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.
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.”