Why the Oregon Defense Is Poised for Immediate Improvement

Justin Samples Analysis

FishDuck Note: Below we have a new writer who played college football and in the type of defense that we will see from the Ducks in the 2017 season. After talking with him — Justin graciously agreed to give his views on what he saw of this new defense in the Oregon Spring Game. We’re learning more football! Charles Fischer

It is said that good coaches have a system. Great coaches align talent they have with the system they coach while elite coaches recruit to their system, develop talent and have the ability to get their players to understand what they are doing within the system and why they are doing it. From what I have seen so far – this staff is executing at an elite level. Today, we will focus on two things: first, how the staff is aligning the existing talent to the system, and second, how they are developing the existing talent on the roster.

Contrary to what you have heard pundits say, this is not a team devoid of talent on defense. This team was devoid of technique, scheme understanding and alignment of talent from a position perspective. The most extreme case of this manifested itself last year in the transition to a 4-3 base front. Not only was the scheme not aligned to the talent on the roster, the players did not have a firm grasp on what they were being asked to do within that scheme.

Jordon Scott is hard to contain…

In the best-case scenario, Oregon was getting beaten by less talented teams that did a better job of maximizing their existing talent, in it’s worse case we saw players woefully out of position due to not understanding what they were being asked to execute. The current defensive roster is littered with four-star athletes whose talent we’ve never seen materialize on the field. I submit to you this is due to a lack of scheme alignment, and talent development.

As a former middling undersized player that played in a similar system I can give you just a little insight in to why I think this scheme sets up the Ducks for immediate success. The great thing about the 3-3-5 Hybrid Defense that they will run, is that it is a base defense that allows for multiple looks just by changing the personnel at one position.

For example, the base 3-3-5 look can look like a 4-2-5 by swapping a stand-up defensive end for a safety at the “Duck” position. Bring in a true outside linebacker and you have a 3-4 look, smash down the alignments of the down three defensive linemen and you’re very easily into a bear front.

All of this with similar if not identical blitzing terminology, coverage and assignment perspective. This allows players to easily grasp the system as the language and concepts are more streamlined. This is particularly important in the age of tempo offenses. Flashback to last years breakdowns, with multiple fronts and looks, coupled with complex terminology. Is it any wonder why the Ducks looked the most inept against up tempo spread offenses?

As we think about maximizing existing talent it is apparent that the new staff is doing so. The one thing that this roster does not lack is speed and athleticism on the back end. The one spot the Ducks are bit iffy at is depth along the defensive line. So what is Oregon doing? They are using a base defense that maximizes their strengths (speed) and minimizes their weaknesses (defensive line depth). The 3-3-5 base requires two legitimate defensive tackles coupled with a strong side defensive end that is somewhat of a tweener.

Every shade of positioning is important….

The tackles are typically going to be your 0 to 3 techniques with your strong side end playing a 4-6 tech. With the addition of Scott Pagano and the development of Jordon Scott, the Oregon defense suddenly has a formidable front of Henry Mondeaux, Pagano and Scott. Scott is the perfect fit as a zero tech tackle as he has demonstrated explosive mobility and that he is nearly impossible to move from his spot. This frees up a particularly athletic linebacker (Troy Dye) to read, react, shoot gaps and have an impact.

The most glaring example of maximizing talent has to be at the “Duck” position. For this position in the base front you need someone that is fast, physical and athletic (Essentially a heat seeking missile). Ideally it is someone fast enough to effectively speed rush the Offensive Tackle, while physical enough to set an edge (Think Troy Dye last year). The “Duck” position doesn’t require a ton of coverage ability as he is either coming off the edge or into the B gap over 50-70% of the time. And when the “Duck” does have to sit back in coverage the assignments are usually simple (hook to curl or flats).

Fotu is a heat seeking missle …

This simplicity frees the “Duck” to play with reckless abandon, while looking fairly complex to the offense, and placing additional stress on the offensive tackle that has to deal with someone that can likely run by him if he doesn’t get deep enough into his drop during pass protection. This is where talent alignment come into the equation, in the event that we had capable Middle Linebackers we likely would have put Dye at the Duck position as he was a nightmare for OT’s last season and likely would be even more so in this scheme.

