2013 Oregon Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Oregon Duck Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What you need to know: Somewhat overshadowed during Oregon's recent run of excellence have been the contributions of Nick Aliotti's defense. Take last season, for instance. The Ducks led the country with 40 takeaways, while only allowing 21 points per game. Oh, and some of those points yielded came when backups were on the field during the second half of Oregon routs. A healthy number of starters return from the 2012 edition, though Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay must be replaced in the front seven. As the linebackers adjust to fresh faces, the Ducks will put a little more of their weight on an imposing D-line and one of college football's most disruptive secondaries. DE Taylor Hart leads a three-man front that averages just under 300 pounds, and features three seniors. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the centerpiece of a frenetic defensive backfield that'll encourage opposing teams to test the Ducks' ability to stop the run as they breaks in new starters at the second level.
Star of the defense: Junior CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
Tackles: Brian Jackson, 69
Sacks: Taylor Hart, 8
Interceptions: Erick Dargan, 5
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Tony Washington
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Tyson Coleman
Best pro prospect: Ekpre-Olomu
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Ekpre-Olomu, 2) Senior DE Taylor Hart, 3) Junior CB Terrance Mitchell
Strength of the defense: Takeaways, the pass defense, team athleticism, limiting big plays, third-down D, red-zone D
Weakness of the defense: Linebacker, proven edge rushers, run-stuffing
Two quality starters, particularly DE Dion Jordan, must be replaced. Fortunately, a couple of cornerstone veterans return to the front four. Senior DE Taylor Hart continues to make a name for himself in Eugene, despite relative anonymity everywhere else. Ideally suited to play strongside end, the 6-6, 292-pounder is the kind of blue-collar workaholic that the staff adores at Oregon. Big, strong and relentless, Hart has the long arms and heavy hands to shoo aside opposing blockers. The two-time honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection reached new levels of production in 2012 with 36 tackles, 11 stops behind the line and a team-high eight sacks.
Next to Hart will be his veteran partner from the inside, senior NG Wade Keliikipi. The 6-3, 295-pound two-year starter was also named honorable mention All-Pac-12 a year ago, making 20 stops, four tackles for loss and two sacks in a season reduced by injury to only 10 games. The classic run-stuffer in the middle of the line, Keliikipi uses a strong base and upper body to occupy multiple blockers, allowing the linebackers to come down from the second level to make stops on running plays.
The third senior up front is DT Ricky Havili-Heimuli, a powerful 6-4, 305-pounder on the interior of the line. He's played 39 games for the Ducks, posting 18 tackles a season ago. Even after trimming down and improving his conditioning, he remains an immovable object who's capable of absorbing more than one blocker on a given play.
Replacing Jordan at "drop end", a hybrid of an outside linebacker and a pass rusher will be next to impossible. First in line to fill the shoes of the first-round draft choice will be 6-3, 244-pound junior Tony Washington. More steady than spectacular, especially with Jordan as the latest standard-bearer, Washington has lettered in the last two seasons, while making a career-high 20 tackles in 2012.
The Ducks are gushing with young potential off the bench. While three seniors are expected to start, a swath of talented sophomores are working hard to be the successors. DeForest Buckner is the 6-7, 265-pound caddy for Hart at defensive end. In just his first year, he made 29 tackles and 2.5 stops for loss. Christian French is pushing Washington for reps at "drop end". At 6-5 and 242 pounds, French looks and moves an awful lot like a young Jordan. When 6-8, 280-pound DT Arik Armstead chose Oregon in 2012, he became one of the most heralded players to ever sign with the Ducks. He has an enormous ceiling in Eugene, beginning his career with 26 tackles. Finally, 6-4, 290-pound Alex Balducci is expected to provide breathers for Keliikipi at nose guard. Balducci played briefly last fall, but will gradually begin getting more opportunities this fall.
Watch Out For … the Ducks to employ more traditional 3-4 looks than in recent seasons. The "drop end" became such a fixture for the program in large part because of the unique ability of Jordan. However, now that Jordan has graduated, it's doubtful Oregon will be able to get similar production from the position. If Washington and French are ineffective, the staff might be inclined to make less use of the hybrid role.
Strength: Power and presence. The Ducks are again going to be enormous in the trenches. From the length of Hart, French and Armstead to the thickness and the 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 provides an athletic back seven with the time it needs to hunt down the ball.
Weakness: Consistent pressure. The Ducks were just 50th nationally in sacks a year ago, a result that could slide south now that Jordan is a Miami Dolphin. Hart does a terrific job of fighting through traffic en route to the quarterback, but he'll require more help this season from the opposite side of the line.
