Jimmie Swain

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

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 defense has potential, for 2017

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

It's tough to believe, and difficult to sell, but there is a strong chance Oregon's defense will improve greatly over the next two seasons.  

The Ducks' defense is very young and banged up. While those facts might sound like convenient excuses the reality is that nothing derails a unit more than youth and injuries. On the flip side, nothing repairs those problems like experience and healing. 

Oregon (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12) has been forced to go with youth and inexperience on defense this season because of failures in recruiting during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 cycles that left the unit void of any adequate amount of impact seniors and juniors to lead the way. 

Picking up the slack are numerous players from the 2015 and 2016 classes that are nowhere near ready to carry the load without the leadership and savvy of upperclassmen guiding the team. 

On the positive side, those younger players are gaining valuable experience that should pay off down the line, assuming they continue to develop and learn from their mistakes. The Ducks are set to return 10 starters on defense next season along with a host of others who have made spot starts or have seen extensive playing time.  

It seemed almost inconceivable that Oregon's 2016 defense could be worse than the 115th-ranked mess the Ducks put on the field in 2015. 

Yet, here they are, ranked 127th while allowing a mind-blowing 43.5 points per game.

To put that into perspective, Washington and Stanford are each allowing 17.9 points per game. Oregon's 2014 team that reached the national championship game allowed 23.6 points per game.  

Last year, a young secondary let down a solid front seven. This season, a somewhat improved secondary has played behind an inexperienced front seven that generates little pass rush while also offering weak resistance to opposing running games. 

Next year? Well, the entire secondary returns and six of the regular front-seven starters. For the first time in three years the Ducks will have enough experience up and down the defense to expect improvement. 

How much improvement? Well, let's not get carried away. We're not talking about a run to the top 20 in the nation here. But even a defense ranked in the top 80 while allowing south of 30 points per game would give the Ducks a chance to turn things around in a hurry because the offense, ranked 22nd in the country with a freshman quarterback and four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen, will certainly be stacked. 

Experience leads to better play in most situations, and Oregon's defense should be no different. 

What do the Ducks have to work with moving forward? Let's take a look:

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This group hasn't been as bad as it might seem. A lack of a consistent pass rush in a league loaded with good passing teams has put the secondary in bad spots. Plus, the lack of a run defense has resulted in a relatively low number of strong down-and-distance situations for the secondary to operate under.

That all said, this group certainly has plenty to work on.  

The good news is that everyone playing will return next season other than redshirt senior safety Reggie Daniels, who fell out of favor this season to primarily become a backup.  

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Cornerback: Ugo Amadi, Jr., Tyree Robinson, RSr., Arrion Springs, Sr. and Malik Lovette, RSoph., Mattrell McGraw, RJr., Ty Griffin, Sr. 

Safety: Brendan Schooler, Soph., Khalil Oliver, RJr., Juwaan Williams, RJr., Fotu Leiato II, Jr., and Brady Breeze, RFrosh., Jihree Stewart, RSoph.

Position analysis: Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal has juggled his lineup in order to create depth and now has so much that he now has loads of budding talent to work with moving forward. UO will return seven defensive backs that saw extensive playing time this season.  On top of that, six of the top eight from 2016 will still be around in 2018.

The Ducks desperately need Amadi, a former four-star recruit, to finally reach his potential. Springs has loads of talent but can't seem to get out of his own way and stop making silly mistakes in coverage. Same goes for Robinson. If they can't get it together they could lose playing time to Lovette, and up-and-comer. 

At safety, Schooler appears to be a potential impact player. Oliver and Williams have been up and down during their careers, which could open the door for Breeze, a four-star recruit redshirting this season. 

LINEBACKERS

This position is a bit trickier than defensive back because the linebackers have been mediocre all season long, save for freshman Troy Dye. 

Oregon signed six linebackers in 2016 and will need many to rise up in order for this group to take the next step in 2017. Otherwise, it will be more of the same mediocrity next season. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Will OLB: Jonah Moi, RSr., Keith Simms, Soph., Kaulana Apelu, Jr., Eric Briscoe Jr., RFrosh. 

Mike MLB: Jimmie Swain, Sr., A.J. Hotchkins, Sr., Danny Mattingly, RSr.  

