2011 Oregon Preview – Defense
Oregon CB Cliff Harris
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Oregon Duck Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What you need to know: Nick Aliotti continues to do a fantastic job as the coordinator of the Oregon defense. Last year, for instance, he oversaw a unit that was one of the underrated reasons the Ducks played for a National Championship. The D allowed some points, often in the second half of blowouts, but also was no lower than No. 3 in the Pac-10 in takeaways, pass defense, run defense, or sacks. The combination of good speed and even better coaching has made this unit a frenetic and opportunistic bunch. The main offseason objective this summer will be to bolster a front seven that lost five quality starters to graduation. If Oregon is going to even approach last year's results, it'll need support from former backups, like DE Dion Jordan, DT Taylor Hart, and linebackers Michael Clay and Dewitt Stuckey. At least the secondary is set … sort of. John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant form a fantastic complement at safety, but as long as emerging star Cliff Harris is suspended, cornerback will be a potential sore spot.
Star of the defense: Junior CB Cliff Harris
Tackles: John Boyett, 78
Sacks: Kenny Rowe, 11.5
Interceptions: Terrell Turner, Josh Kaddu, 2.5
Player who has to step up and become a star:Senior DE Terrell Turner
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Boseko Lokombo
Best pro prospect: Harris
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Harris, 2) Junior FS John Boyett, 3) Senior SS Eddie Pleasant
Strength of the defense: Team speed, takeaways, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Proven pass rushers, rebuilt front seven
State of the Unit: In a mirror image of the offensive line, the D-line must replace three starters from a year ago, all of whom earned some kind of All-Pac-10 recognition. Fortunately for the program, the staff used a deep rotation in 2010 that should ensure that the transition goes a little more smoothly than expected. This figures to be a committee approach, as opposed to a group with a lot of star power.
If there's a preseason all-star candidate, it's 6-3, 273-pound senior Terrell Turner . A 12-game starter and the recipient of the most improved player award, he made 33 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and 2.5 sacks. The strongest of the ends, he'll provide support against the run while also mounting a steady pass rush. With a career year, he's capable of grabbing attention from NFL scouts.
Is this the year that 6-7, 230-pound junior Dion Jordan leverages all of his physical attributes and wins the other opening on the outside? The former tight end has a world of potential, but has yet to fully tap it, making 33 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and two sacks last fall. However, he's coming off a solid spring that has everyone cautiously optimistic. Challenging Jordan will be 6-2, 240-pound senior Brandon Hanna, a returning letterman. The linebacker-turned-end has good quickness and made 18 tackles and a pair of sacks in his most extensive action a year ago.
The rebuilt interior will have a pair of new starters in 2011. Sophomore Taylor Hart is close to locking down one of the tackle jobs. A sturdy 6-6, 275-pounder, he appeared in all 13 games, contributing 18 tackles and a pair of sacks. He plays hard and fast on every down, bringing a contagious attitude to the front.
At the other tackle spot, sophomores Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli are competing for the job, and are both likely to play plenty. Keliikipi is the smaller and quicker of the pair, shooting the gap in order to make plays behind the line. Active, yet strong at the point of attack, he had 18 tackles in a reserve role last season. Heimuli is the space-eater, a poor-man's Haloti Ngata in the center of the line. One of just two true freshmen to play in every game, he had nine stops in his first year on campus.
Watch Out For … the tight competitions to bring out the best in everyone this summer. While Turner and Hart look to be somewhat safe, the other two jobs are up for grabs. Jordan and Hanna both turned heads in the spring, and the tackle tandem of Keliikipi and Heimuli has a complimentary skill set.
Strength: Experience. Yeah, even with all of the departures, the Ducks are still going to enjoy a rather seasoned rotation of linemen. One of the many trappings of blowing out opponents is that it allows the coaches to empty out the bench. Five returners had at least 18 tackles in 2010, which will soften the blow of losing Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair, and Zac Clark.
Weakness: Proven pass rushers. Turner is the leader of the ends, but he got to the quarterback just 2.5 times even though Rowe drew the opposition's best tackle. Jordan and Hanna have been excellent players, but proving it during the season is obviously an entirely different challenge.
