In Defense of the Ducks Defense

Great Defense 114

In the immediate aftermath of the systematic dismantling of the Oregon Ducks by the Ohio State Buckeyes in last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game, fans and analysts were left wondering: what’s next for this Duck program?

ESPN’s KC Joyner published an article in the days following the title game debacle outlining exactly how the team was positioned heading into the 2015-16 season. And while there were some positives, there were also significant negatives, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

The defense will need to replace former All-American and 2015 NFL Draft pick Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the secondary.

Kevin Cline

The defense will need to replace former all-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the secondary.

The secondary, which lost cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, as well as underrated safety Eric Dargan, looked to be in serious trouble. It was also apparent that the front seven needed work after being gashed by the Buckeyes to the tune of 296 yards good for 4.9 yards per carry. It was reminiscent of nearly every major loss in the Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich eras: the defense was outmatched by a bigger and more physical offensive front.

Joyner pointed out that there are significant personnel losses in the front seven, including Tony Washington, Arik Armstead, and 2014-15 second-leading tackler Derrick Malone. Joyner was so down on this defense, he went so far as to say that “the Ducks’ return to the top of the Pac-12 may be short-lived.”

It is important to remember Joyner wrote his article just a few days after the National Championship Game, so we’ll partially forgive him for all the doom and gloom. Spring and summer camps have helped answer some of the defensive question marks, but there is a huge difference between looking good in June and being in the national title hunt come November.

So how does Oregon get better in the 2015-16 season, especially with so many questions on defense? Over the last week, writers David Lombardi and Chantel Jennings of the ESPN Pac-12 blog have published a series of articles comparing each Pac-12 North defense by level: defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs. Teams are given a rating of “great shape,” “good shape,” or “we’ll see.”

Steve Dykes/Getty Images North America

Sack specialist Torrodney Prevot will need to build on his performance last season for the Ducks to be successful in 2015.

Oregon’s strongest position group, according to ESPN, is the linebacking corps, which received a “great shape” rating. This may be surprising to Oregon fans considering the performance of the run defense in last season’s final outing. However, this group is experienced, and it really played well down the stretch in 2014. Lombardi singles out fifth-year seniors Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick.

Not mentioned is pass-rush specialist Torrodney Prevot – a player I am particularly excited about heading into 2015 — who was third on the team in sacks a year ago and forced a team-high three fumbles. The former four-star recruit should help replace most, if not all, of Washington’s production.

The defensive backs and defensive line both received “good shape” ratings, probably due to the lack of experience, which seems to have been a major factor. And while “good shape” isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t enough for a team and a fan base hungry for its first national title.

Let’s start with the defensive line. Veteran defensive end DeForest Buckner is the biggest (in both a literal and metaphorical sense) name among the returnees, which is fantastic for Duck fans, as he was Oregon’s best defensive lineman a year ago. Also back is senior nose tackle Alex Balducci, who started all 15 games and played better than most of his teammates against the talented Ohio State offense.

DeForest Buckner (right) will be a veteran anchor for this year's defensive squad

Kevin Cline

DeForest Buckner (right) will be a veteran anchor for this year’s defensive squad.

Add Hawaiian natives Tui Talia, a four-star junior college transfer, and fifth-ranked Class of 2015 defensive end Canton Kaumatule, who had a pair of sacks in the spring game. Lombardi describes him as a “monster,” and bolsters the thought that this unit might exceed expectations. Heck, this group could be much better against the run, considering these four players average 6’6″ and nearly 295 lbs.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the defensive backfield. Safety isn’t nearly as big an issue as corner, as Tyree Robinson returns as well as 2014 starter Reggie Daniels. The good news for the cornerback position is that even though there are a couple of available starting positions, many of last year’s backups have meaningful game experience due to Oregon’s liberal defensive substitutions. This should minimize the learning curve.

Jennings mentions Chris Seisay, a valuable contributor after Ekpre-Olomu was lost for last year’s postseason. He figures to be a breakout candidate in 2015. Perhaps the most intriguing player to watch in the race for the second corner spot is two-way threat Charles Nelson, an incredible athlete with a nose for the football.

Jimmy Fredricks gave FishDuck readers a look into how Nelson can be the next Pac-12 two-way star in an article published last week. However, Nelson might benefit the Ducks more playing strictly defense and special teams. This is especially true given the absurd amount of talent at the offensive skill positions.

Don Pellum has confidence that the defense will be able to perform admirably in 2015

Kevin Cline

Don Pellum has confidence his defense will perform admirably in 2015.

Another important factor in 2015’s defensive performance will be defensive coordinator Don Pellum, who worked wonders with the defense last year during the stretch run (minus the title game, of course). The unit as a whole improved week-to-week under Pellum’s tutelage.

While this year’s incarnation may be younger, it wouldn’t be shocking to see something similar. Furthermore, another year in Pellum’s system ought to work wonders, especially considering that Pellum, according to a February article from Andrew Grief of OregonLive, isn’t planning any major scheme changes. Rather, he is planning to slim down the playbook to simplify things for the younger players.

