2010 Oregon Preview – Defense
Oregon DT Brandon Bair
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Oregon Duck Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What you need to know: Forget for a moment the players that'll fill the Oregon two-deep. The single most important individual on defense is coordinator Nick Aliotti, who perennially does more with less. While the Haloti Ngata-type talent arrives in Eugene infrequently, the Ducks are often a feisty, attacking group that'll make big plays. Last season, for instance, they overcame some key injuries in the secondary and a dearth of true star power to lead the Pac-10 in sacks and rank a respectable fourth in total and scoring D. So, despite concerns about the interior of the line and the corners, don't be surprised if Aliotti's kids exceed preseason forecasts. This year's strength will come from speedy edge rusher Kenny Rowe, linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, and a deep and active collection of safeties. While physical teams could succeed against this group, the Ducks will continue to get their pound of flesh—and a slew of sacks and takeaways as well.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Casey Matthews
Tackles: John Boyett, 90
Sacks: Kenny Rowe, 11.5
Interceptions: Talmadge Jackson, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Cliff Harris
Unsung star on the rise: Junior ROV Eddie Pleasant
Best pro prospect: Matthews
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Senior DE Kenny Rowe, 2) Matthews, 3) Sophomore FS John Boyett
Strength of the defense: Speed off the edge, creating turnovers, the linebackers, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Interior of the line, the cornerbacks, red zone stops
Projected Starters: The biggest concern on the line will be replacing end Will Tukuafu, an all-star and veteran leader. With no easy solution in sight, the staff is pinning its hopes on 6-7, 223-pound sophomore Dion Jordan, who spent last season as a reserve tight end. His athleticism and size are beyond criticism, but how will he adapt to a new position or hold up in run defense? Fast out of the blocks, he'll rely on his natural tools until the pass rushing fundamentals and technique become second nature.
The far more certain option on the outside will be 6-3, 232-pound senior Kenny Rowe, an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection in his first year as a starter. Yes, he's built like an outside linebacker, but he also moves like one, exploding past tackles in 2009 for 43 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. A classic pin-your-ears-back speed rusher, he schooled the Ohio State blockers in the Rose Bowl, registering four stops for loss and three sacks.
The rock on the inside is 6-7, 268-pound senior Brandon Bair, the long-armed tackle in an end's body. A three-time letterwinner, he stood out in his starting debut, leading all linemen with 45 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. Destined to become the new vocal leader of this group, he's not your typical college kid, having already served a church mission and started a family.
Though not quite anointed yet, the favorite to line up next to Bair at tackle is 6-2, 260-pound senior Zac Clark, the second-year transfer from Butler (Kans.) Community College. He played in all 13 games in his first season in Eugene, making 18 stops and a tackle behind the line. While not ideally sized for the interior, he has a great motor and the quickness to get penetration before running plays can develop.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Jordan hard for a starting assignment is 6-3, 255-pound junior Terrell Turner. He has the obvious edge in thickness needed for run support and experience, making 21 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks in 2009. He's grown into his frame since arriving, and is going to be difficult to keep on the bench in the fall.
If the staff wants more width and muscle on the inside, it could turn to 6-3, 288-pound redshirt freshman Wade Keliikipi, Clark's backup coming out of spring. He has a great motor and the upper body strength to occupy more than one blocker, an absolute must for the Oregon run defense this season.
Watch Out For … Rowe to be used in a multitude of different ways this fall. Because of his size and athleticism, the staff won't hesitate to drop him back in coverage on zone blitzes and stand him up in 3-4 formations. In this instance, his 6-3, 232-pound actually winds up being a plus for the Duck D.
Strength: Speed off the edge. In Rowe and Jordan, Oregon harbors a pair of premier athletes, who'll give opposing tackles fits throughout the season. If Rowe sees enough man blocking in 2010, the Ducks are capable of leading the Pac-10 in sacks for a second straight season.
Weakness: Run defense. There were too many times last season that the defensive line was mauled at the point of attack, creating wide running lanes for opposing runners. The Ducks want to close off those gateways, but the ends are undersized and who steps up after Bair on the interior? Physical running teams could have their way with Oregon once again this season.