Outlook: There'll be plenty of adjustments for this unit as it works in new starters and adjusts to a vastly different rotation. No doubt there's talent and upside along the defensive line, but the coaches need it to rise to the surface as quickly as possible. With the linebackers undergoing a makeover as well, it's incumbent upon the first line of defense to prevent plays from getting too far beyond the line of scrimmage.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The Ducks have parted with a pair of terrific long-time starters at linebacker, current Philadelphia Eagle Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. Making matters even tougher, an offseason suspension to one of the two-deep competitors could further jeopardize the team's depth. It's a good thing that the staff has been recruiting thoroughbreds at the position because they'll all be needed to get involved with the defense this fall.
From his strongside position, 6-3, 230-pound Josh Kaddu figures to be one of the new leaders of this unit. After starting all 13 games and making 32 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, and 2.5 sacks, he's ready to step out of the shadows of Matthews and Paysinger. A lean and nimble athlete, with good closing speed, he's capable of spending a lot of time in the backfield.
Behind Kaddu, 6-3, 223-pound sophomore Boseko Lokombo has so much upside potential, he's liable to entice the staff to find ways to get him in the huddle. While still a little rough around the edges, his explosive athletic ability portend a very bright future. As a reserve a year ago, he finished fourth among linebackers with 36 tackles.
Having done his apprenticeship under Paysinger, 5-11, 220-pound junior Michael Clay is set to succeed him. The two-time letterman, who made 42 stops in a reserve role, possesses many of the intangibles that'll make him one of the inspirational leaders of the group in 2011.
Middle is a little muddled at this point. Junior Kiko Alonso was on the verge of wrapping up the job following a solid spring, but had a second run-in with the law in two years has landed him an indefinite suspension. Enter 5-11, 221-pound senior Dewitt Stuckey who was the favorite to land the job before Alonso started turning heads. Mainly a special teams performer throughout his career, he has terrific football instincts and a great feel for the defense. Despite average size, he plays bigger than his frame and uses good pad level to take on larger opponents.
Watch Out For … the staff to tinker with ways to get its three best linebackers, Kaddu, Clay, and Lokombo, on the field at the same time. No disrespect to Stuckey, but he doesn't play nearly as fast as his other teammates. Kaddu, in particular, has been cross-trained, which could have him on the move in the summer.
Strength: Range. Especially on the outside, the Ducks are loaded with the sideline-to-sideline speed to make plays all over the field. They also display the athletic ability to make an impact in any direction, attacking the backfield and dropping back seamlessly into pass coverage.
Weakness: The middle. Now that Alonso's availability is a question mark, Oregon has serious concerns about the middle of the unit. While Stuckey is serviceable, he lacks the playmaking ability of the outside guys flanking him. Depth will also be a concern if Alonso cannot make it back on the team.
Outlook: The linebackers are raw, but not without a tremendous amount of upside potential. The key in Eugene will be for the staff to maximize all of that physical ability. There's a lot to get excited about regarding the outside trio of Kaddu, Clay, and Lokombo, who might all blossom into disruptive playmakers this fall.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The Ducks lose just one starter to graduation, but it's a good one, All-Pac-10 CB Talmadge Jackson. A second starting cornerback might also be missing in action in a troubling off-field development that's still seeking a resolution. While Oregon yielded some yards a year ago, plenty of them came when the opposition was trying to battle back from a huge deficit. Plus, the secondary compensated by picking off a league-high 21 passes.
Junior Cliff Harris is one of the country's premier cornerbacks, which only makes his suspension all the more frustrating. He was put in dry dock for an indefinite period of time for driving 118 mph with a suspended license on June 12. Nearly as fast with cleats on, the 5-11, 165-pounder was a show-stopper throughout 2010. A fast-twitch athlete, who breaks quickly on the ball, he intercepted six passes and batted away 17 others to lead the nation in passes defended. He has the lockdown coverage skills to cut off half the field for opposing passers.
Before Harris had run afoul of the law, 6-1, 180-pound Anthony Gildon had already secured the other starting corner job. The senior has eight career starts, including the 2010 Rose Bowl, and was in on 18 tackles last fall. More steady than spectacular throughout his career, he's been held back by nagging injuries from time-to-time. Redshirt freshman Terrance Mitchell has suddenly become a very important piece on the chess board. The likely corner to start when Harris sits, he impressed the coaching staff throughout his rookie year. The 6-0, 183-pounder has the hips and athleticism to be a stellar pass defender very earlier in his career.
