EUGENE — After Oregon’s spring game, which was highlighted by Justin Herbert’s 327 yards passing and three touchdowns, first-year coach Willie Taggart acknowledged the defense has “nowhere to go but up” in 2017.
The man in charge of the elevator, Jim Leavitt, understands it will be a slow and sometimes frustrating ride.
With Brady Hoke pushing the buttons in 2016, the Ducks ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed (41.4 ppg) and yards allowed (518.4 ypg). The former Michigan coach had never been a coordinator and changed the defense to a 4-3.
Leavitt, Oregon’s new defensive coordinator, is preaching patience with only nine weeks until the Taggart era officially kicks off on Sept. 2 against Southern Utah.
“There’s going to be some days this fall that everybody’s going to pull their hair out. They’re going to go, ‘Oh man, are you kidding?’ “ Leavitt said during a recent interview. “If people think that me and this defensive staff are going to come in and be miracle workers, they’re crazy. We’re people. And there were good coaches here before, it’s not like they were bad coaches. Man, those guys had resumes that were here. They knew what they were doing.
“So it ain’t like we have a corner on the market or anything. We’ve got work to do. We know that.”
Oregon’s returning players made some progress during spring practice in the transition back to a 3-4 scheme. The coaches are excited about the gains made in the weight room and the arrival of the remainder of the 2017 recruiting class.
Some notable highlights from Leavitt’s 15 practice opportunities included senior cornerback Arrion Springs’ penchant for intercepting Herbert and other quarterbacks, Troy Dye’s move to inside linebacker and the addition of hulking freshman Jordon Scott to the middle of the defensive line.
“I like the guys. I think they care, I think they’re willing to work, I think they’re willing to listen and be coachable,” Leavitt said. “That’s the start. If you don’t have that, you have no chance. The next thing is you have to take the guys you have, like we did at Colorado, and develop them. I believe in that. Teach them a scheme that they can be confident in that has answers. And be relentless and don’t give up.”
Colorado was 111th in yards allowed and 116th in points allowed in 2014 before Leavitt was hired. In 2016, the Buffaloes finished 17th and 18th in those categories en route to winning the Pac-12 South Division and ending the program’s nine-year bowl drought.
Four of the defensive players Leavitt helped develop during his two seasons in Boulder were selected in the 2017 NFL draft. Oregon did not have any players picked for the first time since 1985.
“Everybody can talk about talent or this or that,” Leavitt said. “More important than the talent is to have guys that are willing to work and to not set ceilings on what they can do. I think we’ve got those guys.”
Cornerbacks coach Charles Clark, who followed Leavitt from Colorado, inherits veterans Springs, Tyree Robinson and Ugo Amadi while welcoming speedy freshmen Thomas Graham, Deommodore and Jaylon Redd.
Oregon also has an intriguing mix of familiar (Brenden Schooler, Juwaan Williams, Khalil Oliver) and new faces (Brady Breeze, Billy Gibson) at safety.
Fotu Leiato and La’Mar Winston will have opportunities to get on the field in the hybrid “Duck” position. Dye, the team’s leading tackler as a true freshman, leads a group of linebackers that includes upperclassmen Jonah Moi, Jimmie Swain, A.J. Hotchkins and Justin Hollins.
The defensive line is led by senior Henry Mondeaux. The addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano should bolster the rebuilding process in the short term.
“We’re going to be better tacklers,” Taggart said. “But the thing you’re going to see is great effort. That by itself will make us a lot better than where we were.”
Oregon’s revamped defense must navigate a schedule that includes matchups with Mike Riley’s Nebraska offense, NFL first-round quarterback prospects Josh Allen (Wyoming), Luke Falk (Washington State) and Josh Rosen (UCLA), and Stanford’s physical pro-style attack.
The Ducks must also redeem themselves after last season’s humiliating performances against rivals Washington and Oregon State. Jake Browning passed for 304 yards and six touchdowns during the Huskies’ 70-21 win at Autzen Stadium, and Ryan Nall rushed for 155 yards and four touchdowns in the Beavers’ Civil War win to end the Mark Helfrich era.
“You just can’t give up, you’ve got to keep moving,” Leavitt said. “There’s going to be days where people will question some things. I know that. I’ve been through it before. But you can’t.
“You have to have laser focus and know where you’re going and stay with it. Just keep sawing wood. That’s it.”