Oregon Ducks Football Installs a New Identity

If I could describe the 2017 Oregon football spring camp in one word it would be “Leadership.” Not only from the obvious coaching changes last December, but the emphasis and cultural change to put the players in a position to lead one another. This is their team, and the results on the field will come directly from their work and accountability to one another.

The game featured a lot of big plays for Team Free, specifically in the passing game, as Justin Herbert looked great leading his team to a win. A few things that I took from Herbert this Spring Game …

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Justin Herbert steps up in the pocket for a TD pass.

  • He uses his athleticism to extend plays, but his first instinct is not to run to gain yards, it is to throw the ball downfield. Offensive linemen are taught to create a pocket for the quarterback to step up into (toward the center) and push the rush past the quarterback.
  • What happens is that most quarterbacks will see (feel) the rush and scramble out and gain some yards running. But what develops from this is an over-reliance on running when pressure comes and leads to the quarterback running into defenders that have been properly blocked by the offensive line.
  • It is a huge advantage when you have a quarterback who is able to feel the rush on the outside, get it pushed past him, then when he steps up and throws the ball downfield, it is for a big gain. Herbert does this and it makes the offense so dangerous because the whole field is available to use.
  • The next step in Herbert’s development is his leadership ability. The ability that raises the level of play for not just the offense but rallies the defense, too. The Oregon coaches have been very open in wanting someone that can do this at the quarterback spot, because it is the most important position on the team. Herbert is clearly the starter, but the coaches want him to be better as as leader.
  • When you hear stories of Joe Montana telling jokes before a game winning drive in the Super Bowl or having defensive players say they knew they just needed one more stop to get the ball back to Tom Brady for a win, that is what the coaches are trying to draw out of Herbert.
  • He does not have to be those guys, but he has to inspire — in his own way — and when that clicks for him and the team, great things are going to happen. I think the coaches on this staff are determined to unlock that ability in him.

The leadership from Kani Benoit was something I noticed in the Portland scrimmage, and the running back had a nice 95-yard run in the Spring Game. Benoit was running with the second team in Portland, and someone on the right side of the line was not doing his assignment. Benoit yelled at him,

“If you’re scared don’t come out here. We don’t need you if you’re scared.”

Then before the next play, he was talking to the right side again saying he was going to “run to that side whether they were blocking or not.” He then blasted into a wall of defenders for a short gain.

I loved that exchange from Benoit and was happy for his big run in the Spring Game. It is one thing if a coach is yelling at you, but when your own teammate is on you, holding you accountable, that is what makes a great program. To me, as a coach, the best job you can do is when your players are able to communicate with each other getting in and out of the right play calls. When the game is going on there is no coach on the field with you, just you and your guys playing and sometimes the best adjustments are made by talking with your teammates between plays.

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Well-executed gap assignments and discipline on defense leaves no room to run.

At this point in the year it is going to be hard to tell how good the defense is going to be. I think we are going to have to wait until the first game to get a real feel for the improvement. But I do know they will be improved. The defense knowing where it needs to be is the best takeaway from the Spring Game.

The defense has shown the ability to communicate before the play to make sure they are aligned properly. During the play they were taking proper angles in pursuit of the ball carrier and showed good team speed. The biggest unknown is still tackling and finishing a 60-minute game.

The one reservation I have with the new defense (and the 3-4 defense as a whole) is a lack of inside pressure. With three down lineman, it usually requires bigger bodies that build a wall and have the linebackers make the plays. On passes, most of the pressure comes from the linebacker positions on the outside. If the rush is only coming from the outside,  good quarterbacks can step up into the pocket (see above) and still make plays.

The best pressure — that which disrupts all quarterbacks — comes from the inside (between the guards). It is harder to get with bigger bodies that two-gap like this new defense employs. I am curious to see if the staff can develop an interior disruptor. Make no mistake, it is a hard role for a single person to fill, but a defense that can get interior pass pressure has a huge advantage.

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Great inside pressure by Hunter Kampmoyer.

The Spring Game was a great showing for the new culture this staff has cultivated within the program. The energy was contagious and spread from the team to the fans. It was perfectly captured in the final play of the scrimmage when Herbert found Darren Carrington for the last second touchdown pass, and the whole stadium erupted. This does not happen at most spring games.

Coach Willie Taggart was constantly coaching up the all the players after bad plays (Herbert’s Intentional Grounding call) and good plays during the game. One instance stood out to me when coach Taggart was talking up punter, Blake Maimone, after he pinned the opposing team inside the 5-yard line. Taggart got in his ear and patted him on the back after the play. Actions like that endear coaches to players, and it shows that coach Taggart wants to be great in every phase of the game.

I thought back to when coach Taggart was on “Coaches Film Room” for the ESPN broadcast of the 2015 National Championship Game. The host asked all the coaches what would be the difference, and Taggart was the only coach who said Special Teams. He had reviewed the film of both teams and looked at the statistics, and Clemson’s special teams were ranked significantly worse than Alabama’s kicking teams.

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Punter getting some praise from coach Taggart.

As a coach watching this broadcast you want some insider secrets, some X’s and O’s scheme that will be the difference on the biggest stage — something you can take away and apply to your program. I will be honest I was a little disappointed with coach Taggart’s answer at the time because good special teams play is not exactly a sexy answer … but it was the right one.

Out of all the coaches on the program, coach Taggart was 100% right. The difference in winning a National Championship was one onside kick and one kickoff returned for a touchdown both by Alabama in the 4th quarter.

Fast forward back to Oregon’s Spring Game and the attention to a punter; it all made sense to me, coach Taggart is developing a complete program in every aspect: every player is accounted for, every play is valued and every spot is earned.

The first phase of the 2017 season is done, and the new staff has created an accountable, hard working, family atmosphere in a short length of time.  The coaches and players have bought into coach Taggart’s vision and recruits are, too, with four Spring Game commitments. The Spring Game was a party for the new team to show the country “We are not last year’s team” and the show they put on was all about how they are moving forward — a team that is about to Do Something” – BIG!

Coach Ruskin Fiegenbaum
Beaverton, Oregon

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Coach Ruskin Fiegenbaum

Coach Ruskin Fiegenbaum

Ruskin has been following the Ducks since the '94 Rose Bowl. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2007 and has been coaching football in the Portland-Metro area since 2008.