There'll be no competition for the starting safety jobs. At free safety, 5-10, 198-pound John Boyett is preparing for his third season as a starter. Ever-active and instinctive, the junior plays the game fast and is rarely far from the ball. The former high school quarterback also maintains a high level of energy that gets contagious to his teammates. Second on the team with 78 stops, he added five interceptions and 14 passes broken up.
Locking down strong safety will be 5-11, 213-pound senior Eddie Pleasant. The former starting linebacker brings more physicality and attitude than any other Duck defensive back. More than just a thumper, he's also made his share of big plays over the last couple of seasons, adding 65 tackles, five stops for loss, two sacks, and a couple of fumble recoveries in 2010. His successor appears to be 5-10, 194-pound sophomore Brian Jackson who received most of the second-team reps in the spring. Using special teams as an opportunity to impress the coaches, he made 16 tackles in his debut.
Watch Out For … the fate of Harris. It's on everyone's mind around Eugene, and for good reason. The junior is one of the most dynamic all-around defensive playmakers in America. He's going to miss time, but how much will depend on Chip Kelly's judgment and Harris' ability to toe the line.
Strength: Ball-hawking. The Ducks have terrific ball skills, jumping routes and creating game-changing turnovers. The defense intercepted a Pac-10 best 21 passes in 2010 led by the thievery of Harris and Boyett.
Weakness: Uncertainty at corner. Even before Harris got flagged, Oregon was going to struggle to adequately replace Jackson. For whatever period of time the all-star misses, it's going to leave the Ducks vulnerable through the air.
Outlook: Everything hinges on the availability of No. 13. If Harris is out for just the opener, the Oregon secondary will be every bit as opportunistic and stingy as it was in 2010. If, however, he's out for an extended period, the Ducks D is going to suffer when facing the better passing teams on the schedule.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: All of the parts are in place for the Ducks to boast one of the Pac-12's best special teams units in 2011. Just about everyone is back, from the punter and the kicker to the snappers and return men. One of the underrated components of last season's conference title, special teams will once again give Oregon a hidden edge throughout the year.
Little-used, yet effective, Jackson Rice averaged 42.3 yards a punt in 2010, raising his average by more than two yards versus the prior year. Although he may not vie for all-conference honors, he's steady, with the leg strength to provide support to the defense.
Equally inactive, at least on three-pointers, was junior Rob Beard, who spent most of his time finishing touchdown drives with an extra point. He has adequate leg strength, which was most evident on kickoffs. If he struggles at all with consistency, sophomore Alejandro Maldonado becomes a viable option as the placekicker. He did a little punting a year ago when Rice was injured, and has the talent to be in Beard's back pocket all season.
Oregon harbors an impressive coterie of returners headed by sophomore Josh Huff and juniors Kenjon Barner and Cliff Harris, assuming the latter's recent suspension gets lifted at some point. Harris was unstoppable on punts in 2010, averaging 18.8 yards and taking four back for touchdowns. Huff and Barner were both involved on kickoffs last fall.
Watch Out For … Harris' status. He's like having another offensive weapon on the team, zipping through coverage teams and putting the Ducks in preferred field position. However, the junior was suspended indefinitely in June, which will shut him down for at least the opening game against LSU.
Strength: The return men. With Harris, Oregon might have the best return game in America, but even without him, the unit is rather explosive. Barner has some of the quickest wheels on the team, and Huff is a budding playmaker coming off a solid debut as a Duck.
Weakness: Covering punts. While not a major concern in Eugene, it was one of the relatively weak areas of special teams last season. The team would like to tighten up its coverage this season after ranking just 71st nationally in punt coverage D.
Outlook: One of the quiet reasons for Oregon's success over the past few years, special teams continues to be a strength in Eugene. The kickers are solid, the coverage units are effective, and the returners will change the tempo of a game. All eyes will be on Harris, who makes a good group otherworldly when he gets back in the good graces of the coaching staff.
Unit Rating: 9
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