However, due to being the best player on the field and wanting him to be on the field the majority of the time they moved him to weakside linebacker (WILL). The key then, would be who they move into the Duck role? Cue Fotu Lieto. Who is the one player on the roster that players raved about being a heat seeking missile, but at the same time mentioned he had difficulty understanding coverage? The Oregon defensive staff now moves Fotu into a position to maximize his strengths (speed, physicality) while minimizing his weakness (coverage).

I encourage people to look at the spring game tape and watch the stress that Fotu places on the offense. On every pass play that he was coming (the bulk of the time), he put the OT on their heels as they had to work very hard to get deep enough in their drop to avoid having Fotu run past. This will have spill-over effects as we begin to see more and more of the scheme (just think about the weakness created in the pass protection when one person, the OT in this case, must drop exceptionally deep and fast relative to the rest of the line). Now all of a sudden Oregon has a stout defensive line and an athletic physical linebacking core.

This are just a couple examples of maximizing talent on the front end and doesn’t even take into consideration what is happening on the back end, which we can dive into more deeply on a later date. Hint, I think the secondary is going to be exceptional this year.

The second piece I wanted to touch on is the development of the talent. One thing that stood out since losing Coach Jerry Azzinaro was the drop off in defensive line technique and intensity. We masked this well with DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, but it became a glaring hole last year. The thing that stood out to me immediately in the spring game was the dramatic improvement in technique in the defensive line. An aggressive attack step? Check! Inside hand position? Check! Create separation prior to clearing the blocker? Check! It was fundamental defensive line technique 101 and something I haven’t seen Oregon consistently execute since “Coach Azz” left for the Eagles.

It was impressive to see how far they have come in just a month or two. That is the power of great coaching.

Remember the improvement with Dennis Dixon?

So what am I predicting? I’m not going to say this is going to be all marshmallows and gumdrops. It takes time to develop your existing talent, and to execute at a high level. That said, does everyone remember the dramatic improvement to the offense we experienced in Chip’s first year on campus? What some might not remember is our offense the year before was woefully inconsistent. What did he do with essentially all of the same players that were so poor the year prior? Hint, we were an ACL away from a National Championship. Was it without its bumps and bruises? Certainly not (see Cal, and our performance post Dennis Dixon).

Was it dramatically improved from day one over what we were used to seeing? Definitely! That is the power of great coaching, as the little things add up. I look for something similar this year on the defensive side of the ball. I expect the first unit to be very good, and if we stay healthy (something that didn’t happen in Chip’s first year) I think that we finish in the top 4-5 in total defense in the conference.

The depth is where I see our issues manifesting and likely most often in the second half of games. We will lose some games in the second half that were probably pretty close leading up to the fourth. We’ll lose these games due to a lack of depth and just wearing down (I see UW and Stanford playing out this way). If the defense gets banged up – my top quarter prediction won’t hold together. But I do expect to see a much-improved defense overall ranking somewhere between No. 60-80 in the nation in total defense.

And while that isn’t “elite” I would say its light years away from OSU running counters 20 times in a row to finish us off in the Civil War. As long as we never have to re-live that, I’ll be a happy Duck!

Justin Samples
Portland, Oregon

Top photo by Gary Breedlove

New 2024 FishDuck Publishing Schedule….

During the off-season the FishDuck.com publishing schedule will consist of articles on Mondays and Tuesdays. Do keep checking as new articles could be published during the week when a writer has something to say.

In mid-August of 2024, we will go back to the seven-days-a-week of articles during the football season as we did in the football season of 2023.

The Our Beloved Ducks Forum (OBD) is where we we discuss the article above and many more topics, as it is so much easier in a message board format over there.  At the free OBD forum we will be posting Oregon Sports article links, the daily Press Releases from the Athletic Department and the news coming out every day.

Our 33 rules at the free OBD Forum can be summarized to this: 1) be polite and respectful, 2) do not tell anyone what to think, feel or write, and 3) no reference of any kind to politics. Easy-peasy!

OBD Forum members….we got your back.  No Trolls Allowed!