How Don Pellum will improve the Oregon defense

Jake Ziven of KEZI Channel 9 in Eugene is one of the best “cover guys” in the market for Duck football. He’s usually positive and brings great energy to his reports and features, and in the pool interviews, he’s often the one who asks the one question for which Duck fans were dying to hear an answer.

This Wednesday during the recruiting press conference, Ziven asked, “You and your coaches have been out recruiting and we haven’t had a chance to talk about it. Why Don Pellum?”

Teaching with a purpose: now that recruiting is completed, Don Pellum takes over as Oregon defensive coordinator, and he stands out as serious, organized and prepared, a people person, but a stickler for fundamentals and discipline ( photo).

It isn’t that coach Pellum wasn’t qualified or won’t do a good job. As fans, it’s just easier to endorse a hire and support it whole-heartedly with some insight into how the decision was made and what stood out about the eventual choice. During the selection process all manner of nationally-known candidates were floated as possibilities, and at the announcement of Nick Aliotti stepping down, Rob Mullens indicated Oregon would conduct a national search.

Helfrich’s reasoning in this short clip adds a lot credibility to the choice. The head coach said what stood out about Pellum as a position coach was the discipline and organization in his unit. Every player on time for the meeting, ready for the special teams meeting. All the backpacks lined up, every player with the right handouts and information. Coach asked, “why doesn’t everybody do it that way?”

And Pellum answered, “I’m not in charge of everybody.” Well now he is.

This isn’t a knock on last year’s team or Nick Aliotti’s record as Oregon defensive coordinator. Coach Al won three BCS bowls and oversaw the rise of Oregon football from years when 6-5¬† was a great year to an era where 11 and 12 wins became the standard. But with the talent and facilities Oregon has now, and the expectations, a dose of organization and discipline, a coach who excels at getting everyone lined up and dialed, in sounds like a recipe for getting the most out of this defensive roster.

In 2014 Pellum will have the challenge of incorporating some talented newcomers into the scheme. He’ll need to identify six new starters and get a defensive staff working cohesively and driving home the importance of preparing for every opponent, getting on the plane with purpose, focus and intensity.

The Ducks have to rebuild the defensive line after graduating Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi. The linebacker corps has to incorporate some new talent, and the secondary has to be completely rebuilt, albeit with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as a hub.

Pellum’s work habits and his approach, the emphasis on getting everyone lined up, on time and paying attention, sounds just right. His emphasis on the fundamentals and simplying things so that players understand and execute better will be critically important.

Duck fans expect great things from the 2014 team, and hearing this anecdote, the hopes seem more tangible.

Pellum spoke at length to the media when his hiring was announced back on January 14th. He talked extensively about discipline and a business-like approach. His pride was evident, and so was a commitment to representing the program with determination and seriousness. “I’m a grinder,” he said. He impresses immediately as articulate, focused. It was encouraging to see him defer to the head coach in certain areas. “That’s a Coach Helfrich question,” he would say, suggesting that the chain of command and the media message might have a tighter focus going forward, after some needless distractions this last season.

Hearing him talk at length, really for the first time after working in the background for most of his career, you can’t help but have a deeper respect for him.

It’s parenthetical to his qualifications and capabilities, but the fact that he is Oregon’s first African-American coordinator is an important milestone also. He’ll be a role model and a pace setter, provide opportunities for other highly qualified candidates in the future.

The fact that John Neal stayed on, vowing to finish his career at Oregon, is a double bonus.

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