Oregon Football: 5 Changes the Ducks Need to Make on Defense
Don't get hung up on the headline of this piece—the Oregon Ducks' defense has been terrific over the past couple seasons and is a major reason why the team is coming off back-to-back BCS bowl victories.
But as with anything, there is room for improvement, and several changes must be made if they'd like to become truly elite. Given the current personnel, this defense has the opportunity to be as good as any team in the country.
We're sort of splitting hairs considering the Ducks are coming off a Fiesta Bowl win in which they shut down one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
But here are five changes that should be made on defense this upcoming season.
Develop Some Beef at Defensive Tackle
For the immediate future, Oregon's bulk at defensive tackle appears solid.
Ricky Heimuli, Wade Keliikipi, Jared Ebert, and Alex Balducci all have the size and strength to push around opposing offensive lines.
But after 2013, the size in the middle could become a problem. Oregon has recruited the defensive end position extremely well, and new recruits Torrodney Prevot and Danny Mattingly both have frames to become excellent speed-rushers off the edge.
But stopping a team like Stanford takes more than speed. It takes muscle and the ability to push back the offensive line. Strength is not a bad thing against spread teams either, because a strong rush up the middle helps to interrupt the quarterback's decision-making.
In an era defined by speed and "How fast can you get to the quarterback," guys who can clog up the middle and stuff the run are sorely needed.
The Ducks have done a pretty good job in this area, but they'll need to continue recruiting big-time defensive tackles in order to boast a well-rounded defense.
Allow the CBs to Own Their Own Islands—at Least to Start the Season
In 2013, Oregon will boast one of the best cornerback tandems in the nation in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell.
So let them show it!
The slate is fairly easy to start the season, as Nicholls State and Tennessee both travel to Eugene, while the Ducks pay a visit to Virginia.
This is the perfect time to let both corners play one-on-one against their receivers for extended periods. Not only will it help them develop their cover skills in time for conference play against elite receivers, but it will give the rest of the defense a chance to be more aggressive in their approach.
If Ekpre-Olomu and Mitchell can cancel out the majority of their receivers' productivity, everybody else can feel more comfortable blitzing and taking chances.
I know both guys have experience playing one-on-one, but I'd like to see it more often, especially to start the season. They have the talent, and if it proves to be successful, it could help the Ducks' defense take another step forward.
Blitz the Hybrid DE/OLB More
The whole experiment with dropping Dion Jordan into coverage worked well, adding a unique element to Oregon's defense.
But let's be honest—Jordan was at his most disruptive when he pinned his ears back and rushed the quarterback.
While Jordan's length and speed allowed him to cover the flats well for someone his size, I thought they dropped him into coverage too much. Whoever replaces him in that hybrid position, whether Torrodney Prevot or somebody else, needs to continue to be aggressive in attacking the quarterback.
What separates athletes like Jordan are their size and speed coupled with the strength of a defensive end. A lot of players can cover the field, but not many players have the ability to track down the quarterback so quickly.
While I think utilizing all of the talents of a player like Jordan is smart, at the end of the day, the goal is not for the coaches to out-think themselves. When it comes time to get a stop, let the blitzers do their job and stop the quarterback before the play gets started.
This particular change could apply to almost every team in the country. Tackling is part of the game, and it's rare that coaches are satisfied with how their players are tackling.
The fact of the matter is that Oregon needs to continue to tackle better, and the issue could be magnified next season.
The main reason is the graduation of both Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay, two of Oregon's greatest linebackers ever and guys who wrapped up and finished tackles. Boseko Lokombo brings experience to the position, but every other linebacker is relatively inexperienced by comparison.
A good example came in the Fiesta Bowl when Collin Klein reached the edge, and Tyson Coleman had a chance to knock him down just a couple yards past the line of scrimmage. Instead, Coleman whiffed, and Klein gained extra yards.
Obviously, the defensive effort as a whole was spectacular, and the example isn't meant to single out Coleman. But he, along with several other guys, will be receiving a lot of playing time, and their tackling must improve if they hope to make a difference on defense.
Allow Fewer Big Plays
We arrive at yet another example of something that every coach in the country harps on—not giving up the big play.
In Oregon's case, the big play was the only reason several teams even came close to beating them.
Against USC, the Ducks had the Trojans on life support before a couple deep passes to Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee brought them back. I know most fans would say they weren't ever worried about losing, and that may be true, but it could have been a comfortable victory if not for several big plays early.
A similar story unfolded in the first half of the Civil War, where the Ducks had complete command of the game except for two deep passes—to Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton. Oregon seized control in the second half and pulled away, capitalizing on Sean Mannion's deep throws by intercepting them.
Nick Aliotti has often been noted for his bend-but-don't-break defense, which works because opponents are rarely able to drive the length of the field a few yards at a time. When Oregon's defense struggles, it's because they've given up a big play.
If Oregon wants to continue breezing past inferior opponents, they'll have to get better at allowing big plays to occur.
Note: Again, I'm harping on something the defense did fairly well, considering no team came within 10 points of the Ducks aside from Stanford. Still, it was an issue at times, and that's why it is included here.