It Takes a Little Bit o’ Soul

Injuries.Kevin Cline

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

With Saturday night’s loss to Washington State it is now pretty much official that this year’s version of Oregon football is going down as a bad year, the end of the streak, or some other description that is even less complimentary.

The 3-3 Ducks are only a play a game away from being 5-1, but there’s no “coulda-woulda-shoulda” about it. The passing offense is meager and the passing defense statistics are competitive with the worst college football has to offer.

The recruiting pitch has gone from “chance to play for a championship team” to “chance for early playing time” in less than a year. The armchair quarterbacks have to be going nuts. How we got here and how long it might take to turn it around is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. The recruiting issue. The armchair quarterbacks are going to put complete blame on the present coaching staff, point out that it was Chip Kelly’s recruits that got us through the last two successful years and say that Mark Helfrich’s recruits aren’t getting the job done.

Oregon football recruiting hit its high point (so far) with the 2010 and 2011 classes, ranked 9th and 13th. The program was on the rise, and the opportunity for even stronger recruiting classes was there, but it didn’t happen.

The 2012 recruiting class slipped to 16th and the 2013 class dropped further to 22nd, despite ending seasons with Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl wins.

The youth in Oregons secondary has roots going back to the Willie Lyles case.

Kevin Cline

The youth in Oregon’s secondary has roots going back to the Willie Lyles case.

There were two things that dampened recruiting during that phase.

The Willie Lyles scandal dragged out while Kelly wavered over leaving for the NFL over during both recruiting cycles.

It gave opposing coaches plenty of ammunition to take to the living rooms of recruits, and Oregon’s recruiting took a step backward at the very time it was poised to surge forward, based upon team performance.

The 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes were further cursed with some disciplinary dismissals — primarily of defensive secondary players — and transfers for playing time at quarterback, owing largely to Marcus Mariota’s success.

The 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes are now in their third and fourth years in the system and comprise the upper class leadership. To blame the current coaching staff for thinness in these classes is not entirely accurate.

After all that -- a broken finger.

Kevin Cline

After all that — a broken finger.

2. Murphy’s Law. What could go wrong will go wrong has certainly applied to the 2015 team.

Vernon Adams’ delayed entry into the program and subsequent injury, along with injuries to most-experienced cornerback Chris Seisay, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall completed the perfect storm.

Consequently we’re halfway through the season with the quarterback situation a complete mess, a defensive secondary that bends and breaks and operational problems on both sides of the ball.

3. How long will it take? A healthy Adams is probably the only possible ray of hope for 2015, which has all the makings of a dismal season. Armchair quarterbacks no doubt have all kinds of suggestions for the defense, but it is doubtful that the coaches will read all the comments on the blogs to come up with a solution.

With the toughest part of the schedule still ahead, it doesn’t seem likely that this season is going to get turned around.

Oregon's downfield passing game was nonexistent vs WSU.

Kevin Cline

Oregon’s downfield passing game was nonexistent vs WSU.

So sadly, halfway through the season, it is time to start thinking about next year.

Adams will not be an option at quarterback. That leaves Jeff Lockie (who has thrown three end zone interceptions so far this season) and walk-on Taylor Alie with experience.

Redshirt freshman Morgan Mahalak (6’3″ – 205) is getting a lot of snaps running the scout team and true freshman Travis Jonsen (6’2″ – 195 and currently out with an injury) was the No. 3-ranked dual threat QB in last year’s national recruiting class.

Currently committed to Oregon in the 2016 class are Terry Wilson (6’3″, 190) and Justin Herbert (6’6″, 215). Both are only rated three-stars by, but so was Mariota.

Herbert, from Eugene’s Sheldon High School, has a strong arm and shows exceptional mobility for a big guy — and the view has to be pretty good from up there.

That gives the Ducks at least six chances to come up with a starting QB for next year. Let’s hope for the best.

This year’s defensive secondary has no seniors and only one junior in the two-deep, and next year the group will be joined by two high rollers in the 2016 recruiting class: No. 10-ranked safety Brady Breeze and N0. 9-ranked cornerback Jared Mayden.

In spite of 2015 appearances, John Neal does know how to coach defensive backs, so things are bound to get better — which is easy to say when having things get any worse is pretty much unimaginable.

Next year’s front seven on defense and the offensive line will see some turnover of starters, but what’s returning on the two-deep looks solid. Running back and receiver positions should be loaded at least through next year.

As dismal as things seem for the moment, the coaches are working through problems that stretch back three and four years. It’s really more a matter of a few too many things piling up and not working out than it is inability to plan ahead or inability to coach.

Whether it’s football or anything else in life, sometimes bad things just happen.

This, of course, does not change the fact that it is the coaches’ responsibility to fix it. If Helfrich can right the ship, it will be all his, with Kelly a distant memory. If not, someone else will get the chance. That’s the way college football works.

Soul experiences run deeper than losing a football game.

Kevin Cline

Soul experiences run deeper than losing a football game.

Rose Bowl victories and double-digit win seasons lift the spirit, but what we have before us is a time that tries fans’ souls. It’s good practice for life’s happenings that really matter.