Outlook: The D-line may have lost its star power with the graduation of Jordan, but it's maintained its toughness, productivity and depth. In many ways, the Ducks boast an ideal situation, with three senior starters ahead of a wave of gifted underclassmen who are pressing for more playing time. Oregon will be stout at the point of attack, though someone needs to provide more pass rush support to Hart on the outside.
Unit Rating: 7
The Ducks have a little rebuilding to do at linebacker, where all-stars Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso have used up their eligibility. Senior Boseko Lokombo is now being tasked with leading the youthful group. The 6-3, 233-pound starter on the outside will be expected to take the next step after failing to get over the hump over the past couple of years. Last season, for instance, Lokombo only managed to make 39 tackles. Still, his 4.5 stops for loss, two sacks, two picks and six passes defended were evidence of his speed, range and general habit of making plays from the second level.
Inside linebackers Derrick Malone and Tyson Coleman are preparing to make the jump from key parts of the rotation to starters in 2013. Malone is a 6-2, 219-pounder, with the range and the quickness of some safeties. He earned a start a year ago, while finishing the season with 41 tackles and a pick. Coleman added 34 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss and a couple of passes defended. The 6-1, 222-pound sophomore closes in a hurry, a plus for the run defense and pass coverage.
Two of the primary backups on the inside will be 6-0, 215-pound sophomore Rahim Cassell and 6-1, 230-pound junior Rodney Hardrick. Both Ducks lettered as members of the defense and special teams in 2012. Cassell pitched in 19 tackles, while Hardrick added 11 in only nine games.
Watch Out For … newcomers to play a key role in the linebacker rotation. Joe Walker, a transfer from L.A. Harbor College, has already impressed the staff with his toughness and instincts on the inside. On the outside, four-star recruit Torrodney Prevot possesses the explosive first step and the long arms to become the kind of disruptive pass rusher that the staff covets.
Strength: Range and closing speed. Whether it's from the inside or the outside, the Ducks are flush with high-caliber athletes, with the sideline-to-sideline speed to make plays all over the field. They also display the athletic ability and agility to make an impact in any direction, attacking the backfield and dropping back seamlessly into pass coverage. Now that Malone and Coleman are joining Lokombo in the lineup, Oregon is poised to cover a lot of ground from the second level.
Weakness: Big bodies. The linebackers are small and quick, ideal for tracking down opposing players in every direction. But what happens when someone like Stanford is visiting? The starters will only average slightly more than 220 pounds, a problem when opponents go north-south on Oregon. The Ducks allowed slightly more than four yards a carry last fall, while yielding too many yards after contact.
Outlook: The Ducks are about to go somewhat in reverse at linebacker now that Alonso and Clay have graduated. The new starters will provide outstanding support to the pass defense, both in coverage and on blitzes. However, Oregon could be a little more susceptible on running plays if the new starters are unable to quickly read, react and make stops in the open field.
Unit Rating: 7
Yes, S John Boyett will be missed, but every other letterwinner returns from a secondary that picked off 26 passes, and finished No. 7 nationally in pass efficiency defense. The ringleader of the ball-hawking group will be junior CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is fresh off a breakout debut as a starter. The 5-10, 190-pound budding superstar made a sudden ascent to the All-Pac-12 First Team with 63 tackles, four picks and a league-best 20 passes defended and six forced fumbles. Much more than just a lockdown corner who's unafraid to lay the lumber on running plays, he also conducts himself with the right amount of maturity, swagger and confidence. The way Ekpre-Olomu closes and jumps routes, opposing quarterbacks will be encouraged to avoid whatever side of the field No. 14 is on.
Opponents will want to avoid Ekpre-Olomu at all cost, but it's not as if the Ducks' other corner, 6-0, 189-pound Terrance Mitchell is a pushover. The junior is about to enter his third season as a starter, picking up honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition last fall. While he was overshadowed by his teammates' gaudy stats, the 6-0, 189-pounder possesses outstanding coverage skills, with the long and lean body needed to match up with the Pac-12's taller receivers. Sure, Mitchell is looking for more money plays after making 40 tackles, eight pass breakups and no picks. But don't be fooled by the numbers; he's one of the league's best returning cornerbacks.
A backup when the 2012 season started, FS Avery Patterson sure performed like a starter after Boyett was lost to a knee injury in September. Ironically, Patterson would suffer a season-ending knee injury in November, but not before turning heads with his versatility and big-play ability. Despite missing one-quarter of the season, the 5-10, 185-pound playmaker had 44 tackles, three picks and six pass breakups. Two of Patterson's interceptions were returned for touchdowns, while his speed and wallops are bound to result in more turnovers this season. The program hopes to have the senior back at full-strength long before the start of the new season.
