When new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos arrived at Oregon from Boise State, he had big shoes to fill.
Perhaps never before in the program’s history had a defensive coordinator made as immediate and noticeable impact as Jim Leavitt when he arrived alongside Willie Taggart in 2017. Oregon improved from 126th in the nation in total defense in 2016 to 46th in 2017. They improved from 122nd in 3rd down defense to 11th. They improved from 69th in sacks to 3rd, from 81st in interceptions to 23rd, and from 102nd in tackles for loss to 17th.
This kind of production led to Oregon offering Leavitt a massive contract, upon Taggart’s departure after the 2017 season, that made him the second highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country. But after the 2018 season, Oregon decided to move in a more cost-efficient direction, releasing Leavitt and buying out his contract to free up money for other coaches.
Avalos came to Oregon charged with the task of coordinating one of the most talented on-paper defenses the program has seen. With upperclassman leaders such as Troy Dye and heralded recruits such as Kayvon Thibodeaux, this defensive unit was expected to meet or exceed the performances that Leavitt’s groups turned in during the last couple seasons.
Through two games so far, Avalos has Oregon’s defense performing very well. Against Auburn’s version of the up-tempo offense, the Oregon defense held its own (until the last drive), harassing highly-touted freshman quarterback Bo Nix into throwing two interceptions and making majority of his time in the pocket an uncomfortable and rushed experience. The Tigers managed only 20 points until the final drive of the game, where they scored a go-ahead touchdown to win.
Against Nevada on Saturday, the defense (and the team as a whole) kicked things into another gear, as Oregon routed the Wolfpack 77-6 in the highest-scoring and most lopsided win since their fabled 12-0 regular season in 2010. While Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert picked apart Nevada’s defense, Oregon’s defense was as motivated and efficient as it has been in recent memory from top to bottom.
Twenty-eight players recorded a tackle. There were 13 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three forced fumbles, one of which was scooped up for a score by safety Brady Breeze. Nevada was 3 of 17 on third downs, compiled only 192 yards of offense, and failed to reach the end zone. But what perhaps stood out most of all was the way the defense played top to bottom from beginning to end.
Exponential blowouts were nothing new to the Oregon teams of the early 2010s. Generally the score would get so out of hand that the fourth quarter would simply be a curtain call for the second string offense and defense. During this time, the opposing team would often be able to scrape together a couple of scores to at least salvage some dignity.
On Saturday, the second unit was just as locked in and motivated as the starters, if not more so — that sort of nonsense wasn’t going to occur on their watch. Even with the game well in hand by the third quarter, the Oregon defensive players were as hungry as ever. The energy certainly showed at the start of the fourth quarter, with Dye participating enthusiastically in the traditional rendition of Shout to start the fourth quarter.
The first two games have also shown an improvement that won’t show up in the stat book. Pursuit and fundamentals have dramatically improved, and tackling in particular. The days of opponents dragging would-be tacklers for seven or so yards before being brought down, a rather consistent frustration in recent seasons, appear to be over.
Avalos, though not as expensive as Leavitt, appears to be well worth his price so far.
Portland, OregonPhoto Credit: Kevin Kline
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.
Adam is finishing up a post-bac degree in Communications and is looking to get into sports journalism as a career. He is a sports enthusiast and a UO alum, following the LA Lakers, Seattle Seahawks, and, of course, his beloved Ducks. Adam specializes in investigative reporting and opinion columns.
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