Nationally, all minds have focused on Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and who will fill his giant, humble shoes. My mind is elsewhere, namely, on the Oregon Ducks defense. The Ducks offense would not be The Duck Offense if it weren’t for the guys on the field the most. Our defense held big, bad Michigan State to 27 points, powerhouse Stanford to 16 points, and flashy Utah to 27 points. Day in and day out, these guys work their tails off. But the departure of seniors like linebackers Derrick Malone Jr. and Tony Washington, safety Erick Dargan, cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill leave empty what are arguably bigger shoes to fill than Mariota’s.
The old guard has given way to next season’s breakout stars, including linebackers Christian French, Torrodney Prevot, and Joe Walker, safeties Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson, and corner Chris Seisay.
When I spoke with Dargan at the beginning of the season, he told me about the potential he sees in these young players and his leadership style with them: “Being vocal and helping them learn. Getting lined up and just telling them the things they can do within the play. And just giving them more confidence to play with.”
Dargan’s two interceptions vs. Michigan State were crucial to swing the momentum back to the Ducks. Dargan began his career as a star on special teams. Through hard work and patience, he became a starting safety in his final year with the Ducks. His efforts, both on and off the field, will be missed, but the impact of his leadership will be passed on to younger players like Daniels and Robinson.
In his first year at defensive coordinator, Don Pellum had the defense performing as well, and as well-prepared, as ever. He was impressed with the work ethic the “Men of Oregon” have achieved. When the Pac-12 all-conference team was announced, Pellum reveled in seeing their work paid off. “We’ve come a long way. It’s been a long journey. There was some times where it didn’t look good, where obviously there was a lot of scrutiny. But the kids went inwardly and just kept fighting and all the sudden they put their heads up in a position to go out and play another game.”
With returning Pac-12 quarterbacks like Cody Kessler, Jared Goff, Cyler Miles, and Anu Solomon, all of whom are capable of picking apart defenses, the defense will no doubt face a series of difficult tests next year.
Despite the future challenges, the Ducks’ defensive underclassmen already have experience. Pellum will not be introducing a completely new defense to new players. These talented but unheralded players have seen the playing field and have already made a difference. I am excited to see what happens next year and who takes the field when the Ducks open against Eastern Washington on September 5th. How many more days until kickoff again?
Top Photo by: Kevin Cline