Get Ready for Oregon’s New Pass Defense

Coach Morris Coach's Opinion, Learning the Jim Leavitt 3-4 Hybrid Defense

Ever have one of those moments when you highly praise someone or something to a lot of people – and then when they see that someone or something, it’s, admittedly, pretty awful?  As a highly opinionated [about most everything] old man, it’s happened lots of times to me.  My most recent humbling experience came Dec. 29 in the Alamo Bowl [What is it with the Alamo Bowl?].

After raving about the techniques of Colorado’s defensive backs, and their system of pass defense [which will soon be taught at Oregon], Oklahoma State proceeded to pretty much destroy those techniques and that system.  The OSU QB, Mason Rudolph, became a bigger version of Tom Brady, and their WR, James Washington, did a great Jerry Rice impression.  It didn’t help that Colorado’s usually great corner, Chidobe Awuzie, had a bum leg.

Embarrassed though I was, I firmly stuck to my opinion:  Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre’s 2015 clinic lecture on pass defense philosophy and techniques was still the finest I’d experienced, and the way his [and Jim Leavitt’s and Charles Clark’s] players executed their pass defense this season was truly a joy to behold.

Oregon’s new cornerbacks coach from Colorado, Charles Clark.

Jan. 3, those Colorado defensive coaches, players, and their grizzled old fan in Pleasant Hill, were rewarded for their outstanding SEASON of work:  “Football Scoop” announced that Colorado’s Charles Clark [the Ducks’ new cornerbacks coach] and Joe Tumpkin [the safeties coach] were named Defensive Backs Coaches of the Year, presented by ProGrass as selected by the award’s prior winners.

Against Colorado’s defense, during the 2016 season, opposing passers posted the third worst rating in college football. The opponents 49.8 percent completion rate was fourth worst in the country; the opponents 5.7 yards per attempted pass was tied for third worst; the ‘Buffs 18 touchdowns on 472 attempts was among the best ratios for defenses in college football, and Colorado’s 15 interceptions was tied for 22nd nationally. The Buffaloes ranked second nationally with 89 passes defended and 74 breakups, each the most in the country on a per game basis.

As a group, Colorado placed 16th in FBS with 4.87 yards per play allowed and 20th nationally with only 21.7 points per game allowed on defense.

Among their pass defense achievements were:

Holding Stanford to 16-of-29 for 170 yards, with no TDs and three interceptions. (In a 10-5 Buffaloes’ win)

In a win-or-stay-home regular season finale against Utah, Colorado limited the Utes to 13 completions on 40 attempts for 160 yards with a touchdown and 2 interceptions, in a 27-22 Buffs’ victory, sending them to the Pac-12 Championship.

In that championship game versus Washington, the Buffs held QB Jake Browning to 9-of-24 for 118 yards.

Colorado placed three of its defensive backs on the All-Pac-12 second team, including both of coach Charles Clark’s corners.

So, what happened in the Alamo Bowl?

I could cite several factors, but I have limited space and, based on their season’s body of work, don’t think Colorado needs me to justify their one bad game.

Also, I want you Duck fans to remember the Alamo game next season, as you set your high expectations for this new pass defensive system.

Are you ready for a “high risk-high reward” defense?  Those days of “bend don’t break” are gone.  You want tight coverage?  You’re usually gonna get it. No more corners playing 10 yards off their WRs and giving easy completions.  Many of you are now cheering [at least internally]. But are you ready for the possible consequences of that attempted tight coverage?

Taggart took in defensive coach Keith Hayward in the wake of 2017.

Without getting all coachy on you, let’s talk about pass coverage:  Jim Leavitt, Charles Clark, and Keith Heyward [and most all defensive coaches] believe that in order to have a “GREAT” defense in today’s world of college football, a team has to play predominantly man-to-man pass coverage.  For simplicity, I’ll just say you get:

1. Tighter coverage

2. Better run support

To get even better pass coverage and run support, the corners must be able to “press” the opponents’ WRs [sometimes referred to as “bump-and-run”].  Now some of you are thinking, “Isn’t that when the defensive back lines up REAL close to the wide receiver, and the wide receiver runs right by him to be wide open for a touchdown?”  Yeah, that’s the one.

Except when it works, it’s a beautiful thing.  A WR can be almost taken out of the game by a great press corner significantly limiting the patterns he can run.  And thus, a great defense – with the kind of previously mentioned stats - can be created. Charles Clark’s corners will spend most of the game “on an isolated island” pressing the receivers.  That’s why Clark only coaches corners.

Also Keith Hayward’s safeties will play a lot of [cover 4] man-to-man, which allows them to provide much faster, better run support than those 15-yard deep zone safeties.  On every passing down there will be three safeties who hopefully can man cover like corners and tackle like LBs.

Even Jim Leavitt’s LBs must now play a “match-up” zone, using man-to-man principles and re-routing crossing receivers, instead of just dropping to a certain spot on the field.  I’ll explain this in a later FishDuck analysis.

Jim Leavitt joined Taggart’s side from Colorado to be Oregon’s head DC

There are usually fewer interceptions using man coverage, but more sacks.

But man coverage doesn’t always work, and sometimes even being extremely well-coached on techniques isn’t enough.  Mark Dantonio of Michigan State and his former defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi [now HC at Pitt] popularized the press-cover 4 defense that the Ducks will mainly use next year, and Michigan State and Pitt had terrible pass defenses in 2016, due to lack of talent in their defensive backs.

Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan successfully ran similar pass defenses this season.  The Ducks definitely need to recruit great athletes to provide great pass defense.  But I kinda think Willie Taggart understands the importance of recruiting, and great high school defensive backs will be enthusiastically volunteering to show their stuff in the Ducks’ defensive backfield.

So, when you watch the Ducks play pass defense next season, remember – no risk, no reward. And enjoy the most-of-the-time beauty of a courageous, excellently executed pass defense.

Retired Coach Mike Morris (Grizzled Ol’ Coach)
Pleasant Hill, Oregon

Top Photo by John Sperry for

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