Outlook: While Rowe and Bair have all-star ceilings, this will continue to be a marginal unit that puts a lot of weight on the linebackers and safeties. More help is needed at both positions in the fall, or else the defense will be especially vulnerable against blue-collar ground games.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Projected Starters: The linebackers are in such good shape, Oregon is flirting with the idea of moving starter Eddie Pleasant to safety, creating an opening at strongside for 6-3, 217-pound junior Josh Kaddu. A letterman in each of the last two seasons, he'd made 21 tackles and was challenging for more playing time last fall before breaking his foot and requiring surgery. Still a little light, he fits the mold of the prototypical Duck linebacker, covering lots of ground and displaying the athleticism and range to be employed in many different ways.
Flanking Kaddu at weakside is 6-3, 226-pound senior Spencer Paysinger, who's entering his third season as the starter. As former wide receivers go, he's made a seamless transition to defense, earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 after making 81 stops, eight tackles for loss, and seven pass breakups. He's added weight over time without losing a step, bringing the straight-line speed and toughness that's needed to defend the pass as well as the run.
The star of the group is 6-2, 235-pound senior Casey Matthews, a reigning member of the All-Pac-10 second team. Like Paysinger, he also had 81 tackles, adding 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and six breakups. Tailor-made for the middle, he's instinctive and fundamentally sound, reading and reacting as fast as any of his teammates. Coming from a long line of family members who've played in the NFL, his ability to diagnose and feel for the game are just a part of his hard drive.
Projected Top Reserves: The heir apparent to Paysinger at weakside is 5-11, 209-pound sophomore Michael Clay, who enjoyed a successful debut in Eugene. Making a smooth transition to Pac-10, he led all backups with 32 tackles. He goes full speed on every down, sifting through the traffic and taking on blockers in order to reach the man with the ball. He has one more year as an apprentice before taking over in 2011.
Providing occasional breathers for Matthews in the middle will be 5-11, 218-pound junior Dewitt Stuckey. Also a backup and special teamer a year ago, he appeared in seven games and made six tackles. However, a knee injury in the summer really thwarted his overall development. Despite his modest height, he plays much bigger than he looks and uses good pad level to take on heavier players.
Watch Out For … Kaddu's development. Ideally, he takes control of strongside, which would allow Pleasant to solidify the secondary. If, instead, he's a glaring weak link, it could force the staff to shuffle the deck and tinker with the back seven.
Strength: Sideline-to-sideline range. All of the Oregon linebackers have the requisite speed and quickness to make plays all over the field, but they've also got heaps of instinctive ability, a coveted combination. It all begins with Matthews and Paysinger, who do an outstanding job of quickly sniffing out the flow of the play and taking the right angles in pursuit of the ball.
Weakness: Strongside. Can Kaddu cut it and keep other teams from trying to expose his inexperience? He has some big shoes to fill, and the bar has been set rather high by Matthews and Paysinger. If the junior is lagging behind the pack, it's going to leap off the film on Sunday afternoons.
Outlook: If the staff wasn't completely confident about this unit, it wouldn't have jettisoned Pleasant to the secondary. Matthews and Paysinger are terrific building blocks on the second level of defense, and Kaddu should find his sea legs at some point before the middle of the season.
Unit Rating: 8
Projected Starters: Although the Ducks lose three defensive backs to graduation, they'd grown accustomed to being without two of them, Walter Thurmond and Willie Glasper, in 2009. However, the fact that 6-0, 175-pound true freshman Terrance Mitchell was atop the depth chart at one cornerback spot should sound the warning sirens. Although the team loves his size and potential as a cover guy, he'll have to prove he can swim in the deep end of the pool in August and September in order to maintain this spot. Stay tuned to what should be one of the more interesting position battles of the summer.
The veteran among the cornerbacks is 5-10, 182-pound senior Talmadge Jackson, who did a serviceable job as the starter last season. Although his natural position is safety, he finished with 50 tackles and team-highs with four interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He has great wheels and will pack a punch in run defense, but needs to avoid getting caught looking and letting the play get behind him.
Assuming he's found a home, the new rover will be 5-11, 207-pound junior Eddie Pleasant, last year's starting strongside linebacker. He showed a fair amount of playmaking ability in 2009, making 54 stops, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, and three fumble recoveries. Ideally suited for this hybrid role, he has the blend of size, speed, and toughness needed to handle this multi-faceted position.
