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Ducks have plenty of work ahead

EUGENE — His voice escalating with each word, Jim Leavitt gave his demand for Oregon’s defenders during the next three months.

“Train their tail off,” the new defensive coordinator yelled. “Go.”

The Ducks will be asked to coach themselves until they return to the field for fall camp in August. After installing a new system during 15 practices in April, the coaches have to stay clear of voluntary practices and workouts the rest of spring and summer.

“That will be another part of our progression,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. “We had winter conditioning, spring ball and now we have summer conditioning. It is important for guys to come together as a team. The NCAA allows us only so many hours so we want to see guys take ownership in this team and get guys out there that work on their craft every single day. When we can have that as a football team, guys who love to go out and work without coaches here, that’s when we have something special.”

The Ducks are less than four months from Taggart’s debut on Sept. 2 at Autzen Stadium against Southern Utah.

“Honestly, in all my years, summers have been more productive sometimes than the spring because they are not banging on each other,” Leavitt said. “They can lift weights, condition, get in and study as much film as they want. Now they have all the cut-ups with the new system. I expect them to make leaps and bounds this summer.”

Taggart saw that happen in spring ball when his early concerns about the defense lessened throughout the month. Mistakes were corrected and the unit got better, he said, but no individual performed well enough to earn a starting spot heading into the fall.

“We are really excited to get into the weight room and grind in the offseason,” said sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, who is likely as secure a starter as the Ducks have on defense. “Get into the playbook more and understand the defense more. We need to work together and become one unit instead of 11 individual guys.”

There is plenty of new information to process on defense as Oregon returns to a 3-4 front after playing 4-3 last season. Leavitt created a new “Duck” position combining the skills of a safety and linebacker.

“(Leavitt) wants us to get in the meeting room and meet as players because the coaches won’t be around,” safety Brady Breeze said.

“We need to get the defense down better and put on more weight. Get in the weight room and put on 10 or more pounds if we can to be bigger and stronger for the season.”

Leavitt’s message was spread consistently throughout the defense.

“He wants us to spend a lot of time in the film room and then get out on the field and go through stuff while we are by ourselves,” linebacker A.J. Hotchkins said. “Also, have a big year in the weight room.”

Motivation for the defense comes every time they hear about allowing 518.4 yards and 41.4 points per game last season.

“We need to know the defense because when everyone knows their assignment, we play faster,” senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. “We can do more and play faster and free. Everyone needs to get the base calls down. Last year, we had to simplify because we didn’t know the defense well enough.”

Leavitt is Oregon’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons and fourth in five seasons after Nick Aliotti held that job for 17 years.

“It feels like many people are getting it down,” said Hotchkins, who arrived at Oregon last season after two years in junior college. “A lot of times it is hard to learn a new system, but coach Leavitt has done a good job of teaching. It is different because of the scheme, but is also kind of the same, so it isn’t too hard to pick up.”

Taggart felt he inherited a fractured team from Mark Helfrich after Oregon went 4-8 last season. He encouraged the players to get to know their teammates better and said that is also a part of the offseason schedule.

“That will be important,” he said. “When we are not around, not doing football things, how can you handle this team? It goes back to holding each other accountable and doing the right things. They understand the culture we want and that is a big part of what we do.”