Keith Heyward

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. 9 - DBs Billy Gibson and Brady Breeze

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 9 - DBs Billy Gibson and Brady Breeze

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. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

The safety position is going to be one of the most hotly contested this fall. As of now, it appears that redshirt senior Tyree Robinson and redshirt junior Khalil Oliver have the inside track to start. Robinson's days as a cornerback could be over with the emergence of freshman Thomas Graham, who could start opposite senior Arrion Springs while pushing junior Ugo Amadi to the No. 3 corner spot. 

Safety isn't nearly as settled, however. Sophomore Brendan Schooler saw starts last year but missed all of spring with an injury and isn't being viewed as an obvious candidate to start moving forward. 

That's where redshirt freshman Brady Breeze and freshman Billy Gibson come in. The Ducks need both to show something this fall to not only push the veterans but to provide depth and, maybe more importantly, create stability at the position entering 2018. 

Breeze, a four-star recruit in 2016, has demonstrated great ability but is also very young and likely needs much more time before he becomes starting-caliber.  Gibson, a three-star recruit signed last February,  falls into the same category but, according to coaches, showed some strong signs during spring drills that he has enough athleticism to make an immediate impact if he picks up the defense. 

Senior Juwaan Williams and junior Fotu T. Leiato II should also be in the mix. But for the present, and the future, it would benefit Oregon greatly if Breeze and Gibson could make a push up Oregon's depth chart. 

The working 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

 

 

Oregon cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi vital to an improved defense

Oregon cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi vital to an improved defense

EUGENE  - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs intercepted a pass thrown by sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert during the team's scrimmage Saturday at Jesuit High School and began to run it back. 

Alas, he said fatigue prevented him from taking the pick all the way to the end zone, plus he couldn't resist making contact with a good friend in pursuit - wide receiver Charles Nelson. 

"I should have cut it back but I was too tired," Springs said following Monday's practice. "Then I saw Charles so I had to take advantage of the opportunity to stiff-arm him."

By all accounts, Springs is taking advantage of opportunities this spring to finally reach his potential. The same could be said about junior cornerback Ugo Amadi. They'd better because each is staring the future of the position in the face, and that future could be now. 

Oregon freshman corner back Thomas Graham has received great reviews during spring practices from players and coaches. He indeed sounds like he is going to be an impact player. Yet and still, he alone can't change the fortunes of UO's much-maligned secondary and defense. 

For that to happen, the Ducks need Springs and Amadi, who have shown flashes of elite ability, to finally live up to the hype under new coach Willie Taggart.

For both, it's about being more consistent in everything they do on the field. Springs has gotten himself in trouble at times by not staying in the proper coverage and/or losing proper technique.

"Be more consistent, trust my technique a bit more and just make more plays on the ball," Springs said. 

Amadi has experienced similar setbacks. Consequently, both have been in and out of the starting lineup during their careers. 

Helping both improve, and the entire secondary for that matter, is the employment of two defensive backs coaches. Charles Clark handles the cornerbacks while Keith Heyward is coaching the safeties. It's a departure from having just one, John Neal, who coached the defensive backs for 14 seasons with mostly great success. 

Having two secondary coaches, Taggart said, should improve overall techniques and communication in the secondary. The first benefit is greater emphasis on technique by position. 

"Coach Clark is really good at focusing on, like, press techniques, so we've gotten a lot better," Springs said. "I feel like, individually, I've gotten a lot better than last year."

Communication problems in the past often led to some defensive backs simply not knowing what they were supposed to do in relationship to the rest of the secondary leading to blown coverages. 

Springs said defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is taking care of that problem. 

"He's putting a spotlight on guys so they can't just sit and hide anymore," Springs said. 

Amadi said communication has improved greatly because awareness has increased. 

"First off, you've just got know what you're doing before you can communicate," Amadi said. "When you know something, be confident in what you say."

Defensive players, Amadi said, know that they had better know their assignment if they want to play. 

"Now we have people dialed in who want to learn the playbook and want to get on the field," Amadi said. "Coach Taggart's thing is that if you don't know what you're doing we can't put you out there."

That brings us back to Graham. Physically, the four-star recruit and No. 12-rated cornerback in the nation coming out of high school, has been impressive, according to Taggart. Nevertheless, Graham still has a lot to learn, just like Springs and Amadi did as young players.

Both veteran players see the great potential in their younger teammate. 

"He's good," Springs said. "We've got to keep him calm at times. He gets a little ahead of himself...He's a lot better than I was my freshman year." 

Said Amadi: "He kind of reminds me of myself, coming in hot. You've just got to keep it rolling, be confident in yourself and keep making plays."

If he does, and Amadi and Springs finally reach their potential, the Ducks' cornerback situation could be the least of UO's problems on defense next season. 

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

The Oregon defense, which ranked 128th in the nation last season, will receive some extra tender love and care under new coach Willie Taggart.

During a lengthy one-on-one interview this week that will air later this month on CSN, Taggart said that special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie has recently been handed the extra assignment of also coaching outside linebackers. That will leave defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to coach only the inside linebackers instead of the entire linebacker crew. 

