Coaches’ Opinion: Oregon’s Coaching Transition Is Impressing

My friends, this article marks the beginning of a new phase for the site where we are replacing many of our writers with Coaches who write articles and give their opinions about Oregon football. Tomorrow it is an analysis article, while today it is a Coaches’ Opinion article by Coach Ruskin. What you will read are three major observations and explanations that you will not see in any other media source, and I would ask you to pass this along to others to see the new FishDuck.com. You will like what is coming in the future!  Charles Fischer

Charles had asked me to give a coach’s opinion about the practices in Eugene this past weekend, and I have to admit what I saw impressed me.

The Ducks had a lot of reasons not to bring enthusiasm and energy since the conditions were so bad. Despite the adversity, however, coach Willie Taggart came out with a great attitude, which set the tone for the whole practice. (Rumor was Taggart was committed to being outside regardless of the weather.)

Coach Taggart made an effort to shake hands and take pictures with the fans that showed up as practice was starting. A lot of coaches talk about a family culture, but coach Taggart’s attitude felt like he was welcoming and inviting everyone to his team and practice – truly a family atmosphere.

Gary Breedlove

Coach Mario Cristobal working with an Offensive Lineman.

Coach Mario Cristobal impressed me coaching the offensive line. He was coaching basic blocking drills, ones Pop Warner coaches would use, but his emphasis on every part was getting more power from the lineman. The one word to describe his coaching style in my time watching him would be power. He was so focused on getting every ounce of power from his lineman by ironing out and perfecting their technique. Some specific points were:

• Lowering their pad level by bending at the knees, not at the waist.

• Exploding into their target with hands and hips.

This style is more about moving people and running where you want to as an offense, as opposed to moving side to side and running to where the defense is not. The prior staff wanted linemen to shield and get in the way of the defenders (chipping off defensive lineman to get to linebackers and defensive backs). The linemen are still zone blocking, but this coaching staff believes in finishing off blocks and mauling people more than the previous staff. Something to keep an eye on in the Spring Game is how often the offensive line takes their guys to the ground (pancakes).

Gary Breedlove

Coach Jim Leavitt engaging the players during warm-ups.

Coach Jim Leavitt is like a shark who never stops moving, as he is constantly talking and engaging the players. A common theme with all the coaches was teaching and not letting any detail go unnoticed. One freshman was jogging getting off the field and a coach reminded him everything we do is full speed.

The team defense spent a lot of time recognizing different formations and getting lined up in a hurry, all the while communicating different coverages. The defensive backs were constantly checking with one another through hand signals to make sure they are lined up correctly, which is a huge component of good defense.

There are three fundamentals every defense should practice every day; they are running, getting off blocks and tackling. The Ducks did a lot of tackling and running, although I would have liked to see more block-destruction drills in the individual position times, although they did get a lot of open-field block-destruction reps in the screen period. It’s hard to judge how well the team is tackling since the team period was “thud” (thud tempo is not taking players to the ground). The Ducks did spend a lot of defensive time practicing tackling, which is another area to watch during the Spring Game to look for improvement from last year.

Troy Dye was moved to Inside Weak linebacker, (the WILL) and this means he will be making plays all over the field again. How so? The way this 3-4 defense works is the defensive line will eat up blockers to keep the inside backers clean, or free of being blocked. The outside linebackers’ (where Dye played last year) job will be to force the play back towards the unblocked inside backers, such as Dye’s new position. That is why Dye was moved inside yet still in a position to make plays. It is a different position by name, but I expect him to thrive there under coach Leavitt.

Another play that stood out to me was Darren Carrington II chasing down a defensive back 50 yards in 7-on-7; the DB had a 30-yard head start to the end zone but Carrington tried to run him down. He didn’t get to him, but it was a great display of effort in what seemed to be a meaningless play that was over just as it was started. This type of effort is huge coming from a senior leader in spring ball.

Photo Credit: Gary Breedlove

Gary Breedlove

Royce Freeman #21 stiff arms a defender during team period.

Another senior leader that had a great practice was Royce Freeman. His physical style and frame will be a great fit for a more powerful run game. He ran hard in the drills and seems to have a good rapport with the new staff. He busted several runs right up the gut off of the Jet Sweep action – this gives another threat to the middle part of the field.

True freshman Jordon Scott has the prototypical nose guard build – about six feet and STOUT. (He was running with the first team defense; look for our Thursday Player Evaluation.) Playing on the line is probably the second-hardest position for a true freshman to play, behind quarterback, due to the nature of it being so physical. Functional strength and power are the tools needed to succeed and being 2-3 years younger than your opponent puts you at a disadvantage, just from a body maturity stand-point.

Scott, though, more than held his own at the point of attack on the inside-run drills. There were some great double teams by the offensive line that moved him, other times he played really thick and square – stopping any offensive movement. I was impressed with the practice from this freshman at an important position.

Another freshman that stood out was Darrian McNeal. The native Floridian is slight but quick – it’s a funny sport when two body types, so extremely different, can be playing the same game at the same time. McNeil was seeing a lot of action as the Jet Sweep player.

True freshman Thomas Graham, Jr. made an excellent play against Carrington on a well-thrown ball by Justin Herbert. The freshman was stride for stride with the receiver about 30-yards down field and jumped through the arms of Carrington as the ball arrived, breaking up the pass. Sweet.

Gary Breedlove

Quarterbacks from left to right throwing. Terry Wilson Jr. #14, Justin Herbert #10, Travis Jonsen #11, and Brain Burmeister #17.

My favorite play of the scrimmage was the first one, and it was out of 11 personnel meaning 3 wide receivers, 1 tight end and 1 running back. Herbert ran a fake handoff to Freeman and boot legged (rolled out) to the opposite side and hit the tight end, who was running a 12-yard waggle (out) route. I think the Ducks are going to have success with the play action pass this year, and it was awesome to see the first play call as a play action pass.

Herbert looked sharp throughout practice. His accuracy and size make him an ideal pocket passer, but he also was good when they bootlegged him out, as well. I am really high on Herbert, and I think his ceiling is a first-round draft pick – the future is really bright with him.

For me, watching the team scrimmage felt like watching Colorado’s defense scrimmaging against South Florida’s offense in Oregon’s uniforms. After all the games we have studied this off-season – this practice confirms the changes we thought we were going to see. Expect to see more specific analysis articles here on FishDuck.com in the upcoming weeks.

What I saw from the beginning of the practice to the end was a team that looked like they knew what they wanted to be on both sides of the ball. To have such a strong identity so early in spring ball is a great sign moving forward. The energy and vibe was great despite the weather extremes, and, most importantly, the Ducks were a better football team after the practice than before.

(As a coach and a Duck, oh how we love to learn from our beloved Ducks …)

Coach Ruskin Fiegenbaum
Beaverton, Oregon

Top Photo by Gary Breedlove

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