

Taggart has lofty expectations for Fat_Mac34

Taggart has lofty expectations for Fat_Mac34

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Get ready for Fat_Mac34. He's coming to Autzen Stadium this fall, and he's coming strong. 

Fat_Mac34 is the Twitter handle for Oregon freshman nose tackle Jordon Scott. Although, he is no longer carrying as much excess weight as his handle would suggest and that has the Ducks buzzing. Scott made such an impression during spring drills that UO coach Willie Taggart is predicting big things for him before he's ever played a down of college football. 

"I'll be shocked if he's not all-freshman Pac-12," Taggart said Thursday during Pac-12 Media days. 

One of the biggest (pun intended) mysteries surrounding the 2017 Oregon football team is the 6-foot-1, 335-pound Scott, a relatively unheralded three-star recruit out of Largo, Fla., who enrolled early at UO and is listed as the starter on its preseason depth chart, according to Taggart. 

The Ducks, 4-8 last season, could need Scott to play at near an all-conference level as the No. 1 nose tackle. Improvement of Oregon's defense, which ranked 128th in the country last season, will require a dramatic rise in performance from at least 10 out of 11 positions on the field with sophomore linebacker Troy Dye being the lone returning defender that actually played consistently well in 2016.

The Ducks were softest last year up the middle, where opposing teams ran wild against Oregon's 4-3 defense. Now in the 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, finding a nose tackle has been of the highest priority.

Last year's starting defensive tackles won't be available. Austin Maloata was dismissed from the team by former coach Mark Helfrich following an arrest. Junior Rex Manu will miss the upcoming season because of an injury suffered during a car accident. 

Those situations left redshirt sophomore Gary Baker as the favorite to start inside. That was, until Scott arrived and began turning heads with his power, quickness, tenacity, energy, work ethic, and infectious personality. 

"He has had an impact on our entire team," Dye said. 

Scott reportedly received a scholarship offer from Florida before the Gators pulled it back because of Scott's inability to keep his weight down. He arrived at Oregon a hefty 357 pounds but has since gotten down to 333, Taggart said. Scott is listed at 335 on the GoDucks.com roster. Taggart said he wants to see Scott's weight drop to 325.

Taggart said Scott performed all of the running tests players go through prior to fall camp, which begins Monday, and obviously did his work over the summer. 

"He's a guy that likes to eat," Taggart said. "But he stuck to it."

Leavitt last winter, Taggart said, had doubts about Scott's ability to play in the Pac-12. But once Leavitt saw him on the field, that impression changed. 

"He's making Leavitt a believer," Taggart said. 

Last spring, Leavitt praised Scott's abilities and predicted that he certainly would have an impact this fall. 

“Heʼs a very explosive guy and he has great character and he has great demeanor,” Leavitt told CSN in May. “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.”

Taggart predicts that Scott will give opposing interior offensive linemen fits. 

"It's the perfect system for him," Taggart said. "It helps that he is short and he's strong. It's gong to be tough to get up underneath him. You're going to have to double team him."

Taggart has said since day 1 at Oregon that he is looking for players who love the game. Scott, Taggart said, fits that mold and it shows in his motor. 

"The thing that makes him special is how he runs to the football," Taggart said. "Not many kids, especially young guys, are running to the ball. They get blocked and stay blocked. But he is running. You look at the film and the big boy is going."

Figure that Scott and Baker could split playing time almost equally while Scott adjusts to the college level. Being the starter doesn't automatically mean he is ready to handle veteran offensive linemen within the Pac-12 for 50 plays a game. He most certainly, as a freshman, still needs to add strength and stamina to hold up at this level. 

Scott's primary job will be to control the middle, occupy blockers and allow the inside linebackers to make plays. But if Scott is what Taggart believes he will be, then expect to see Scott to get plenty of backfield penetration, and force ballcarriers running outside to be on the lockout for Fat_Mac34 in pursuit.  

"I feel sorry for any running back that's cutting back and don't see him," Taggart said. "That's going to be ugly."