Oregon already has two defensive backs coaches with Keith Heyward handling safeties and Charles Clark directing the cornerbacks. 

Assistant head coach Joe Salave'a will coach the defensive line. 

The reason for the use of multiple coaches at two different position groups on defense is simple. Taggart said the defensive side of the ball needs more work in the areas of development and communication, a big issue for Oregon the past two seasons when the defense ranked among the worst in the nation. 

The decision to have two defensive backs coaches, something Leavitt used as the defensive coordinator in Colorado before Oregon hired him away during the offseason, is to increase communication within a group that is spread out all over the field. Plus, the group must communicate coverages with the linebackers. 

"We're trying to create a synergy throughout the defense," Taggart said.

Teaching a new defense to what was a very young group last year with just one senior starter will be challenging. Having two defensive back coaches working to make sure there is at least proper communication will help accelerate the growth process, Taggart hopes. 

"It's a lot easier if guys have two coaches back there," Taggart said. 

The same could happen with the linebackers. Oregon will have seven linebackers that are going to be either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Getting them up to speed as fast as possible could make all the difference next season, but especially by 2018 when four out of that group will likely make up the starting lineup. 

While the defense will have five full-time coaches handling position groups, the offense will have four. Co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal will take on the running game and the offensive line. Co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo will handle the passing game, quarterbacks and tight ends with the help of a graduate assistant. Michael Johnson will coach wide receivers and Donte Pimpleton will handle the running backs. 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DBs: Secondary will rise if Ducks' pass rush improves

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DBs: Secondary will rise if Ducks' pass rush improves

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, Linebackers

Today: Defensive backs.

Key losses: Reggie Daniels was an impact player in 2014 before falling off later in his career.   

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). 

What we know: Oregon's secondary has gained loads of experience over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, a lot of that involved chasing wide receivers into the end zone. 

But let's be fair. While there's no doubt that the secondary was atrocious in 2015, this group did demonstrate improvement in 2016. However, they were often hung out to dry by a weak pass rush. 

The 2015 defense, led by Pac-12 defensive player of the year, defensive end DeForest Buckner, ranked second in the conference with 38 sacks. The 2016 defense, led by true freshman linebacker Troy Dye, ranked tied for seventh with 25 sacks. A feeble pass rush, coupled with a horrible run defense that made life easier for opposing passing games, adversely impacted Oregon's secondary. 

Nevertheless, the overall pass coverage in 2016 was better than it was in 2015 when a young secondary was routinely exposed. Springs, Amadi, Robinson, Williams and Oliver all should benefit from experienced gained and be ready to take the next step. Factor in the emergence of Schooler and the potential of Breeze, and others, and the secondary could actually be quite good in 2017. On the other hand, improved play by the defensive backs won't be noticed unless new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is able to increase the heat on opposing quarterbacks.

Shifting from having one position coach (John Neal) to two, with Charles Clark coaching the cornerbacks and Keith Heyward handling the safeties, could help accelerate the secondary's improvement.

What we don't know: How this secondary shakes out will be interesting.

If Robinson starts at cornerback that would mean that either Amadi or Springs failed to take that next step or that another safety emerged as a player the coaches couldn't keep off of the field.

There certainly will be plenty of options at safety that could force Robinson to cornerback. Williams and Oliver have started there in the past. Breeze has a ton of potential while Schooler will enter spring drills as a starter.

Depth won't be an issue and could be bolstered by four-star cornerback recruit Thomas Graham, who will be on campus in time for spring drills. But be leery. Most freshman defensive backs struggle no matter how highly touted they are coming out of high school. 

Final word: We would have seen dramatic improvement from the secondary last season had opposing quarterbacks not had all day in the pocket. With improved play expected from the front seven (how could it possibly be any worse than what we saw in 2016?) this secondary could finally blossom.

That said, this group needs an attitude adjustment in some areas. Stories have become legendary of some diva tendencies within this group. That must change.

Position grade: C. This unit could earn a B if it matures both physically and mentally. The talent and the depth are there.

 

Report: Oregon to hire assistant coach Keith Heyward from Louisville

Report: Oregon to hire assistant coach Keith Heyward from Louisville

Oregon has added a former Oregon State Beavers player to its staff, according to a report from FootballScoop.com.

New UO coach Willie Taggart has hired Keith Heyward away from Louisville where he coached defensive backs. Heyward played cornerback at Oregon state from 1997 through 2000. 

Heyward has held several coaching jobs since his playing career ended. His career trek has been as follows:

2005-2006: Graduate assistant, Oregon State.

  • 2007: Linebackers, Cal Poly
  • 2008-2011: Secondary, Oregon State.
  • 2012-13: Secondary, Washington.
  • 2014-2015: Defensive backs/Passing defensive coordinator, USC.
  • 2016: Defensive backs, Louisville.

Oregon has also reportedly hired former Colorado cornerbacks coach Charles Clark and former South Florida director of football operations and associate head coach/tight ends David Reaves, who coached under Taggart.

Several new assistants will be announced by the university this week. New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tweeted earlier today that he was getting on a plane with Taggart and other assistants to head to Eugene.


However, an hour later he tweeted that the flight was delayed, which allowed for more time to recruit via phone.