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2009 Oregon Preview - Defense
Oregon CB Walter Thurmond
Oregon CB Walter Thurmond
Posted Jul 8, 2009 2009 Preview - Oregon Duck Defense

Oregon Ducks

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 Oregon Preview | 2009 Oregon Offense
- 2009 Oregon Defense | 2009 Oregon Depth Chart
- 2008 Oregon Preview | 2007 Oregon Preview | 2006 Oregon Preview 

What you need to know: While Oregon isn’t exactly known for defense, Nick Aliotti continues to put forth a high-pressure, high-intensity unit that’ll give up yards, but also get the ball back to the offense in a hurry. This season will be no different. Aliotti has at least one all-star candidate at each level, but there are question marks. The standouts will be Will Tukuafu at defense end, Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews at linebacker, and Walter Thurmond and T.J. Ward in the secondary. However, there are some noticeable holes on the first and last lines of defense that’ll have to be addressed before the opener. The Ducks need a replacement for sack artist Nick Reed and must tighten their coverage in pass defense. This program can win shootouts, but would prefer it not be mandatory…or weekly.     

Returning Leaders
Tackles: T.J. Ward, 101
Sacks: Will Tukuafu, 7.5
Interceptions: Walter Thurmond, 5

Star of the defense: Senior CB Walter Thurmond
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Kenny Rowe
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Casey Matthews
Best pro prospect: Thurmond
Top three all-star candidates: 1) DE Will Tukuafu, 2) Thurmond, 3) LB Spencer Paysinger
Strength of the defense: Generating Pressure, Linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Red Zone Defense, Interior Of The Line

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Much like the offensive line, the Duck defensive line has endured some major hits as well. Gone are three starters, including perennial All-Pac-10 end Nick Reed. The new headliner up front will be 6-4, 272-pound senior Will Tukuafu, who is all set to step outside of Reed’s shadow. He broke through in a big way as a junior, making 59 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. At his size, he has the strength and heavy hands to stop the run like a tackle, yet is obviously quick enough to get penetration and makes stops for minus yards.

On the opposite side, 6-3, 215-pound junior Kenny Rowe is a completely different player than Tukuafu. Smaller than even the linebackers, he’s built for speed and explosive pressure from the edge. While he’s yet to even approach his potential, and only had 10 tackles with no sacks in 2008, the opportunity is there for him to become a force coming around the corner.    

While both of the inside guys are going to be new, 6-7, 250-pound junior Brandon Bair looked like anything but a novice in the offseason. A reserve up to this point, he locked down a job in April, showing good quickness and the ability to obstruct passing lanes with his long wingspan. Still, he’ll have to learn to play with better leverage on the interior and keep from getting knocked off his base.

After appearing in seven games in his debut out of City College of San Francisco, 6-6, 290-pound senior Blake Ferras is in line for the other starting tackle job. He has the size and thickness that this unit is crazing on the inside, yet also has the requisite quickness and burst off the snap to make occasional stops behind the line.    

Projected Top Reserves: The Ducks are going to rely on a couple of JUCO transfers to bolster questionable depth on the defensive line. At tackle, 6-2, 291-pound junior Terrance Montgomery has moved up to the spot behind Bair in his first year removed from Reedley (Calif.) College. Although he still needs to prove it in the Pac-10, he has the size, quickness, and leverage to have an immediate impact.

On the outside, 6-2, 256-pound junior Zac Clark has also moved up the pecking order shortly after his arrival. For now, he’ll learn behind Tukuafu while digesting the playbook and adding muscle in the weight room. He played in plenty of important games at Butler (Kans.) Community College, and has the contagious motor that’ll conjure up memories of Reed. 

