Ducks' defense poised to dominate this season
EUGENE — Many programs face coaching turnover as assistants get promotions with other programs, or are fired, and Oregon is no different.
Despite the change at the top of the defense with Andy Avalos replacing Jim Leavitt as coordinator, Oregon's players seem to be showing the ability and knowledge to pick up schemes quickly.
"We have a lot of experience on transitioning defenses, and I think we've done a great job this offseason at doing so," senior linebacker Troy Dye said. "I think guys are on the right path and are doing the right things studying their playbooks at night and taking the playbooks home with them."
Seniors Brady Breeze, Bryson Young, La'Mar Winston Jr. and Dye are learning their third defense in four years. Redshirt seniors Gus Cumberlander, Gary Baker and Drayton Carlberg have had four defensive coordinators.
Winston and Dye have been indispensable in their three seasons, but the others are fitting in nicely with the new defense as well.
Breeze is in a battle for a starting safety spot with junior Nick Pickett. Carlberg, Young and Cumberlander are using their experience to infiltrate the crowded and highly touted interior and edge pass rush rotations.
"There are a lot of similarities, which has made it a little easier," Carlberg said of this year's defense compared to the previous version. "You can pick up on little things that help you out. I'm pretty confident in my ability to learn a defense because of the four different defenses I've had to learn here."
Three important similarities in the defense are the return of cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Keith Heyward and defensive line-coach and co-defensive coordinator Joe Salave'a.
With the combination of experienced players and coaches paired with fresh faces on the field and on the sideline, the Oregon defense should take another step forward in 2019.
After learning the basics in the spring, the players dedicated Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer to "working the defense," according to Dye.
Now it's about getting guidance from coaches on what they've already practiced, while implementing more challenging features.
"From the spring into the summer, when the guys worked in all their stuff, it carried over into the fall," Heyward said. "I think we took a good step forward in knowing the defense's new concepts and new techniques. That was really good, but it's still a really long way to go so we can continue to grow on our techniques and fundamentals."
With the new scheme, players who haven't played much have fresh shots at starting roles. The change in philosophy allows for new excitement for returning starters as well.
"We're going to try to do different things to attack certain personnel, certain types of offenses, and use the personnel to put them in the best situations," Avalos said.
This means two major changes: the nickelback will play a lot more and the defensive linemen will be asked to make a lot more plays on their own.
In Leavitt's defense, defensive linemen needed to take up blockers in order to free up the linebackers and allow them to make plays. The style of play was comparable to the successful San Francisco 49ers defense when Leavitt was the linebackers coach under Jim Harbaugh (2011-2015). Defensive linemen such as Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga took up multiple blockers to free up All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks to make plays.
At Oregon in 2018, Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott took up multiple blockers to free up Dye, Kaulana Apelu, Justin Hollins and Winston.
Yet, Scott, Faoliu, Carlberg and other Ducks linemen were by no means one-dimensional. They displayed their ability numerous times to make plays along the line. Scott, in particular, excelled at blowing up blockers in key fourth-down situations.
It seemed they flew under the radar, but the increase in chances for tackles-for-loss and sacks could make the unsung group the team's strong point. Add that it's hard to be overlooked when Don Essig booms your name through Autzen Stadium and the group could become the Oregon defense's backbone.
"With Coach Avalos' defense, he's allowing the D-linemen to come off and make plays for ourselves," Faoliu said. "It's really exciting. It's got me looking forward to the season even more — hearing your name called and making a name for yourself."
Winston, Young, Adrian Jackson and DJ Johnson figure to join forces with Cumberlander and No. 1 overall recruit on ESPN Kayvon Thibodeaux as the pass rushers.
One of Oregon's major openings on the defense is at nickel corner. In some defenses, the nickel corner could be thought of as a backup safety or cornerback, but in Avalos' defense, that couldn't be further from the truth.
The nickel will play a lot, even if he doesn't start. Verone McKinley III, Jamal Hill and Haki Woods Jr. are mentioned most as nickel players.
Whoever earns that spot will have a key role in defending the pass and the rush. And communication will be just as important as being able to cover, blitz and tackle.
"We all have to work together. If we don't work together, the defense won't work," McKinley said. "I have to know everything so I can make sure I know where my help is coming from."
Whoever mans the nickel spot will have plenty of experience surrounding him at linebacker, cornerback and safety.
Dye and Winston's energy, playmaking and leadership are constant forces at linebacker and should remain that way.
After losing Apelu to injury last season, redshirt sophomore Isaac Slade-Matautia showed he had the ability to impact a defense. Now that Apelu has graduated, Slade-Matautia not only will need to replace Apelu's sideline-to-sideline tackles, but he also will have to make calls on the defense as the "Mike" linebacker.
"He's going to have a breakout season this year," Dye said of his middle linebacker partner. "I'm really excited for him because he's going to surprise a lot of people … we move really well together."
In the secondary, junior cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir remain staples and sophomore Jevon Holland returns after leading the team with five interceptions. They have taken on leadership roles with the departure of now-Seattle Seahawks safety Ugochukwu Amadi.
"Thomas is the oldest out of all four of them and he just turned 20," Williams said. "The group is still fairly young, even though a lot of people know their names because they played a lot of football."
The depth up and down the Oregon defense should not only improve the 2019 outlook but also become the foundation of the physical team coach Mario Cristobal prefers. Gone are the days of hoping to crack the top 70 in team defensive rankings.
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