The Oregon Ducks have become well known for many things over the past 15 years. Of all the things they are known for, the one thing that has helped more than anything over the past few seasons is a major upgrade on the defensive side of the ball.
Ye, the Oregon Ducks have a defense. A fast, aggressive and vastly improved defense that doesn't get nearly enough credit. Oregonlive.com's Jason Quick has a nice piece on Nick Aliotti and the Ducks defense chasing greatness.
Long-time defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has always been a highly regarded coach, but he has taken the Ducks to another level in recent years. His aggressive style of selling out to stop the run sometimes leaves Oregon's secondary vulnerable to the big play through the air. Aliotti's dedication to his style of defense and his vision for what it could become nearly cost him his job as the Ducks defense left a lot to be desired in the early part of the last decade.
The Ducks had some great players, but lacked the overall depth of athletes in the back seven. Aliotti was feeling the pressure, but he stuck to his guns.
Once Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly got the Ducks rolling with a new recruiting philosophy, placing a heavy emphasis on athleticism and speed, Aliotti was able to design an even more aggressive style that emphasized a deep rotation. He really had no choice because of the Ducks' fast-break offense that gives their defense about five seconds of rest before heading back out on the field.
The new philosophy directed the Oregon coaches to look for athletes that could move around and play a number of positions depending on need—it meant players switching from offense to defense in order to maximize their potential. That was something new for the Ducks, as they had almost exclusively done the exact opposite to load up on offense.
Dion Jordan signed with the Ducks as a wide receiver before being moved to tight end. After he made no impact on that side of the ball, Aliotti insisted he make the move to the Ducks' hybrid position that requires a big athlete to rush the passer and drop into coverage.
There have been some other cases of position changes, but after becoming a star and the third pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Jordan is the poster child for the new era of Oregon's defense. His story gives recruits hope if their initial plans don't work out.
Over the past three seasons, Aliotti has turned athletes like Jordan loose to create an aggressive unit that has made a name for itself, despite the overwhelming spotlight on offensive teammates.
The Ducks will never have the best defensive numbers because they face more plays than almost any other program. Sure, the numbers are skewed against them, but the most important statistic for a defense will always be forced turnovers. The Ducks seem to have that part down pat.
The secondary is among the best in the country with a pair of future NFL cornerbacks locking down the outside and a trio of veteran safeties that will challenge for all-league honors.
With Aliotti having the benefit of two shutdown corners in juniors Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, he has a blank canvas to create confusion for the opposing offense. The entire secondary can cover the pass at a very high level and are just as tough in run support.
Speaking of covering the field and helping to stop the run, there was some concern about the Ducks linebackers coming into the season after the loss of leading tackler Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, who was taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Boseko Lokombo is a standout returning starter and the young group of linebackers, led by Derrick Malone, has been better than expected in the early part of the season.
The Ducks have improved the up front the most. After all the talk of Oregon being too small, too thin and not productive enough to handle a powerful pro-style offense, the Ducks defensive line is as talented as it ever has been. They are not only talented, they are also very deep.
With both checking in over 300 pounds, seniors Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli give the Ducks two powerful anchors in the middle. Senior Taylor Hart, who led the team with eight sacks in 2012, is back as the leader of the group and plays both end and tackle for the Ducks. Junior defensive end Tony Washington has emerged in 2013 and seems to be a star in the making.
The young guys up front give the Ducks the depth of talent that has been severely lacking for years. 6'8", 285-pound Arik Armstead, 6'7", 286-pound DeForest Buckner and 6'4", 297-pound Alec Balducci were all high school all-Americans that can play inside or outside for the Ducks without there being much drop off from the starters.
The deepest front line in years, a fast attacking group of linebackers and a truly elite secondary have allowed the Ducks to create seven turnovers in three games thus far. The Ducks would likely have more if not for their starters having played around 50 percent of the time through three games. Even with a 2.33 turnovers-per-game average, the Ducks aren't on pace to match the past three seasons.
Defensive numbers are important, but what really matters is that you have good numbers in the right statistical categories. Yes, the Ducks give up more yards than a traditional defensive power like Alabama, but the Ducks' turnover margin, sack totals, tackles-for-loss and yards-per-play against them are comparable to the nation's best.
Between 2010 and 2012 the Ducks forced 106 turnovers, which included a nation-leading 63 interceptions in that time period. The Ducks were second in the country with 37 turnovers forced in 2010, 19th in 2011 with 29 turnovers forced and led the country in 2012 with 40 forced turnovers.
It's not just the turnovers that make the Ducks a threat on defense.
The Ducks 2010 defense was busy disrupting the backfield and racking up 33 sacks, which is good for 21st in the country and 96 tackles-for-loss—10th nationally. They led the country with 81 passes broken up and 102 passes defended, while also tallying 21 interceptions and 17th forced fumbles, making them sixth and 12th in the nation, respectively.
In 2011, they broke up 74 passes out of 91 passes defended, and 16 forced fumbles to become 21st nationally. The unit also racked up 45 sacks becoming third in the country and 96 TFL, good for 19th nationally.
Last season the Ducks were 35th nationally with 84 TFL and 44th in sacks with 28. Those numbers weren't as impressive as the two years prior, but when the Ducks needed to, their defense stepped up to the challenge. The Ducks ranked first in interceptions with 25, second in passes defended with 87, 11th in passes broken up and ninth in forced fumbles with 18.
Here is the Ducks' NFL Draft breakdown since the turn of the century. It might come as a surprise to many that the Ducks have sent nearly as many players from the defensive side of the ball as they have offensive players.
The Ducks' most decorated NFL player is from the defensive side of the ball. Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is a five-time All-Pro and Super Bowl champion. Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd was the runner-up for NFL Rookie-of-the-Year after leading the league in interceptions in 2009, and has twice been named to the Pro Bowl.
It is easy to become awestruck by the Oregon offense when watching the Ducks play, but keep a close look on the defense from here on out and you can see the major upgrades at work. They might give up some yards—and they might give up some garbage points—but the Oregon defense has the size, strength and talent that used to keep them from being taken seriously by national pundits.
It's a new era in Eugene and the defense wants people to know it. We all know about the offense. Now it's time to see if the defense has what it takes to help lead the program to its first national championship.