2012 Oregon Preview – Defense
Oregon DE John Boyett
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Oregon Ducks Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What you need to know: Nick Aliotti continues to be one of the most underrated coordinators west of the Mississippi. While his defenses are rarely air-tight, they’re always fast, ferocious and fundamentally-sound. So, even with the loss of a bunch of starters, the program is confident that it can regroup in time for the opener. As the Ducks gradually shift to a 3-4 in 2012, there’s a base of talent at each level with which to build upon. Underrated Taylor Hart is moving from tackle to end, where he’ll be joining First Team All-Pac-12 pass rusher Dion Jordan, one of the conference’s emerging stars. On the inside, the D with be stout at the point of attack with the combination of Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli. Look out for the linebackers, an extremely athletic collection of defenders. Michael Clay and Rose Bowl hero Kiko Alonso both have all-star ability, while Boseko Lokombo brings instant playmaking ability to the defense. Hard-hitting S John Boyett will once again be the warden of the defensive backfield, roaming the secondary with a chip on his shoulder. However, Oregon will be very young after their all-league senior, likely starting a pair of sophomores alongside him, cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Star of the defense: Senior FS John Boyett
Tackles: John Boyett, 108
Sacks: Dion Jordan, 7.5
Interceptions: Several with 2
Player who has to step up and become a star:Sophomore CB Terrance Mitchell
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB Kiko Alonso
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Dion Jordan
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jordan, 2) Boyett, 3) Senior LB Michael Clay
Strength of the defense: The D-line, linebackers, closing to the ball, takeaways, the pass rush
Weakness of the defense: Third-down stops, red-zone stops
Don’t try to typecast the Oregon defensive linemen, who’ll be shifted around this fall depending on whether a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment is utilized. Take the star of the unit, for instance, senior Dion Jordan. Known as the “drop end”, he’s technically an outside linebacker, with the ability to freelance to a number of different roles. Whatever you call the 6-7, 241-pounder—or wherever he lines up—he’s going to be one of the nation’s most impactful pass rushers. A tight end when he arrived, he was wisely shifted to defense, where the All-Pac-12 First Team pick collected 42 tackles, 13 stops for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2011. Jordan is too much for most opposing tackles to handle, blending his enormous wingspan and terrific moves with the explosive speed and first step to get around the edge in a flash.
If the spring is any indication, it appears that Jordan will be backed up by sophomore Tony Washington, who played well in his first season of action a year ago. Another hybrid at 6-3 and 252 pounds, he appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2011, making 18 tackles and his first career sack.
The unit’s next best thing to Jordan will be junior Taylor Hart, who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 for his work a year ago. At 6-6 and 289 pounds, he’s traditionally used as a tackle, but when the Ducks employ a three-man front, he’ll be at strongside end. Blue-collar to his core, he’s rugged and hard-working, bringing a contagious attitude to the first line of the defense. In his debut as a starter, Hart chipped in 44 tackles, three stops for loss and 2.5 sacks, playing a crucial role for the Oregon run defense.
When Hart lines up at end, so, too, will 6-4, 286-pound Isaac Remington on the opposite side. No stranger to the huddle, the senior transfer from Phoenix College played in all 14 games a year ago, starting three of them. Very strong in his base, he’s at his best when stuffing the run, making 19 stops, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2011.
The Ducks do house a couple of traditional defensive tackles to anchor the middle of the line. At the head of the line will be junior Wade Keliikipi, a starter in each of last year’s final 11 games. Quick off the snap, yet very strong in his upper body, he lent support to the Oregon run D a year ago by making 25 stops and generally clogging lanes.
The backup on the interior will be junior Ricky Heimuli, a luxury coming off the bench. At 6-4 and 321 pounds, he can be an immovable object in run defense, occupying blockers long enough for his support cast to get in the backfield. After making a career-high 22 stops in 2011, he’ll once again be a vital component of the line rotation.
Watch Out For … rookie DE Arik Armstead to quickly climb the depth chart in the summer. One of the most sought-after recruits to ever sign with the Ducks, he’s a natural to line up at strongside end. At 6-8 and 297 pounds, he has unbelievable agility and quickness, a rare combination that’s going to make it impossible to keep him off the field. Armstead already has the look of a future mega-star in Eugene, and a Freshman All-American for the upcoming season.
Strength: Presence. The Ducks are going to be enormous in the trenches this season. From the length of Jordan and Armstead to the girth and muscle of the rest of the linemen, Oregon promises to be physically imposing along the first line of the D. That size will continue to fuel a defense that yielded 3.6 yards a carry, and ranked No. 5 nationally in sacks.
Weakness: Support off the edge for Jordan. No. 96 is going to draw the other guy’s best offensive tackle, and the occasional double-teams. Who picks up the slack? Washington has yet to prove himself at this level, and the ends in a 3-4 alignment are really glorified tackles who are better suited to play on the inside.
