Draw the Line

Arik Armstead - Craig Strobeck

Peppered with talent, various levels of success, and featuring a new man calling the shots, it’s time for Oregon’s defensive line to draw the proverbial “line in the sand.”

We’ve all heard the knocks on Oregon’s teams over the past few seasons, critics talk about their perceived lack of physicality; if you slow the game down, their neon jerseys just don’t look like the usual blur.  The ultra-successful Nick Allioti isn’t on Oregon’s sideline anymore, as the dapper Don Pellum takes over as Defensive Coordinator.  And, if you check his twitter account, he’s bringing attitude and swag.  That attitude and swag might be the swift kick that improves the defensive front, and propels Oregon to the promised land, a coveted spot in the inaugural college football playoffs.

Although I try not to pay too much attention to incoming recruiting classes, there was skepticism over Oregon’s inability to wrap up commitments from defensive tackles.  That being said, if there’s a time to quiet the naysayers, it’s now.  The Ducks return an experienced group of pass-rushers, so if they want the defensive line to get credited with wins as much as the running backs and quarterback, it’s time to show they can take over games.

QB Connor Cook

From Video

QB Connor Cook

While the season technically starts August 30th against South Dakota, Oregon most likely won’t be tested until the following week when Michigan State’s Spartans enter the not-so-friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.

The Spartans showed, by beating Stanford in the 2013 Rose Bowl, and allowing 13.2 points-per-game on defense for the season, that they are one of the most physical teams in the nation.  They certainly figure to be a tough match-up for the Ducks.  Connor Cook, Michigan State’s quarterback, returns after a very successful opening season, and with a win in Eugene, his team could make a statement that last year was not a flash in the pan, but that Sparty is here to stay.

Counting the previously referenced clash with Michigan State, a home contest with Stanford, and also traveling to both UCLA and Oregon State, the Ducks certainly have a formidable schedule ahead of them.  Oregon’s defense will have their hands full with opponents that offer multiple offensive systems.

On all successful defenses, it starts with the line of scrimmage.  Oregon’s defensive line returns experienced players such as Arik Armstead, Tony Washington and DeForest Buckner.  Seniors Taylor Hart, Wade Keli’ikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli all graduated, but the biggest change might be the installation of Don Pellum into the DC position.  While Allioti deserves much credit for helping build the current elite version of Oregon football, those three departed seniors were quite successful on the line and their departure might be the jolt this current group of linemen, and the defense overall, needed.

DE Tony Washington

Kevin Cline

DE Tony Washington

It’s time to forge a new identity on defense. While Marcus Mariota, those flashy uniforms and the high-paced offense have received plenty of headlines in the past few seasons, in true Oregon fashion, it’s time to focus on the future. If you want something in life, you have to go out and take it.  If the defensive line wants to silence their critics, get more credit nationally for the team’s success, and most importantly, help Oregon’s defense dominate their opponents, it starts with them.

Coach Don Pellum

Kevin Cline

Coach Don Pellum

In my humble opinion, the defensive line is the most crucial position group in football, excluding the quarterback.  If a team can push you around on the line of scrimmage, they’re going to run it down your throat all night long.  If you give quarterbacks all the time in the world to sit in the pocket and progress through their reads – especially against these talented Pac-12 hurlers – they’re going to have a field day.

The good news is that the defensive line returns three experienced players who have shown that they can compete at the highest level.  Additionally, the new guy who’s going to be calling the shots isn’t exactly a new guy, Coach Pellum has been involved with Oregon football for more than 20 years, but he’s bringing a new attitude and confidence with him to define his brand of D.  With these two elements, it’s starting to look like this upcoming season could be a big one for Oregon’s D-line.

That big season will require some amount of work.  I’m not saying that Oregon’s pass rush and penetration were futile last year, no, all is not lost.  However, the defensive line got swallowed alive in both their losses to Arizona and Stanford, two completely different offenses.  

But, if you look back at last year’s statistics, Oregon’s pass rushers actually had an impressive season.  In fact, they accumulated more total sacks than the National Champion Florida State Seminoles, 45 versus 32.  It is clear thought that if Oregon wants to clamp down on their inconsistencies from the past season, and beat Michigan State, Stanford and whoever else they play, the green-and-yellow needs to become the mean-and-yellow.

Oregon’s defense has played some spectacular games these past few seasons, but there have also been some poor showings.  With experienced players returning, and a new sheriff in town calling the shots, it’s crucial that the defensive line finds their identity this season, and early on.  If they do this, then there is clearly reason to believe that this upcoming season will be special indeed.

Top photo by Craig Strobeck

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Steven Holstad

Steven Holstad

Originally from San Diego, Steven decided to take a shot on attending a school over 1000 miles from home, and he’s been happy ever since. Steven graduated from the University of Oregon in 2013, and his passion for sports has followed him into his post-college life. A huge fan of both basketball and football, Steven enjoys incorporating both statistics and his own personal beliefs into his writing. When he’s not watching sports, Steven is currently training for his first half-marathon, and is looking to run a few more in the future. You can follow Steven on Twitter at @StevenHolstad

  • kevin

    Steven, when you say:
    “In my humble opinion, the defensive line is the most crucial position
    group in football, excluding the quarterback. If a team can push you
    around on the line of scrimmage, they’re going to run it down your
    throat all night long” I think you have to caveat this a bit with Oregon.

    Since Oregon’s base D is the 3-4, with the responsibility of the DLs being to play 2 gap technique, doesn’t a lot of the responsibility regarding stopping the run fall on the LBs? In my estimation, it was last year’s LBs failures — not the D linemen — that were ultimately responsible for our struggle with the run (when we struggled – vs Stan and UA). I’d say that in terms of D linemen, last year we were actually very well stocked at the position compared to years past, or this upcoming year.

    One could argue – and it has been argued here and there – that our inexperienced (and otherwise challenged) linebacking corps deserve the responsibility for our underwhelming performance at Stanford and UA. But what else probably should be argued (if we wanted to dwell on the past) is that Alliotti did not scheme effectively given his personnel last season. With a glut of big, experienced DLs – Hemuli, Keikippi, Hart, Balducci, Armstead, Buckner – and a dearth of both size and skill at LB, a reasonable man might assert that a 4-3 ( a real 4-3, not the hybridized version Oregon sometimes utilizes) or even 5-2 would have worked better for Oregon’s D when confronted by running teams.

    I’m no coach (most of what I think I know I learned from this site). But it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Stanford was going to do what they did until we showed them we could stop them, and that other teams would follow that blue print. But what we did was just more of the same (3-4 utilizing the undersized Lokombo on the line for a half-assed version of a 4-3, or for that matter T Washington who was frankly poor at the run).

    My hope is that we have a more flexible, well-thought response next season, and that we at least try to match power with power when that is what is called for. Even Oregon musters a goal line D at times, understanding that in some situations, speed sometimes needs to take a backseat to size.

    End rant.

  • oregon111

    last year, Oregon had the bodies at D line – the problem was the scheme and the loss of Kiko

    stop putting the drop end in coverage and stop with the “reads” — let the D line PENETRATE and be more than just punching bags…

    the defense will improve AND defensive tackles will want to play here

    I hope Pellam understands this concept