One of the most complicated coach/coordinator pairings in the country has lasted for only a season.
The news that 247 Sports reported on Wednesday was confirmed in a press release from Oregon on Thursday: defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and the Ducks have “mutually reached an agreement to part ways.”
The timing may have been unexpected, but few thought that Leavitt would stay in Eugene for the long haul. His relationship with head coach Mario Cristobal was always a dicey subject, as both were candidates to replace Willie Taggart after he departed in 2017. To his credit, Leavitt remained loyal to the program and to his new boss, coaching the entire 2018 season under the man who beat him out for the position.
But with aspirations of his own to be a head coach, and with plenty of opportunities on the horizon, this departure was inevitable.
Where Do the Ducks Go From Here?
Many believe that the Ducks are going to promote co-defensive coordinator Keith Heyward and give him the exclusive title. If they decide to go in that direction, don’t expect the defense to change too much. Typically, when programs hire from within, they do so to maintain continuity in both staff and scheme.
But should the Ducks go in a different direction?
There’s no doubt that Leavitt was a home run hire by Taggart. The Ducks were coming off of perhaps their worst defensive season in program history when he took over, ranking 126th in total defense in 2016. In 2017, they made a remarkable improvement, finishing 46th. (All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.)
Fans had big expectations for a 2018 season that saw many of the key defensive players from the previous year return. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well; the Ducks regressed to 55th.
Beyond the numbers, there were far too many coverage breakdowns, missed assignments and missed tackles for a unit that had the talent and experience to be one of the best in the conference. No one’s denying that Leavitt is a crafty schemer or a tremendous motivator, but for whatever reason, his defense had legitimate, puzzling flaws last year.
Maybe Heyward can resolve these issues, but should the Ducks stick to the same blueprint when there are alternative and potentially superior schemes that they could adopt instead?
Could Michigan State’s Defense be Heading West?
The Ducks don’t have to search too hard to find a defensive system that would be an instant upgrade. They faced it in their bowl game, where they were held to a season-low seven points.
Michigan State’s vaunted 4-3, Cover 4 defense has been a mainstay in East Lansing since Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi popularized and perfected the scheme. It has helped the Spartans rise from a middling program to a perennial contender in the Big Ten, and it has suffocated nearly every offense that has had the misfortune of facing it.
This year, the Spartans finished second out of 130 FBS teams in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ defensive rankings — better than famed defensive powerhouses Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Michigan.
Mr. FishDuck himself, along with others here at FishDuck.com, have long admired MSU’s aggressive, stifling defensive scheme. What better time than now for the Ducks to hire one of the Spartans’ defensive coaches to bring it out west?
It would be quite the shift, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive front, but the lines between the formations are getting blurrier by the second.
Besides, why not put up with a couple of seasons of growing pains to eventually reap the benefits of a system that has an incredible ceiling? If Michigan State’s defense can rank better than Alabama’s, with their good-but-not-great recruiting classes, think of how well the system would work in Eugene with Cristobal’s knack for acquiring elite talent.
Will the Ducks Look In-Conference Again?
If the Ducks prefer a candidate with more ties to the west, then they have plenty of quality options in their own conference to choose from.
Intra-conference hiring is simply a part of the game, and the Ducks are no strangers to it. Leavitt himself was coaching at Colorado when the Ducks came calling. With Uncle Phil’s blessing, they conceivably have a shot with just about anyone they want inside the conference.
And for those who scoff at the idea of hiring a defensive mind from an “offensive conference,” the Pac-12 is not — contrary to popular belief — a league that plays 7-on-7, wide open football with little defense. The conference was home to three of the top-15 total defenses in 2018, which was tied for the most among the Power 5 conferences.
The Ducks would benefit significantly by hiring a coordinator or position coach from any of those three defenses (Washington, Utah and Cal) to run their respective schemes at Oregon.
Jimmy Lake, Washington’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, might do wonders for the development of the Ducks’ talented yet inconsistent cornerbacks. He has developed a number of NFL draft picks during his time with the Huskies, and he’s one of the brightest minds in the sport. The Ducks would have a top-flight defense in no time with Lake on board.
If they choose to look elsewhere, could the Ducks pry Morgan Scalley away from Utah? He and Kyle Whittingham have done more work with less talent than most in the country. Surprisingly, the Utes have had considerable success in the Pac-12, despite being a Mountain West school not long ago. That success is largely due to their physically imposing front seven and sticky secondary. With Scalley leading the charge, the days of giving up 250-plus rushing yards to below-average teams could become a thing of the past.
And what about taking a look at Justin Wilcox’s staff at Cal? The Golden Bears don’t have the flashiest defense, but it was impressive enough to carry the team’s woeful offense to bowl eligibility. For a program that not too long ago had one of the worst defenses in the country, it’s safe to say that Wilcox and his staff have a good thing going in Berkley. The Ducks would gladly trade places with a defense that gave up nearly 70 fewer yards per game than theirs did in 2018.
Of course, this is all speculation. Maybe Cristobal will make the expected move and promote Heyward. Or maybe he’ll go off script and hire someone not even mentioned here.
If you were in his shoes, who would you pick to replace Leavitt? Would you choose Heyward, someone in the conference or someone else entirely? Give us your thoughts in the comments below.
Morgantown, West Virginia Top Photo by Eugene Johnson
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester Tennessee.
Joshua is an adopted Duck fanatic, originally hailing from southwestern Pennsylvania. His love for the University of Oregon began as a young child when he became mesmerized by the flashy uniforms and explosive offenses of the Chip Kelly era, and now, he follows the team religiously. His fondest memory of the team is seeing De’Anthony Thomas race past Wisconsin defenders back in the 2012 Rose Bowl. A true football enthusiast, Joshua loves studying the intricacies of the game, and he aspires to become a professional sports journalist. Joshua now resides in Morgantown, West Virginia where he works as an appliance salesman. When he’s not watching Oregon replays, Joshua loves reading, writing, and spending time with his family.
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