Watch Out For… Rowe to be one of this year’s pleasant surprises. He may be more of a situational guy than an every-down end, but on pure speed and get-off alone, he’ll be a nuisance for Pac-10 tackles, especially with Tukuafu garnering so much attention on the other side.
Strength: The pass rush. No, it won’t be the same without Reed on campus, but Oregon still has enough talent on the outside to be among the league’s best sack units. Although they’ll travel different paths to get to the quarterback, Tukuafu and Rowe will have a lot of meetings in the backfield this fall.
Weakness: The interior. The run defense wasn’t supposed to be good last fall, yet Oregon managed to finish second in the Pac-10, so there’s hope. However, the concerns about the tackles are legitimate and could get exposed by teams that can run with authority. Bair is built like an end and Ferras played sparingly in his first year out of JUCO.
Outlook: With Tukuafu setting the tone and Rowe coming into his own, Oregon won’t experience as much of a pass rushing drop-off that so many are predicting. However, the Ducks are going to be vulnerable on the inside of the line, regularly rotating tackles in an attempt to plug holes in the run defense. 
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: Despite the loss of two seniors to graduation, the program is very comfortable with its holdovers at linebacker. At weakside, 6-3, 216-pound junior Spencer Paysinger really took off in his first year as a starter, making 95 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, two sacks, and eight pass breakups. A former wide receiver and dynamite all-around athlete, he has the range to make stops all over the field and the closing speed to be like another safety in pass defense.

Everyone kind of figured 6-2, 235-pound junior Casey Matthews was going to be a good one, but he pushed the timetable up a year, while shoving a senior out of the starting lineup. Playing like an old pro in his first year as the starter in the middle, he racked up 67 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. Instinctive and fundamentally sound, he diagnoses plays extremely well and gets to the ball as fast as any other Duck defender.

The new starter in the lineup will be 5-11, 223-pound sophomore Eddie Pleasant, a top reserve and special teams standout a year ago. He cut his teeth with 16 tackles a year ago, showing glimpses of the speed and strength that had previously only coming out on the practice squad. In the spring, he looked ready to fill the void at strongside left by Jerome Boyd’s graduation.

Projected Top Reserves: It’s a good thing 6-1, 227-pound junior Bryson Littlejohn is already on campus because he’ll be used frequently in his maiden fall out of Sierra (Calif.) Community College. A JUCO All-American in 2008, he has the raw physical ability and closing speed to be a major factor once he gets more comfortable in his assignments.

Sophomore Dewitt Stuckey was forced off the sidelines as a true freshman, appearing in six games out of necessity. It was bad news for the Ducks, who wanted to redshirt him, but good news for the rookie as he heads into his second year. While just 5-11 and 222 pounds, he plays much bigger than his size, exploding on impact and rarely missing a tackle.

Watch Out For… the linebackers to live in opposing backfields. Paysinger and Matthews provided a blueprint of this group’s potential last year, routinely sifting through traffic and making first contact before a play could develop. With a year of experience in the vault, their ability to wreak havoc will be raised a notch or two.
Strength: Range. The Ducks have the requisite speed and quickness to make stops all over the field, but they’ve also got wads of instinctive ability, a lethal combination. It all starts with Matthews and Paysinger, who do a tremendous job of quickly diagnosing the flow of the play and taking the right angles in pursuit of the ball.
Weakness: Inexperience on the B team. It’s a minor knock, assuming the starters remain healthy, but the fall off to the second unit is pretty steep. At least in terms of this level, Stuckey is now the veteran, and he’s just a little over a year removed from his high school graduation. 
Outlook: Whatever the first line of defense misses, which could be a lot, this group of aggressive, instinctive linebackers will be there to clean up. Paysinger and Matthews are budding standouts on the verge of becoming Pac-10 all-stars. If Pleasant is as good in the fall as he was in the spring, this could be the backbone of the Duck D.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: The secondary won’t be looking to replace just any defensive backs. Both CB Jairus Byrd and rover Patrick Chung were first team All-Pac-10 stalwarts. It’s a good thing that 6-0, 180-pound senior corner Walter Thurmond has one more year of eligibility remaining because he’s the new stopper of this group. A next-level cornerback, with eye-popping speed and three years of starting experience, he’s the type of defensive playmaker opposing quarterbacks prefer to avoid. He makes sudden breaks on the ball and knows what to do when it’s in his hands. He had 66 tackles, five picks, and 13 passes defended, an off year related to nagging injuries.

The spot opposite Thurmond is going to be very closely watched. Coming out of spring, the edge belonged to veteran Willie Glasper, a 5-11, 188-pound senior with three letters and 39 games of experience. Primarily a backup and special teams standout, he’s finally getting a chance to show off his cover skills to interested pro scouts. He’s had at least 20 tackles in each of the last two years, including 19 solo stops in 2008.

