Draw the Line
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.
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.
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.
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