The state of Oregon was reminded only too recently that trials of the soul run much deeper than football seasons that do not meet expectations.

Even in sports, though, steadfastness comes from soul, not from spirit. Those who are on board only for the high of victories will be long gone before all is well again.

But for those with a little bit of Duck in their souls, this is just one ugly, nasty passing storm.

Go Ducks!

Top photo by Kevin Cline

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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • fanchris

    Hi Mike, thanks for the “Three and Out”. You’ve got some good perspective and reminders in there for us Ducks fans.

    You addressed the defense by mentioning Seisay’s injury and “some disciplinary dismissals — primarily of defensive secondary players”, but I still feel compelled to ask for more perspective on the defense. We may have been an offensive play away from scores in the three losses, but that’s just asking the offense to bail out the abysmal performance of the defense. According to yesterday’s ESPN stats the Ducks are 125th out of 128 FBS teams in passing defense. The only teams worse than the Ducks are Bowling Green, Indiana, and Nebraska. In total defense, the Ducks are 120th of 128 teams.

    So how many secondary dismissals were there? And isn’t that a reflection of the coaching staff’s recruiting? And were those dismissals of secondary players better than those who are currently starting? Was there no opportunity to recruit and sign juco players?

    Let’s look back to last year when the Ducks had talent like Ifo Ekpre Olamu on the team. The Ducks defense still stunk.They were 102nd in total defense and 120th in passing defense.

    The problem looks to be more than just an injury and a couple dismissals, it’s appears to be coaching. I am only a fan, I have never coached or played college football, so I’m not a well informed critic, but it seems like our secondary gives too many yards up at the line of scrimmage yielding 5-10 yards on almost any completed pass. Perhaps it’s scheme, or technique, or too much focus on takeaways instead of breakups?

    I’d be interested in reading a more in depth analysis of the defense; schemes, strategies, suggestions on how the Ducks can improve. The offense shouldn’t have to score 45 points to win games.

    Thanks for the insight!

    • Mike Merrell

      fanchris —

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      There were three defensive backs from the 2012 class and one from the 2013 class who are no longer with the team. I believe that three were disciplinary and one was a brother of one disciplined. No, I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the coaching staff’s recruiting, which is probably among the most careful in the country. Au contraire, I think it is a reflection of the coaches’ fussiness for behavior standards. My understanding of the offenses — which was never particularly publicized — is that they were things that might have drawn pushups in other programs.

      Would they have been better than the players on the field now? My guess is yes, since they would have been in the system for three and four years, instead of the first and second year starters we have now. When you take these four — and then Chris Seisay — out of the equation, you are a ways down the “seasoned veteran” ladder.

      I don’t know what efforts, if any, were made to land JC transfers. I would guess they either didn’t see good fits or agreements could not be reached.

      I’ve known one person who ever played in the NFL. Coaches Helfrich, Pellum and Neal have proven themselves as good as any at getting players developed to NFL entry level, so they are so far ahead of me that I would not consider pretending to out-think them on anything to do with football.

      The coaches are astute enough to realize they have a problem. There is no way that they don’t know different schemes, blitzes, nickels, dimes, positioning, angles, tackling technique, etc. For whatever reason, they believe what they are doing is the best for the personnel they have to work with.

      I personally have never been a fan of the “bend but don’t break,” but as recently as last year the Ducks were second in scoring defense in the Pac-12 as clearly as I remember. So with the right personnel it does seem to work.

      The coaches are addressing the issue two ways: giving the young guys experience and moving offensive players to the defensive side of the field. Charles Nelson played some safety against WSU and Ty Griffin and Malik Lovette have moved to D-back.

      In the age of the internet, cell phones and McDonald’s burgers, we’ve grown accustomed to instant fixes for whatever ails us. Unfortunately, some things just take time. The young players have talent, but it needs to be developed. We will probably have lockdown corners in two years, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

      A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and I think that the inexperience in the secondary has profoundly limited the schemes and defense that can be called with any expectation of success — and of course none of us knows what they have tried and dismissed as options in practice.

      In the meantime, I have to agree that the defense is painful to watch on too many plays. I also think that it’s about as sarked out (new phrase) as it is going to get. We should see drastic improvement over the next three years, and even next year — dare we hope for yet this year? — it should be a lot better. And as the improvement comes, we should see the defensive playbook opening up more.

  • goducks58

    Thanks Mike, for some excellent perspective. I always enjoy your well-thought out articles. It’s aggravating to witness the Ducks’ fall with so many facets of the game going poorly. The coaching and play calling has been, to my mind pretty abysmal. You’re right though, the personnel losses in the secondary and the trouble of recruiting – and keeping recruits behind a QB talent like Mariota has come to the fore. Even old time fans like myself are tired of hearing the same platitudes when addressing failures. I won’t go into the details, as we’ve all witnessed the shortcomings. That said, there are a lot of reasons to think the Ducks could pull out of their tailspin. But win or lose, I’m always a fan. GO DUCKS !!!