There’s a reason Oregon has linebackers galore on its roster.
Head coach Mark Helfrich brought in ex-Michigan coach Brady Hoke to fix a defense that was woeful in 2015. The Ducks have never been known for outstanding defenses, but the product Oregon put out last season was below standard. They were dead last in nearly every important defensive category and even the Ducks’ great offense couldn’t offset the bad defense.
Defensive coordinator Don Pellum was reassigned to coach, ironically, the linebackers, the one group of defensive players that might be the most important in Hoke’s new 4-3 scheme that the Ducks learned this past spring. Pellum will be back in his element coaching the linebackers. He’s been an Oregon assistant for more than 30 years and coaching a specific position instead of coordinating the entire defense is what he does best.
As the coordinator, Pellum’s philosophy was to find favorable match ups and go from there. While on paper it’s a good theory, but Oregon’s defense was very young and inexperienced last season and was exposed more often than not. The greatest of defensive minds might not have had much more success than Pellum did in 2015.
In past seasons, the Ducks were able to create turnovers that ultimately turned into easy points for the offense. They had a knack of causing a fumble or picking off a pass at just the right time. One could almost sense it coming. But last season, those turnovers didn’t occur as often as the Ducks have come to expect.
“Just for whatever reason, that (the defense) never totally 100 percent clicked last year. We had some great moments; how we stood up at the end of a few games and overcame some things,” Helfrich said at Pac-12 Media Day. “But I thought that was the biggest thing coming in is just how … with him (Hoke) coming in is how quickly that took place surprised me, just of the staff 100 percent buying into it, the team, the players totally buying into it was good.”
Hoke’s philosophy is to be aggressive, sack the quarterback as often as possible and to create those turnovers that Oregon was lacking in 2015. This is where the linebacker depth comes in and Hoke will use that depth to his advantage.
Oregon should get used to players such as Johnny Ragin III, Danny Mattingly and AJ Hotchkins spending a lot of time in the opponent’s backfield causing havoc. The Ducks sacked the quarterback 38 times last season. They also created just 25 turnovers last season. In comparison, when the Ducks went to the Rose Bowl and ultimately the College Football Playoff in the 2014 season, they forced 34 turnovers.
Ragin joined Helfrich and Royce Freeman at media day for good reason. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior has needed to be patient in his Oregon football career. The Wilsonville, Ore. native been a backup for the past three seasons as he has played behind the likes of Rodney Hardrick and Joe Walker.
As a reserve, Ragin made enough of an impact to catch the coaches’ eyes. This will be the first season Ragin will be one of the starting outside linebackers and Oregon is hoping he makes the most of the opportunity with sacks and forced fumbles.
Predicting who will be one of the three starting linebackers is next to impossible as Oregon has a pick of six or seven who will battle for that coveted starting nod. Mattingly, whether he starts or not, will see a lot of time at the inside linebacker position.
As with most of the Ducks’ linebackers, Mattingly has experience, but not starting experience. He’s a redshirt junior who has had four years in the program. Along with Ragin, Oregon is hoping 2016 will be Mattingly’s break out season. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, the Spokane, Wash. native can be a big threat to the quarterback, whether is being chased by Mattingly or having to throw over his extended arms.
Hotchkins, who is also a native Oregonian out of Portland, was rated as the top Junior College linebacker in the nation, according to most recruiting outlets. If there’s anyone that can step right in and start immediately, it’s Hotchkins.
He managed to have 99 tackles last season for his Riverside CC team. Hotchkins had 101 tackles as a freshman. Maybe more importantly, Hotchkins doesn’t have anything to do with Oregon’s past defensive failures. He’s coming into the program fresh.
With a more aggressive linebacker group, Oregon will be able to take advantage of a very good defensive line that is made up of Torrodney Prevot and Henry Mondeaux. Although Oregon will be missing DeForest Buckner, who entered the NFL draft a year early, one would think this defensive line will have more success in this new scheme.
“We would have found a home for DeForest Buckner, don’t get me wrong,” Helfrich said. “But the newness, the freshness, the competitiveness that they approached it with was awesome, and now we have to have some success and see how we handle that, and we have to have a little test here and there to see how we handle some adversity and go forward.”
After last season that ended with an embarrassing loss in the Alamo Bowl, the Ducks and their defensive unit want nothing more than to move forward. A more aggressive linebacker group will be a step in the right direction.