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 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.”
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.
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.
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