All in all, this Ducks defense might not be the best ever, but it is far from the worst. And with the embarrassment of riches on offense, it might not matter. Forcing timely turnovers and keeping teams in third-and-long will be important, but this defense is not going to make or break this team. We’ve done far more with far less.

Top Photo by Kevin Cline

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Jay Garnett

Jay Garnett

Jay is a transplant to Duck Nation. He grew up in southern Maine, tragically knowing nothing of Oregon football prior to the 2007 college football season, when Dennis Dixon willed the Ducks into the national consciousness before tearing his ACL late in the year. Since then, the Ducks have consumed every Saturday from August to February. Jay graduated from the U of O with a degree in Journalism in the spring of 2014. Perhaps more impressively, he didn't miss a single game in Autzen stadium during his four years in Eugene.

  • Stagamancer

    I think people were harder on our defense than the NC game really warranted. Our defense forced 4 turnovers (to Ohio States single meaningless interception at the end), and yet our offense capitalized on none of them (as I recall). We had only 132 rushing yards, about 1/2 of our average for the year, and while we slightly exceeded our average for passing yards, even with Mariota, Oregon is not a pass first kind of team (not to mention our abysmal 2/12 3rd down efficiency in the game).

    Our defense was by no means perfect (previous analysis here showed some serious mistakes), but I don’t think it was as bad as many people said it was after that game. All of this is really to say that I’m super excited about our defense for the coming year. Nelson is more than capable of filling Ifo’s shoes, and I think our line is going to be the ones doing the pushing around.

    • MarcTheDuck

      Those are really good points. We were beaten on both sides of the ball. Not just on Defense.

      • dunkonyerhed

        Let’s also remember that the Ducks were decimated on both sides due to injuries and an ineligibility and kept the game close for 3 quarters, even leading at points. Personally, I think they were gassed by the 4th.

  • swonder

    Too tough on the D? OSU was too tough on the D. It was disturbing that Coach Pellum and his staff could not figure out how to address the OSU running game. They must have run the same play 30 times and the staff could not devise a strategy to deal. Very disheartening.
    My question is that I’m not sure why we are OK with a mediocre (at best) defense but would freak out if the offense was anything less than stellar. Why don’t we expect excellence on the defensive side of the ball? The pathetic 3rd down conversion rate, the swiss cheese running D, man, it’s tough to watch.

    • dunkonyerhed

      Let’s remember that Oregon did make it to the national championship game. Ohio St was very, very good last year and easily handled other powerhouses like Alabama. Let’s also remember that part of the run problem was that their 3rd string QB played like a Heisman candidate in the final few games. That opened up running opportunities like nobody anticipated. Oregon’s front four underperformed and need to be better. I thought the LBs also underperformed. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture, which now has Oregon retooled and ready to compete again for a national championship.

  • MarcTheDuck

    Charles Nelson is an enigma to me. He may be absolutely necessary on the defense this year. But after re-watching most of our games from last year I realized he is even better with a ball in his hand than I thought. He was the most electric guy on the field. An amazing talent. In comparing him to the two other guys who I consider in his “genre”, Cliff Harris and De’Anthony Thomas, I think CN may well be the best of the three of them. We may have to have him on Defense but it’s hard for me to envision “the most electric guy on the field” not being a regular on the offense.

  • VegasNed

    Statistically for the season, Oregon’s D did well with regards to the two most important metrics,….pts allowed per game (2nd
    in the pac 12) and turnovers (1st in the country, including the playoffs). You can nitpick and say that the 3rd down % was bad (it was) and they may have given up more yards than they should have, and didn’t blitz enough, and yada yada, but I think that’s missing the point of how productive the defense was last year. Even in the national championship game, which wasn’t the defense’s finest moment, they gave up a similar amount of yards and points to OSU than did Alabama’s much vaunted defense in the previous week.

    A point about the performance on offense vs defense last year,….the offense certainly was a step ahead of the defense, but a good amount of that offensive success is attributed to one player, Marcus M. He took a very good offense and made it great. If Marcus had declared for the draft a year prior, the 2014 Oregon offense would have been much closer to the defensive
    performance and we wouldn’t be talking about such a disparity.

  • Mark Gilbert

    During the NC game, if not for a couple crucial dropped pases early on, this game would have had a much different outcome this I am sure of. But the Oregn Recs failed to make the catches and thus changed the whole complextion of the game. Give credit to OSU for takig advantage of the inability of the Duck offense to really move the ball after the Ducks first TD. I for one think the Ducks defense learned something against Arizona and FSU. They played inspired physical football, unfortunately this didn’t happen against the Bucks. Sorta wonder if they went in a little over confident, who knows. Either way Oregon will be fine on D and O. Withsome luck and both sides of the ball coming intok their own this years Oregon team could go undefeated, or could have 3 losses. Its a fine line these days in college football. I for one think they will win the North and beat who ever it is to win Pac 12 title. After that its anyones guess. Love this team GO DUCKS!