Adrian Jackson

Oregon Spring Football PT. 2: Ducks to improve dropped passes and defense

Oregon Spring Football PT. 2: Ducks to improve dropped passes and defense

The day after I wrote how I could feel spring in the air, the snow began to fall in Portland. Regardless of the weather, Oregon spring football practices are about to begin! If you haven’t yet read the latest Duck injury updates, coaching changes and true freshmen who enrolled early, better catch up! Caution, the list of early enrollees from Oregon's historic 2019 recruiting class may make you count down the days until opening kickoff. 

The first of Oregon’s 15 spring practices will begin this Saturday. Two main focuses of spring will be; Cutting down dropped passes and shifting into new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ defense. Here is an update on how Oregon plans to do that.

How Cristobal plans on fixing UO’s dropped passes problem

Oregon’s 2018 pass catchers had an inconsistent season as a group, aside from Dillon Mitchell. Letting catchable balls hit the turf was one of the main problems for Oregon’s offense, something new wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight will be tasked with fixing.

How can the Ducks get the most out of quarterback Justin Herbert in his final season at UO?

Oregon coach Cristobal called it “no secret” that drops must improve. 

Cristobal intends to add up the number of drops and the yards lost in 2018 to provide a “teaching moment.” Then, he’ll calculate the significance of those drops and yards in terms of third downs and moving the chains.

Sounds like a fun meeting, huh? 

[READ: It’s Juwan Johnson’s opportunity to grasp or waste]

“It’s pretty significant," Cristobal said. "It’s no secret, it’s an issue. But it’s not an issue from a determination or work ethic standpoint. We’ve got to technically teach our guys how to be efficient and precise in catching the football, putting it away and doing something with it.”

Cristobal states the problem does not stem from a lack of work ethic but highlighted areas where the position group needs to improve most; discipline in aligning perfectly before each play and nailing the details of each route.

Passing game efficiency is the goal and according to Cristobal, Bouknight has already "made a strong statement" since joining the staff two weeks ago. 

"You don’t point a finger at anybody whether it be the tight end, receiver or quarterback. You coach it better. You teach it better. You get in there and you work harder."

 

How the defense will change under new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos

Over a year later, the Ducks took something positive from the Las Vegas Bowl loss… Boise State’s defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos.

“When coach Cristobal reached out to me about this opportunity, I’m not going to lie to you, I was really, really excited,” Oregon’s new defensive coordinator said. 

Avalos said Oregon' tradition, brand and fresh excitement that Cristobal is bringing to the program is why he chose to leave his alma mater, where he coached for seven seasons, three seasons as defensive coordinator.

Avalos’ scheme, which Cristobal described as complex for the opponent and simple for Oregon, was a main reason Oregon hired the former Bronco star linebacker.

Avalos runs the same 3-4 base that former Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt did in 2018, but it differs with a variety of switches based on personnel packages.

The multiplicity of Avalos’ scheme appealed to Cristobal. The word “multiple” was probably used 20 times in his introductory press conference.

Avalos switches between three and four-man and “Bear” fronts and one and two-down linemen packages. He utilizes and will coach the STUD position; hybrid edge players with a pass rushing priority but also can drop into coverage and stop the run.

This could be a huge opportunity for outside linebackers La’Mar Winston Jr., Adrian Jackson and incoming freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux.

The goal will be to force identification issues, movement issues and structural issues to the opposing offense. No doubt Avalos’ past defenses have been versatile and disruptive. In the Las Vegas Bowl, Herbert was sacked four times, Oregon’s offense totaled 280 total yards and Boise State scored on a pick-six.

[READ: Leavitt didn’t fit Cristobal’s vision; A decade in the making]

Last season, Avalos coached a unit that ranked 10th nationally in sacks (3.0 per game) and 20th nationally in turnovers forced (24) with 17 fumble recoveries, the most in the country. He will be taking over a UO unit that finished 42nd in the nation in yards allowed per play. The Duck defense returns eight starters led by star linebacker Troy Dye and adds some of the nation’s top talent, Thibodeaux and linebacker Mase Funa, who could make an impact right away. 

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

The Ducks know they have two stars at linebacker in junior Troy Dye and senior Justin Hollins. With the emergence of La’Mar Winston Jr., this position unit could be the strongest on the team.

LOCKS

Troy Dye, junior, inside linebacker: Oregon's defensive MVP for the 2017 season has generated major NFL draft buzz and has landed on three major watch lists; the Bednarik Award (nation’s top defensive player), the Butkus award (nation’s best linebacker) and the Nagurski award (nation’s best defensive player).

In his two seasons, the preseason All-American has 198 tackles with 118 solo tackles, 80 assisted tackles and 9.5 sacks.

Justin Hollins, senior, outside linebacker: The Butkus award nominee is heading into his fifth year at Oregon as the only Duck to have played on the unit that helped get Oregon into the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game in 2014.

Last season he forced three fumbles and finished third on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) behind defensive end Jalen Jelks (15) and linebacker Troy Dye (13.5).

La’Mar Winston Jr., junior, outside linebacker: The Len Casanova Award for leadership winner (voted on by his teammates) played in all 13 games for the Ducks in 2017, including seven starts. Five of those starts came over the final six games when he delivered 31 tackles with five for loss. He finished the season with 49 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. 

[WATCH: A SUMMER IN PARIS WITH LA'MAR WINSTON JR.]

"(La'Mar)'s put on weight and strength," Dye said. "Seeing his transition from our freshmen year until now is phenonemal."

CONTENDERS

Kaulana Apelu, senior, inside linebacker; The walk-on was placed on scholarship before the start of 2017 season. He played in five games and made three starts, totaling 20 tackles, including three for loss before suffering a season-ending injury. Apelu rehabbed and returned to the field in time for spring practice. In the spring game, he led the Ducks’ defense with nine tackles and returned a tipped pass 100 yards for a touchdown.

Isaac Slade-Matautia, redshirt freshman, inside linebacker: Last season Slade-Matautia utilized his redshirt. ESPN and Rivals ranked the four-star prospect a top two player from the state of Hawaii. He is competing to be in the mix for starting alongside Dye.

"(Isaac)'s a beast," Dye said. "He's going to surprise a lot of people. There are a lot of things that he has taught me."

Adrian Jackson, freshman, inside linebacker: A consensus four-star prospect and the state of Colorado's top player in 2017. Dye called Jackson a "phenomenal beast" a few days into fall camp. Jackson currently backs up Dye at the JACK linebacker position, but says he’d be willing to move to MIKE.

[READ: How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon]

Keith Simms, sophomore, outside linebacker: Suffered a season-ending injury last season. Played both inside and outside throughout spring practices and totaled 8 tackles and a sack during UO’s spring game. Simms could add quality depth if he can stay healthy.

LONGSHOTS

Sampson Niu, sophomore, inside linebacker: In 2017, Niu played in six games and finished with eight tackles and one tackle for loss. He missed spring drills while rehabbing an injury suffered in the Las Vegas Bowl. Four-star prospect and the top inside linebacker in the state of California by Rivals and 247Sports.

MJ Cunningham, true freshman, inside linebacker: A consensus three-star prospect by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports. The Portland-native is another freshman that could crack the rotation.

Who will Herbert sling the ball to? The Locks, Contenders and Longshots at receiver