Justin Hollns

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. 

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."

Oregon's young defense might have turned the corner at Utah

Oregon's young defense might have turned the corner at Utah

SALT LAKE CITY - Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke might have been the only person in Rice-Eccles Stadium not surprised by his group's strong showing during an improbable 30-28 upset win Saturday at No. 11 Utah. 

Hoke certainly appeared to be a bit elated and a very much relieved following the win, but he said he wasn't surprised by the play of his defense, one of the worst in the nation by every measure imaginable, against a quality Utes offense.

Why? Well, as Hoke puts it, Saturday's performance was something the young defense had been working toward. The months of developing young players, correcting mistakes and evolving was bound to take. Saturday, it did. 

"I don't sleep a lot the night before [games])," Hoke said. "But I just think that there is a lot of improvement across the board."

There should be no illusions that Oregon's defense has completely turned the proverbial corner. The Ducks (4-7, 2-6) gave up 453 yards to Utah, and for the fourth time this season blew a fourth-quarter lead when the Utes scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass to take a 28-24 advantage with 2:16 remaining in the game. 

Still, the fact remains that UO's defense demonstrated dramatic improvement when all signs of sports logic pointed toward Oregon surrendering up 600-plus yards and 50-plus points to the Utes (8-3, 5-3). The Ducks in their previous game allowed Stanford to make them look like blocking dummies while the Cardinal offense, last in the conference in yards per game (359.5) and 11th in scoring (25.1. Entered Oregon game averaging 19.9), pumped out 540 total yards in a 52-27 demolition. 

Against Utah, Oregon allowed 234 yards rushing, 149 to running back Joe Williams, but didn't allow a run of more than 28 yards. Utah quarterback Troy Williams completed 67 percent of his passes (20-of-30) after entering the game completing just 54.9 percent. But he threw just one touchdown pass and Oregon sacked him twice.  

"I don't know what the numbers are but it feels a little better than other games," Hoke said.  

It certainly was. Maybe most importantly, UO made plays at key moments. Utah punted six times. UO linebacker Jimmie Swain forced a fumble deep in the Ducks' red zone in the second quarter (it was Oregon's second recovered fumble of the season). The Ducks tackled well in space (other than the reverse play for Utah's opening touchdown when Utah receiver Cory Butler-Byrd threw out some wicked moves on the Ducks) and routinely were able to get off the field on third down, especially in the first half. 

"Today for the first time in a while we penetrated gaps, we got tackles for losses before they could get going," Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said.

Said Hoke: "It's learning on the job and I think some of the development is showing up."

These realities prevented Utah from building a big lead (like Stanford's 21-0 advantage in the first quarter) while UO's offense stumbled. The Ducks trailed just 7-3 at halftime in a game that could have been 28-3 at intermission had UO's defense played like it did in most every other game this season. 

Oregon's defense gave up more points in the second half, but one of Utah's touchdowns came on a misplayed punt by freshman wide receiver Dillon Mitchell that resulted in a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Utes that made the score 21-17 early in the fourth quarter. 

UO's improvement, however, must be accepted with a bit of a caveat. Neal said the Ducks benefited from facing an offense similar to Stanford's a week after losing to the Cardinal.

"The things that we did poorly against Stanford, we had another week to correct," Neal said.

Consequently, UO's players were able to learn from mistakes made against Stanford and apply the new knowledge base and skills to handling Utah's offense. 

"They are a really heavy run team," Oregon freshman linebacker Troy Dye said of Utah. "They have a lot of pulling guards just like Stanford did."

Oregon redshirt sophomore defensive end Justin Hollins said a huge key for the defense was not making costly mistakes early that led to easy scores for the opponent. 

"We stopped shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "Doing that kind of takes away the juice, like last week. This week we got after it and we kept that juice going, and we kept that competitive edge."

Maintaining that "juice" Hollins spoke of, involved not becoming demoralized by an avalanche of mistakes and points. Trailing just 7-3 at halftime helped Oregon's confidence grow. They could see their hard work paying off.  

"Everybody was on their assignments," Hollins said. "We were fundamentally sound and we just got after it." 

Hollins said defensive players pushed one another to improve by helping alert teammates to deficiencies in their game that maybe they didn't notice.

Oregon wide receiver Charles Nelson, who played safety last season, said he's witnessed all of the work the defenders have put in. He said many of the younger players are being forced to do a lot of self-reflection now that they are being relied upon.  

"When it's something you fail at multiple times, you have to take it, learn from it and better yourself," Nelson said. 

So now what?

Oregon will face Oregon State (3-8, 2-6) in the 120th Civil War on Saturday. The Beavers rank 11th in the conference in total offense (361.4 yards per game), but on Saturday won 42-17 at home over Arizona (2-9, 0-8). 

Certainly, the Beavers will at least see an Oregon defense feeling much better about itself.

"It was a confidence booster," Dye said of the win over Utah. 

Maybe more importantly, the outing relieved the defense of some stress. It's a unit that will return 10 starters next season, and about 15 other players who have contributed. Better days likely lie ahead, and now they have something to build upon after a season of seemingly endless negativity having been thrown their way. 

"We pushed back on some momentum that was trying to run us over," Neal said.