Sam OLB: Troy Dye, Soph., La'mar Winston Soph., Darrian Franklin, RFrosh. 

Position analysis: Simms and Winston, four-star recruits in 2016, have great potential. Dye, a three-star recruit, has played like a five-star recruit and future NFL draft pick. Franklin and Briscoe Jr., both former three-star recruits, are redshirting. Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, might grow after a year playing in the Pac-12. 

Most intriguing about Dye, Simms and Winston is that each is 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and either is already packing 230 pounds (Simms) or have the frame to bulk up past that weight. They could form the first trio of starting Oregon linebackers to all be in the 6-3, 235-pound range in recent memory. 

Swain, after a slow start to the season, has been among the team's leaders in tackles the past few weeks. However, total tackles can be overrated when many are made after big gains by the offense.  Moi, now playing defensive end, came to Oregon as a junior college transfer but hasn't always played like an experienced veteran. 

Dye is going to be special. Heck, he already is. But he needs help. Where this group must improve the most is with its awareness. Each week we hear from coaches how mental errors hurt the defense. 

A year or two getting destroyed might help all involve accelerates their learning curve. 

DEFENSIVE LINE

This is the area of greatest concern. The defensive line has been a mess. So much so that UO has been forced to dig deep into the depth chart to find bodies and the results haven't been pretty.

Oregon has played 11 defensive linemen this season that will return in 2017. Eight will be back in 2018. Six could still be around by 2019. That speaks to the youth of the group as well as the room that exists for growth. 

While there are obvious upgrades coming at linebacker, defensive line is far more unsettled. Oregon has needed somebody, anybody to rise up and become a force, but nobody has. Yet, that doesn't mean someone won't. 

Former Ducks, Alex Balducci, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, all in the NFL, were not dominant as freshmen in 2012. Taylor Hart redshirted in 2009 before playing minimally as a redshirt freshman and then blossoming as a redshirt sophomore. He is now in the NFL. 

Oregon needs a couple of young defensive linemen to improve the same way. They don't have to become future first-round picks like Armstead and Buckner, but the Ducks need a few players to emerge with some semblance of NFL potential in order to put up resistance against Pac-12 offenses that right now are running wild on UO. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Defensive end: Henry Mondeaux, Sr., Hunter Kampmoyer, RFrosh., Gus Cumberlander, RSoph. 

Defensive tackle: Rex Manu, Jr., Wayne Tei-Kirby, Soph., Gary Baker, RSoph.

Defensive tackle: Drayton Carlberg, RSoph., Elijah George, RSr. 

Defensive end: Jalen Jelks, RJr., Justin Hollins, RJr., Bryson Young, Soph.

Position analysis: Oregon should actually be set at defensive end next season. Mondeaux (one sack) hasn't had the impact year many expected, but that's partly because he has had little help upfront. Jelks has the ability to become an elite pass rusher, but injuries have slowed him down this season. Young, a former four-star recruit, and Hollins are athletic but woefully undersized at about 235 pounds to play defensive end. They need to add bulk. So does the 245-pound Kampmoyer, another promising talent. Cumberlander is 6-6, 260 with a frame to add more pounds. 

Defensive tackle is a huge problem and one of the reasons why teams run at will on Oregon. Manu is solid, but not very disruptive. He needs to get bigger, stronger and quicker this offseason. Carlberg is intriguing as a Taylor Hart-time at 6-5, 290 pounds. Carlberg became a starter early in the season but injuries have limited him to five games.  

Tei-Kirby, a former three-star recruit, has ideal defensive tackle size at 6-3, 315 pounds. Baker, at 6-4, 315, is another potentially good defensive tackle. The Ducks need at least one, if not both, to emerge as a consistent player next season.

Right now, the best thing about this group of defensive tackles is that they are all going to be around for two or three more seasons, which means there is plenty of time for them to improve.

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There is a possibility that all of these young players could fizzle out as did many of their predecessors from previous classes that didn't work out. But odds are against it. Oregon has received limited production from recruiting classes before but never in the past 20 years has it continued through a second set of juniors and seniors. 

Again, this season has been a disaster on defense. So was last year, save for a few games late in the season. But the byproduct is that plenty of young, talented players have received extensive playing time that will accelerate their development. 

That all could payoff as soon as 2017. 

 

 

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.