Oregon has an uncanny ability to build insurmountable leads at a dizzying pace. A crucial component to that strategy is the Ducks defense's turnover creation. Oregon routinely ranks among the nation's best in this category and must once again to compete for a national championship in 2014.
The Ducks ranked No. 17 in turnovers gained last season and led the nation in 2012.
The heightened pace at which Oregon, and thus its opposing offenses, play translates to more snaps and consequently more opportunities for turnovers.
Oregon opponents ran 985 plays and the Ducks forced 40 turnovers in 2012—one approximately every 24.6 plays. The Pac-12's next most effective turnover-creating defense was Washington's, which ran a traditional pro-set offense at the time. The Huskies generated 33 turnovers on 865 plays—one every 26.2 snaps.
Indeed, Oregon's takeaways are not byproducts of the hurry-up offense but rather facilitators of that offensive philosophy.
The Ducks should have little difficultly putting up points next season with quarterback Marcus Mariota returning for his third year running the offense, a two-headed backfield of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, and one of the Pac-12's most experienced offensive lines.
The defense's ability to get the offense the ball quickly and frequently is less certain. That is the result of losing a few of its most prolific playmakers.
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is particularly adept at creating turnovers. In 2012, he forced six fumbles and intercepted four passes.
However, a cornerback's ability to generate turnovers is contingent on quarterbacks throwing to their side of the field. Ekpre-Olomu's earned reputation as one of the premier cornerbacks in the nation meant fewer opportunities for game-changing plays in 2013, and he finished the season with three interceptions and one forced fumble.
Terrance Mitchell saw more opportunities and stepped up with a team-leading five interceptions. Mitchell's surprise early entry into May's NFL draft leaves Ekpre-Olomu with a new running mate—possibly Dior Mathis or Troy Hill.
Mathis showed off some of his big-play ability last season at Virginia with a 97-yard interception return, which is the longest not taken back for a touchdown in school history.
Mitchell isn't the only playmaker who must be replaced in the secondary, however.
Safety Avery Patterson, the Ducks' third-leading tackler in 2013, also picked off three passes. Fifth-year senior Erick Dargan, who picked off a pass and forced a fumble last season, should get a chance to shine in the starting safety role.
Secondary has been a consistent strength at Oregon and well-tenured defensive backs coach John Neal should continue that trend into 2014 despite the departures.
Developing ball-hawking defensive backs should not be an issue. While there's certainly some luck that factors into turnovers, the Ducks have worked to make it a skill.
Former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti explained the process to The Oregonian in October 2012, amid the team's torrid turnover run:
The guys in zones are getting plays on the ball and breaking on it...We work on it. In fact, our zero-period on Fridays is a five-minute interception drill, where the whole team is out there...We emphasize fumbles in our zero-period. We emphasize stripping it and tipping. We emphasize interceptions, and we emphasize pursuit...Hopefully when you practice something, it's paying off.
Getting pressure up front is critical to setting up turnovers from the secondary, and that's the more pressing concern this offseason. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum told GoDucks.com that the defensive front "[have] got to push more weight" in 2014, alluding to the criticism of Oregon being bullied in the trenches.
The loss of Taylor Hart from the defensive line complicates Pellum's quest to redefine the Ducks' physical identity, but the coordinator does return a solid building block in Tony Washington.
Washington was a breakout star in 2013 and is one of the best pass-rushers returning to the Pac-12 in 2014. His 12 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks led the Ducks a season ago, and his ability to beat blockers also translated into a team-high four forced fumbles.
Torrodney Prevot is a candidate for a similar breakthrough season. Prevot played a reserve and special teams role as a freshman in 2013 and exhibited a knack for making big plays with a forced fumble and blocked kick.
Should Prevot develop into the same kind of backfield threat as departing linebacker Boseko Lokombo (seven tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries), the Oregon defense should keep feeding the offense with plenty of turnovers.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
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