Coach’s Opinion: Understanding the New Era of Oregon Football

I was highly anticipating this year’s spring game, as it was our first look at both a new offense and defense. Coach Willie Taggart was installing his version of Oregon’s power spread offense, one that is a bit more smash-mouth than what Oregon had been doing. Then there’s Coach Jim Leavitt’s 3-4/3-3-5 hybrid defense. To be honest, I was pretty impressed with the progress the team showed in the game.

Of course, there were the typical spring ball fudges. We had instances of motioned receivers running into running backs and quarterbacks making incorrect reads, but that is much more forgivable seeing the progress the team has made, and knowing that these are new systems. I’m also very pleasantly surprised that there were far less mistakes being made by the defense than by the offense.

Oregon’s Power Spread Offense

I love this offense. It is a really nice microcosm of the best spread concepts out there. This offense has the hyper speed tempo of Chip Kelly’s offense, the power of a Gus Malzahn or Urban Meyer offense and the wide receiver splits of an Art Briles one. Of course, that’s not all it is, as Coach Taggart has taken a lot of the offense he learned from Jim Harbaugh and found a way to mix it with his spread offense.

On top of the power game, they’re using a lot of speed on the perimeter and in motion. A decent amount of Oregon’s snaps this season, as was true for the University of South Florida, will utilize a receiver in motion. This tactic was weaved into both the run and pass game, as the motion in Oregon’s offense is going to make it extremely difficult on opposing defenses. Imagine what it’ll be like to have the options of a big back smashing through the middle, a speedy slot slashing on the perimeter or a vertical threat blowing the top off of a defense all in the same play.

As far as the quarterback position goes, I really have to agree with what one of the announcers said during the game. While Chip Kelly wanted a thrower who could run, I believe that Coach Taggart wants a runner who can throw. I’m not saying that Justin Herbert isn’t going to be the guy at QB — he has enough running ability to run all of what this offense has to offer — but guys like Braxton Burmeister and Quinton Flowers (last year’s University of South Florida quarterback) are the QBs I suspect Taggart goes after. Players with exceptional running ability at the position are what’s really going to make this thing go.

from Video

Jim Harbaugh, anyone?

After all of that, I think my favorite thing I saw from the offense was a short yardage formation they were utilizing (pictured above). Remember what I said about pieces of Harbaugh’s offense being sewn in? Well this just optimizes it, and I love it. For anyone keeping count, that’s two tight ends and two fullbacks. With Royce Freeman behind that, there won’t be too many short yardage problems; not to mention the play action that can come off of it. The fact that it’s in the pistol and not under center also means that we won’t lose any of the QB run options either.

Jim Leavitt’s Hybrid Defense

I am so impressed with how the defense is looking after just 15 spring practices. You can say that it’s just spring ball and the offense is learning too. Great, you would be right, but if you have the memories of some of Oregon’s spring games that I do, it’s of the defense getting torched. That was not the case this year. There was improvement at every level of the defense.

Coach Leavitt essentially runs a 3-3-5 defense, which has always been a favorite defense of mine. For those unfamiliar, that is three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. In Oregon’s defense, the fifth defensive back is what’s being called the Ducks position. The Ducks is a hybrid between a linebacker and a safety. So far the guy manning this position has been Fotu Leiato (followed by La’Mar Winston) who in my opinion is perfect for the job.

By having only three defensive linemen on the field, and more speed, the blitzing packages are going to be sick. Opposing offenses are going to have a hard time keying in on where pressure is going to be coming from (Example in the video above). Another advantage is that, should we play a team that uses a lot of pro sets (Stanford for example), the Duck can be replaced with a more prototypical outside linebacker, creating more of a traditional 3-4 defense.

from Video

The 2-4-5 Nickel Package

Another really cool aspect of the Leavitt defense is the nickel that he goes to in passing situations. Personnel wise, it would be considered a 2-4-5, while it appears to have a 4-2-5 look. Remember, the first number in a defensive alignment represents the number of true defensive linemen (those pictured with a hand in the dirt).

Essentially, it is a 4-2-5, but instead of two defensive ends, you have two outside linebackers playing two-point (standing) defensive ends. The variety of personnel will make it incredibly difficult on offenses in passing situations. Where the 3-3-5 makes it difficult to know who’s blitzing, the 2-4-5 (pictured above) makes it even more difficult to know who’s dropping.

As far as play goes, the defense looked light-years ahead of where they were last year. They were getting good pressure on the QB, consistently stuffed the run and the defensive backs had significantly improved. Outside of better technique and concepts, I’d say that the biggest contributing factor to the pressure and run stuffing was the shear size up front. Jordan Scott is a true nose tackle through and through. From what I could see in the spring game, this guy is almost immovable, and that’s only going to become more difficult with continued strength training.

The corners were a world apart than of late. They were staying in phase more consistently, and when they weren’t, they were busting tail to punch the ball out at the catch. It was really refreshing to see that from our DB unit.

Special Teams

from Video

Spread ’em and Shred ’em, right?

Like most spring games, there was little in the way of special teams shown off. But I did want to show readers the one piece that I found really interesting, and that was the punting formation that Oregon has installed (pictured above). My mind instantly goes to the types of trick plays that could be run from the formation, but that’s just the way my brain works.

Though not as in depth as I would prefer, these are a few things I wanted to give my thoughts on. I was excited about the possibility of what was coming to Oregon, and after the spring game, I am even more excited about this fall.

More importantly, the team is excited. It was evident in every single celebration…during a spring game.

Coach Eric Boles
Newark, Ohio

Top Photo by Gary Breedlove

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