The catalyst at safety will once be 5-11, 201-pound senior T.J. Ward, a revelation in his first season as the starter. He delivered a team-high 101 tackles and 5.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, always wrapping up and often packing the punch of a linebacker. A former walk-on, he’s become an enforcer of the secondary, but would be even more effective if he didn’t go for the knockout so often.

Supplanting Chung at rover will be 5-10, 182-pound junior Talmadge Jackson, another burner in the secondary. Although he’s built like a corner and moves like a corner, he can also deliver the payload like a safety. In fact, as a reserve last season, he made 30 tackles, including 20 solos, to go along with six passes defended and two picks.

Projected Top Reserves: Although the coaching staff really likes the upside of 5-11, 199-pound junior rover  Marvin Johnson, he’s taking it slow in the offseason as he recovers from knee surgery. He has the right combination of speed and power for the position, laying a foundation with 14 tackles and a fumble recovery last season.

In his first season of action, 6-1, 185-pound sophomore Javes Lewis did enough to earn a spot in the rotation while becoming the heir apparent to Ward at free safety. He has 19 tackles and three passes defended, showing off the size and the hips to eventually be a playmaker in pass coverage.

Watch Out For… Thurmond to recapture his sophomore form. Last year was a rough one for the corner. He never really was healthy and his production predictably fell. Now that he’s fine and a career in the NFL awaits, he’ll play like he did in 2006 and 2007, batting down a ton of balls and making quarterbacks pay for testing him.
Strength: Experience. Even with the departures of Chung and Byrd to the NFL, Oregon will have three seniors and a junior filling out the depth chart. In a league that’s not shy about going up top, it’s a luxury having upperclassmen littered throughout the secondary.
Weakness: Softness in coverage. The Ducks yielded a ton of yards last year, in part because they also saw far more passes than any other Pac-10 team. However, they also allowed more touchdown passes than any league team and were just seventh in yards per completion.
Outlook: You don’t get better by losing Chung and Byrd, a couple of perennial all-stars. Now, there’s talent, like Thurmond and Ward still left in the cupboard, but Oregon is still going to be vulnerable through the air this season versus opponents like Boise State, USC, and Arizona.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: With the losses of kicker Matt Evensen and placekicker Josh Syria, the Oregon special teams could become an adventure this season unless some of the young kids are ready to deliver. For the time being, senior Morgan Flint is the man to beat at placekicker.  He actually performed rather consistently in place of Evensen late last season, hitting 7-of-9 field goal attempts and all 28 of his extra points. However, his range is questionable and he was erratic throughout the spring.

Jackson Rice has yet to get on campus, but has already been installed as the top punter over junior Tim Taylor. The 6-3, 225-pound true freshman was considered by many to be tops in the nation at his combination, using his size and leg strength to drive the ball.

The return game gets back senior  Walter Thurmond to handle kick returns, but needs to find a replacement for Jairus Byrd at punt returner. Thurmond was third in the Pac-10 with a 25-yard average, and will also spell the new frontrunner on punts, speedy redshirt freshman Kenjon Barner.

Watch Out For… incoming freshman PK Mike Bowlin. Could Oregon go with two true freshmen kicking specialists? It’s possible. Bowlin, like Rice, was one of the country’s premier prep kickers, a strong-legged recruit, who can connect beyond 50 yards and reach the end zone on kickoffs. He’s going to push Flint beginning in August.
Strength: The return men. Thurmond, Barner, and junior Jamere Holland all have the breakaway speed and acceleration to crank out momentum-changing returns. Thurmond is one of the best in the Pac-10, and Barner showed potential when given a chance in the spring.  
Weakness: The coverage teams. For the third year in-a-row, the Ducks were a little shaky in coverage, especially on punts. They finished 80th nationally in punt return yardage defense, yielding more than 10 yards a return.

Outlook: With the preponderance of talent at linebacker and defensive back, Oregon should be fine overall on special teams. However, extending beyond average could require one or both of the true freshmen to play beyond his years this fall. Any problems with the punter or placekicker could cost the Ducks a game or two this fall.
: 7