Outlook: The Ducks will once again be underrated and overlooked along the D-line, a job hazard of being on a team with such an exciting offense. The fact is that Oregon is going to be rock solid up front, with Jordan playing like an All-American, and Hart, Keliikipi, and Heimuli quietly getting the job done. This unit has a chance to be the most physically gifted defensive line in Eugene in quite some time.
Unit Rating: 8.5
For the second straight year, Oregon is in a position to replace two gifted linebackers, a First Team All-Pac-12 Duck and an honorable mention All-Pac-12 Duck. Two years ago, Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger graduated. This year, Josh Kaddu and Dewitt Stuckey leave holes that need to be filled. The stalwart on the second level will be inside LB Michael Clay, a vastly underrated defender. While he may be built like a safety, when he steps off the sidelines, he’s all linebacker. Despite missing three games, the 5-11, 219-pounder still erupted for 102 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss and three sacks in his debut as a starter. He saved his best effort for the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, racking up a career-best 13 stops, including two for minus yards on RB Montee Ball, and a game-sealing fumble recovery. One of many explosive athletes in Eugene, Clay moves extremely well from sideline to sideline, stretching out opposing running backs before they can turn the corner. Even better, he’s the Ducks’ most fundamentally sound tackler, a decisive wrap-up stopper who rarely allows more yards after contact.
Next to Clay on the inside, the staff feels as if it has a burgeoning star in senior Kiko Alonso. A knee injury in 2010 and multiple run-ins with the law have stunted his growth, but there’s a sense around Eugene that he’s on the brink of a monster finale with the program. Yeah, he only had 46 stops, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks a year ago, but he’ll be taking a head of steam into 2012. Alonso was a beast in the Rose Bowl, earning Defensive Player of the Game honors with five stops, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pick. At 6-4 and 246 pounds, he has next-level size to go along with the range and instincts to piece together his best season as a Duck.
The starter on the outside will be 6-3, 225-pound junior Boseko Lokombo, last year’s top reserve off the bench. The quintessential playmaker from the second level, he scored three touchdowns in 2011, two off of picks and one following a blocked punt. He also chipped in with 33 tackles and a couple of sacks. He closes very fast, and uses the proper coverage skills to be an asset when the ball is in the air.
The Ducks’ top backup figures to be 6-2, 205-pound Derrick Malone, an inside linebacker. Just a sophomore, with plenty of room for growth, he earned Pac-12 all-academic honorable mention, contributing 15 tackles as a backup and special teams performer.
Watch Out For … Alonso to have learned his lesson. Although he’s had a rocky career in Eugene, all signs point to the senior showing a level of focus and maturity that didn’t exist in the past. He’s been a new man since last fall, undoubtedly sensing that he’s frittered away his second chances, and has the all-around talent to use 2012 as a launching pad to the pros.
Strength: Range. Whether it’s from the inside or the outside, Oregon is chock full of high-caliber athletes, 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. Now that Lokombo and Alonso are receiving promotions, few plays are going to get beyond the second level.
Weakness: Depth. The drop-off from the first team to the youthful and unproven B-teamers is going to be rather significant. The Ducks are in a position to handle an injury to one of the starters, but anything more than that could have a devastating impact on the entire defense.
Outlook: The parts are in place for this to be Oregon’s best starting corps of linebackers in quite some time. All three of the full-timers possess the athleticism and overall skill set to make a ton of plays, while knocking on the All-Pac-12 postseason door. Clay and Alonso, in particular, are about to become really big deals in league circles, blossoming into cornerstone type defenders for the Duck D.
Unit Rating: 8
All things considered, Oregon played relatively well in pass defense in a year when supposed-star CB Cliff Harris wound up being a non-factor. The face of the secondary in 2012 will once again be senior FS John Boyett. Ever since becoming the first freshman to lead the Ducks in tackles, Boyett has been a fixture in the program’s defensive backfield. About to enter his fourth season as a starter, he’s been named to the All-Pac-12 Team in back-to-back years. In 2011, he led Oregon with a career-high 108 tackles, adding seven pass breakups and a couple of blocked kicks. While just 5-10 and 202 pounds, size has never been a roadblock to success for Boyett. He’s athletic, especially in small spaces, has a high football IQ and operates with maximum toughness and intensity. No. 20 is never far from the ball, testament to his preparation and insatiable appetite to be in the thick of the action.
The staff feels it has a worthy successor to Boyett at free safety in 5-11, 208-pound sophomore Erick Dargan. As a rookie, he saw action in nine games, making 15 tackles. He’s an aggressive ball-hawk, but needs to play with more consistency, and overcome last year’s knee woes.
The biggest hole that needs to be filled is at rover, a position played exceedingly by Eddie Pleasant in 2011. The battle to replace him will focus on 5-10, 202-pound junior Brian Jackson and 5-10, 185-pound junior Avery Patterson. Jackson has the all-around predatory skills and mindset to succeed at this position, but must prove he can remain healthy for an entire year. In 2011, he was limited to just 27 tackles, which is far below his potential. Patterson is coming off a building block season in which he started a game, and finished fifth on the team with 55 tackles. Smaller, yet much quicker than Jackson, he plays with the speed of some cornerbacks.