Strong safety will likely belong to 5-10, 205-pound senior Brian Jackson, who stepped in after Boyett was injured and played rather well. The hard-hitting defensive back, with the linebacker's mindset, finished third on the team with 69 tackles, adding two picks, nine passes defended and two fumble recoveries. Like so many of the players around him, Jackson has good instincts to go along with a high football IQ.
The Ducks could also go with 5-11, 195-pound Erick Dargan at strong safety without experiencing a drop-off in production. The junior didn't skip a beat after Patterson was injured, filling in admirably by making 54 tackles, three stops for loss, five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Dargan plays with a ball-hawk's mentality, and has shown that he can fill in at multiple positions. The first two cornerbacks off the bench will be 5-11, 180-pound junior Troy Hill and 5-9, 182-pound junior Dior Mathis. Hill started six games in 2011. A year ago, he came off the bench to make 26 tackles and get his hands on five throws. Mathis can fly, but has yet to fulfill his lofty potential. As a backup last fall, he had 16 tackles, two interceptions and five passes defended.
Watch Out For … Oregon to lead the country in pick-sixes. The Ducks have impeccable ball skills, the vision of running backs and a ton of opportunities to exploit quarterbacks heaving the ball during desperation mode. The result? A bunch of defensive plays that look like De'Anthony Thomas slicing through an overmatched kick coverage team.
Strength: Ball-hawking. The Ducks continue to showcase fantastic ball skills from the defensive backfield, jumping routes and creating momentum-changing turnovers. The defense has been no worse than second in the Pac-12 in interceptions over the past three seasons, picking off a nation's-high 26 balls in 2012.
Weakness: Red-zone consistency. Sure, it's the Pac-12, and opponents tend to pile up numbers on the Ducks in comeback mode, but Oregon would still like to reduce its number of touchdown passes allowed. The team yielded 19 scoring strikes in 2012, and 44 over the last two seasons. No, it's not a level of generosity that the offense can't overcome, but secondary coach John Neal will split hairs as long as he's allowed to be the group's barber.
Outlook: Maybe Oregon doesn't have the best defensive backfield in America, but it's not far from the top. The Ducks remain glued to receivers, turning errant throws—and even some that are on target—including tempo-changing takeaways. Ekpre-Olomu plays with the frenzy that Tyrann Mathieu used to in Baton Rouge, and the balance of the secondary is dotted with underrated veterans, some of whom have NFL futures. Quarterbacks can avoid Ekpre-Olomu's area of the field, but doing so will hardly guarantee uncongested throwing lanes.
Unit Rating: 9
PK Rob Beard has graduated. So, too, has P Jackson Rice. The Ducks will be doing some rebuilding on special this season. Senior Alejandro Maldonado is the veteran—and a contender for both positions, but a lack of accuracy and consistency has him lagging behind younger specialists. Three-star Matt Wogan, the nation's fifth-ranked placekicker, is expected lay the ground floor of a four-year starting career. He has a powerful leg and an effortless motion that helps make him accurate from all distances.
The favorite to succeed Rice is newcomer Dylan Ausherman, a transfer from the College of the Sequoias (Calif.). The lanky 6-3, 170-pounder largely earned his scholarship by consistently hanging the ball high in the air, resulting in plenty of fair catches.
The cupboard of playmakers in the return game will again be well-stocked. Junior De'Anthony Thomas is one of the most dangerous open-field threats at this level, averaging 17.1 yards on punts, 26.4 yards on kickoffs, and scoring four times during his career. Sophomore Bralon Addison and junior Keanon Lowe will also figure prominently into the return game in 2013.
Watch Out For … Wogan to get an opportunity to evolve at a modest pace. This is Eugene, a place where extra points are about five or six times more common than field goal attempts. The Ducks won games by an average of four touchdowns last fall, so it's unlikely that Wogan will be forced into many pressure-packed situations in his rookie season.
Strength: The return men. The Oregon kickoff and punt returners are essentially an extension of an offense that thrives off of sudden bursts and explosive plays through the defense. Thomas is the poster Duck for the group, firing up the jets needed to strike fear into the hearts of opposing special teams coaches. Few strike faster or with more lethal consequences than the Black Mamba.
Weakness: Young legs. Unless Maldonado suddenly and improbably emerges, the program is going to go with a kicker and a punter who've never worked before at this level. Now, both Wogan and Ausherman have high ceilings, but with no prior experience, occasional hiccups are going to be inevitable this fall.
Outlook: Oregon continues to do an underrated job on special teams, routinely doing the little things well that lead to championships. Thomas and his mates in the return game will again supply the electricity, compounding problems for opposing defenses. The importance of Wogan and Ausherman won't be apparent most weekends, but could surface in swing games with the likes of UCLA and Stanford.
Unit Rating: 8
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