Are Ducks on cusp of defensive greatness?
If you’ve been following Oregon football for any length of time, you may have a question or two about how the Duck offense will perform this coming season. But serious doubts? No way.
Yes, there is a new quarterback to break in (Mr. Mariota or Mr. Bennett, please step up). And running back Kenjon Barner and Mr. Do Everything, De’Anthony Thomas, need to stay healthy. And the young-but-talented receivers — along with Josh Huff — need to flourish.
But still, does anybody really think the Ducks won’t average more than 40 points a game again with Chip Kelly pulling the strings?
The Oregon defense, on the other hand? Since the dawning of the Modern Era of Duck Football (circa 1994), the defense has been generally solid — and seemingly on the upswing in recent years. But spectacular? Seldom.
I only bring this up because it gets to a question I’ve long pondered: Can you imagine what would happen if the program could put together a string of seasons that featured its usual score-points-in-bunches offense, coupled with a fast, big and ferocious defense?
Can anyone say, unbeatable?
Put another way, picture say Washington, Stanford, even USC, battling a one-two punch like that in a raucous Autzen Stadium? If I’m a player dressed in white on such a day, I’m probably feeling deflated during warm-ups. I’m probably even humming a line to the old Eric Burdon and the Animals song, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.”
One could argue the 2010-11 BCS Championship Game team came close to that level of crunchness. Every Duck fan remembers the explosive offense a couple seasons ago (47.0 points a game), but the defense under Nick Aliotti featuring Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger, Kenny Rowe, Cliff Harris, John Boyett and others was quite good (giving up just 18.7 points per game and holding Auburn in the title game to a mere 22 points).
Since 1994, the Ducks have frolicked on the field largely because of their offensive prowess. Beginning with the last year of Rich Brooks’ long stint as head coach, followed by the Mike Bellotti years, and then continuing through the reign of Chip Kelly; Oregon has averaged 34.4 points per game (during Kelly’s three seasons, that has risen to 43.1 points a game).
Over that same period of time (1994-2011), the Ducks have given up 24.7 points a contest.
Most observers point to the ‘Gang Green’ defensive squads of 1994 and 1995 as the best the Ducks have produced on that side of the ball in recent memory. But the 2000 and 2001 seasons and the aforementioned 2010 season also saw top performances from the defense. Indeed, that 2010 team may have been better defensively than even the celebrated Gang Green team of 1994.
Although the statistics don’t necessarily show it — blame Oregon’s quick-strike offense for keeping the defense on the field the majority of the time — Aliotti has guided a squad that has played more aggressively the past few years.
Some attribute that to Kelly’s rise to the head coaching position and his insistence on an attacking style of play, on both sides of the ball. No doubt that’s had a role, but the recruitment of better defensive players out of high school is likely the biggest factor.
The star system used in ranking high school players is somewhat flawed. Still, consider that over the past five recruiting cycles (2008-2012), the defensive players the Ducks have landed have averaged 3.32 stars each, according to the Scout.com database. The previous five years (2003-07), the average was 2.55 stars.
That athleticism and brawn should be on full display this season.
Upfront, the Ducks have the likes of Wade Kellikipi, Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli, Jared Ebert, Isaac Remington, Tony Washington and Arik Armstead.
The linebackers, described by ESPN.com’s Ted Miller earlier this week as the team’s strongest position group, include Dion Jordan (although listed as a drop end, Jordan is more of a LB), Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Boseko Lokombo; as well as quality backups in Tyson Coleman, Anthony Wallace and Derrick Malone.
If there is concern, it’s in the secondary, led by senior John Boyett. Calling that group a weak link is a bit of a misnomer. Two likely starters — Terrance Mitchell, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu — played starting or significant roles a season ago as freshmen. By the Rose Bowl game, they were no longer playing like freshmen.
Given all that, expect Oregon to have one of the top defenses — perhaps the best — in the Pac-12 this season. Indeed, while the Ducks are breaking in their new QBs it may be guys like Jordan, Heimuli, Clay, Alonzo and Boyett that Win the Day in September.
“While the Ducks are known for offense, their defense should rank among the nation’s best, in large part because of a strong crew of linebackers,” wrote ESPN.com’s Miller.
A bigger question is whether this is the beginning of a trend in Eugene; namely is Oregon on the cusp of becoming defensively blessed for a period of time?
Keep in mind that seven likely starters on opening day will be back next season, and all around them and behind them stand more young, talented, highly-recruited players.
Recall, too, that Oregon is consistently making a run at top prep stars around the country now. The ‘Oregon Brand’ — seemingly a goal just a few years ago — is now a reality.
The real question may be: Why not?
One of the most famous lines ever uttered about the Oregon football program came in 2003 after the Ducks upset No. 3 Michigan at home. Autzen Stadium, wrote The Michigan Daily’s J. Brady McCullough, is “where great teams go to die.”
Give the Duck program a killer offense and a killer defense and the new saying may be: “Play Oregon anywhere … and prepare to die.”