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Ducks retool, ready to create chaos

Communication key as Pellum fine-tunes defense details


Photo Credit: COURTESY OF FRANK SELDEN - Junior DeForest Buckner (left) says he and his University of Oregon defensive linemates have talked about making an impact this season.EUGENE — The last sight of the Oregon defense showed Derrick Malone and Avery Patterson intercepting passes and running for touchdowns, the Ducks loading up against the Texas running attack because of anemic passing, the Longhorns scoring only one touchdown and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti walking off into retirement victorious.

It certainly didn’t allow the Ducks to forget the ground poundings suffered by Stanford and Arizona in losses or the 545-yard run-and-pass offense by Oregon State in the Civil War game. But, beating Texas 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl was all about the defense, considering the Ducks scored only one offensive touchdown.

Yet, the Ducks feel like they have moved on from Aliotti, the longtime defensive coordinator, and acclimated themselves to Don Pellum, the 19-year linebackers coach who finally received a promotion and who will try to outsmart offensive coordinators.

To hear players talk, it sounds like the Ducks believe Pellum to be an upgrade — or they’re just excited about the change.

How will things be different under Pellum?

“More intensity,” Malone says. “We’re going to fly around. I feel we’re going to make more plays, be more aggressive. ...

“I love it. We have way more attention to detail, and we’re a better cohesive team. Our overall knowledge is great. I’m loving the direction we’re going. And, it’s definitley (because of) Pellum. He puts his heart into this, what he does. He studies, trying to find different ways and avenues to make us a better team. Sky’s the limit.”

Adds fellow linebacker Rodney Hardrick: “I feel like our linebacker culture has spread to the entire defense; now more people are focused on detail, more people are in early for practice and dressed before everyone else. As a defense, we’ve taken the culture that ‘DP’ has brought to us.”

Up front, defensive linemen might be more aggressive and go for tackles-for-loss and sacks, rather than simply and seemingly play gaps.

“We just emphasize penetration, attacking the quarterback,” lineman DeForest Buckner says. “We’re letting the defensive line loose a little bit (more than last year). It definitely is exciting, lets us play with a lot more freedom.”

The unquestioned leader of the defense, All-American candidate cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, says Pellum wants more open communication.

“We’re trying to emphasize more whole team, more communication, everybody knowing what you’re doing, whether you’re a starter or a third string,” he says.

Coach Mark Helfrich promoted Pellum, who had been a UO position coach for 21 years and a graduate assistant, administrator and a player, just as Chip Kelly moved him up and Helfrich moved up Scott Frost to offensive coordinator. Kind of like the “Next Man Up” philosophy with players.

“I expect him to be himself and do exactly what he’s done,” Helfrich says. “He’s been an excellent communicator, excellent teacher, excellent leader and co-worker. He’s just a really natural communicator and a guy who people really want to play for.”

So, what will the Ducks put on the field to stop offenses?

It’ll be the third year for junior defensive linemen Buckner (6-7, 290 pounds), Arik Armstead (6-8, 290) and Alex Balducci (6-4, 310) from Central Catholic High. Buckner and Armstead played right away as true freshmen in 2012, and injuries pressed Balducci into action late in the season. All three are expected to be huge contributors to go with returning defensive end Tony Washington. Buckner says he and Armstead have talked about making names for themselves, and the need to make an impact.

“We need to perform like we know we can,” Buckner says.

The Ducks returned Hardrick in the middle and Malone on the inside at the linebacker spot, and Tyson Coleman, of Lake Oswego High, has been vying to play outside along with Torrodney Prevot.

“I want to prove that I can do the job, man,” says Coleman, who missed the Alamo Bowl and spring ball with a stress fracture in his foot. “We’re both going to be playing; whoever gets the starting spot is not a big deal.”

Coleman and Prevot are different type of players. “Torrodney is great at rushing the passer, it’s what I try to learn from him,” Coleman says. “My strength is definitely getting to the ball, making tackles in open field.”

The likes of Joe Walker and Danny Mattingly add to a deep linebacker corps.

Ekpre-Olomu leads a secondary with some question marks, considering the Ducks have to replace three starters. Seniors Erick Dargan, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis have never been full-time starters, and it’s likely that younger players such as Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson play key roles. The best news for the secondary: Esteemed position coach John Neal returned for another year.

“We don’t necessarily have anything to prove,” Ekpre-Olomu says. “We have to perform when we’re out there. You can be the best practice player, but at game time, you have to show it.”

Coleman says Ekpre-Olomu leads the defense.

“Ifo’s kind of like the confidence you can put in your back pocket,” he says. “You have him out there on the corner. He’s a great leader, just as good of a leader as he is a player. You can only imagine with both of those things ... he’s a great presence in the locker room. And on the field in practice, he’s teaching everybody. He teaches me things about my position and he doesn’t even play it.”

Ekpre-Olomu’s message to teammates, especially with talk of a new defensive coordinator changing things and improving the unit?:

“It’s up to the players to play. That’s really what (Pellum) emphasizes. The coach might have all the answers, but if you can’t do it at that split second on the field, it doesn’t really matter. If you can make that call or make that play at that split second ... that’s what he’s talked about this year.”