The Ducks feel confident about their situation at the corners—now and for the next couple of seasons. Sophomore Terrance Mitchell put down the ground floor of what appears to be a promising career in Eugene. After eliminating some early growing pains, he went on to start a dozen games, making 45 stops, two picks and team-highs with 12 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The 6-0, 185-pounder has good size to go along with the swagger and confidence of a future lockdown cover guy.
The coaches are also excited about the future of 5-10, 190-pound sophomore Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who played exceptionally well off the bench in 2011. Ever-active in the secondary, he made 34 stops as a rookie, while breaking up eight passes. A top recruit from a year ago, he’s in many ways the anti-Mitchell. While his defensive backfield mate plays with an attitude, Ekpre-Olomu lets his technique and fundamentals do the talking.
The third corner in the rotation figures to be 5-11, 167-pound sophomore Troy Hill, who started six games a year ago. He made 43 tackles and a pick, but will need to improve his consistency in coverage in order to move up another notch on the depth chart. While very quick, with a smooth backpedal, he’d benefit from the addition of a few more pounds of muscle.
Watch Out For … the evolution of the cornerbacks. Mitchell, Ekpre-Olomu and Hill have a lot in common: They’re all athletic sophomores, with very high ceilings in the defensive backfield. Now, the staff is hoping that the trio can evolve into more consistent playmakers at the same time, giving the Ducks an aerial defense system that’s tougher for opposing quarterbacks to penetrate.
Strength: Ball-hawking. Oregon continues to showcase outstanding ball skills from the secondary, jumping routes and creating momentum-changing turnovers. The defense has been no worse than second in the league in interceptions over the past two seasons, picking off 38 in 2010 and 2011 combined.
Weakness: Red-zone breakdowns. Yeah, it’s the Pac-12, and opponents tend to pile up numbers on Oregon in comeback mode, but the Ducks still need to reduce their number of touchdown passes allowed. The team yielded 25 a year ago, fourth highest in the league, including 16 over the final six games. No, it’s not a level of futility that the offense can’t overcome, but it does need to be addressed this fall.
Outlook: The Ducks should be better against the pass in 2012, especially if either Jackson or Patterson can adequately supplant Pleasant at rover. Boyett is a rock at free safety, who makes those around him better. And the triplets at cornerback, Mitchell, Ekpre-Olomu and Hill are going to be fun to watch now that their rookie years are in the rear view mirror.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Oregon was supposed to sport one of the Pac-12’s best special teams units, and did not disappoint. More of the same is anticipated this season. Senior Rob Beardreturns as the program’s placekicker, a position far more accustomed to one-pointers than three-point attempts. He’s attempting to rebound from an injury-ravaged 2011 that limited him to just a pair of converted field goal attempts. While Beard healed his quadriceps, junior Alejandro Maldonado was inconsistent, hitting just 7-of-12 field goal tries. Beard has the bigger leg and more experience, but needs to prove that he can stay healthy.
In senior Jackson Rice, the Ducks boast a top-flight punter, a returning All-Pac-12 second-teamer. The 6-3, 225-pounder averaged just 46 yards a punt, which would have ranked No. 6 nationally had he qualified with enough attempts. Though used sparingly on the same team as the Oregon offense, he’s a key weapon providing field position support for the D.
Although the pecking order has yet to be established in the return game, Oregon will have no dearth of dangerous weapons, such as junior Josh Huff, senior Kenjon Barner and sophomore De’Anthony Thomas. Thomas has a very short fuse on kickoffs, averaging 27.3 yards on kickoffs, while taking a pair back for touchdowns.
Watch Out For … Beard’s health. Not only did he have the quad issue last season, but his back was bothering him in the spring as well. Although the program can certainly survive with an average placekicker, Beard gives the team a lot more consistency to go along with much better range.
Strength: The return men. The Ducks kickoff and punt returners are essentially an extensive of an offense that thrives off of explosive plays through the defense. Thomas is poster boy for the group, firing up the jets needed to strike fear into the hearts of opposing special teams coaches. In just his second year on campus, he’s already one of the most dangerous return men in America.
Weakness: Covering punts. While not a major concern in Eugene, considering the infrequency of punts, it was one of the relatively weak areas of special teams a year ago. The team would like to tighten up its coverage this fall after ranking just 67st nationally in punt coverage defense.
Outlook: One of the unheralded reasons for Oregon’s success over the past few years, special teams continues to be a strength in Eugene. The kickers are capable, the punter is a weapon and the returners are capable of changing the tempo of a game. All eyes will be on Thomas, who is so combustible that he’ll make the other team alter the way it approaches kickoffs.
Unit Rating: 9
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