The biggest surprise of 2009 also happens to be the Ducks' best defensive back heading into the current season. Coming virtually out of nowhere, sophomore John Boyett went from backup free safety in August to the team's leading tackler by the time the season had ended. At just 5-10 and 190 pounds, he may not look like a leading man, but he performed like a Freshman All-American, making 90 stops, three picks, and eight breakups. Primarily a quarterback in high school, he plays the game fast and has a nose for the ball.
Projected Top Reserves: In the event Boyett needs a break, veteran Marvin Johnson will be ready to fill the void at free safety. The 5-11, 200-pound senior has all kinds of experience, earning three letters and playing in 35 career games. He made a personal-best 29 tackles a year ago, and has the package of size and speed needed to perform in this role.
When the Ducks needed to go to the bench last fall, 6-1, 185-pound junior Javes Lewis delivered beyond anyone's expectations. Poised to re-enter the lineup if Pleasant moves back to linebacker, the new backup rover started 12 games in 2009, and had 78 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two picks, and three forced fumbles. A very active and physical defender, he is prone to being exposed in pass coverage when relegated to an island.
Watch Out For … the progress of 5-11, 170-pound sophomore CB Cliff Harris. Conspicuously absent from the post-spring two-deep, he still has the lockdown potential to climb back into contention for a job, especially after playing so well as a rookie. If he can stay focused—on and away from the field—there's no reason why he can't climb the depth chart by September.
Strength: The safeties. Now that Pleasant has joined Boyett, Johnson, and Lewis, the Ducks boast three starters, with the punch to knock the stuffing out of receivers. By the end of the season, this two-deep has the skills and potential to make as many big plays as any group in the Pac-10.
Weakness: The corners. As it stands right now, Jackson is a better fit at safety and Mitchell is a few months removed from high school. It's incumbent upon the likes of Harris and Anthony Gildon to improve the depth chart and raise the overall level of play at the corners.
Outlook: In two seasons, the Oregon secondary has lost a ton of talent, yet played surprisingly well a year ago. Can it pull a repeat performance in 2010? The safeties will do their part, but the cornerbacks remain a question mark. Jackson will be steady, but Harris could hold the key to how well the unit regroups in the fall.
Unit Rating: 7
Projected Starters: Sophomore Rob Beard has the inside track on the placekicking job vacated by Morgan Flint. Just don't expect to see him in the opener. He's already been suspended for harassment for the first game, which could put true freshman Alejandro Maldonado in a position to impress the staff. No one doubts the leg strength of Beard, who was the kickoff specialist in 2009, but he still needs to show that he can kick with accuracy, especially inside 40 yards. If he can't, Maldonado will quickly enter the spotlight.
Sophomore Jackson Rice will reprise his role as the team's punter after debuting with a 40.3-yard average and improving with his directional kicks. The 6-3, 217-pounder has a big leg and the technique to evolve into an all-star at some point in his Duck career.
After Walter Thurmond was injured, sophomore Kenjon Barner filled in nicely in the return game, averaging 24.9 yards on kickoffs and 10.5 yards on punts to earn All-Pac-10 honorable mention. He'll again be the focal point of this unit, getting occasional help from sophomore Cliff Harris.
Watch Out For … Maldonado. Beard has had a trying offseason, which has included facial surgery, opening the door for the rookie to grab the opening. In all likelihood, he'll get a chance to audition in an opening day blowout, and possibly hold on to the job for much longer than one game.
Strength: The return men. This continues to be the high point of the Oregon special teams, thanks to the speed and explosiveness of Barner. The Ducks were 10th nationally on kickoffs and 27th on punt returns, providing a little more horsepower to an already potent offense.
Weakness: Placekicker. Flint was near perfect on field goals last season. In his place comes complete uncertainty. Beard is an unknown facing a suspension and Maldonado is a high school grad. In a best case scenario, the Ducks will continue to rely on the kicker mainly for extra points.
Outlook: If Oregon can solidify the situation at placekicker, the one glaring concern, this unit won't have many issues to complain about. Barner is a weapon in the return game, Rice is one of the Pac-10's best young punters, and the coverage teams had few leaks last fall.
Unit Rating: 8
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