Ezekiel Elliott for 15 yards, left tackle. Elliot for 20 yards, left tackle. Elliott for 35 yards, left tackle. Touchdown.
That sequence of Elliott ramming the ball down Oregon’s throat in the National Championship Game didn’t happen just one time. It happened four times and it was a tough lesson for the Duck defense to learn.
Oregon getting gashed on the ground wasn’t due to its lack of size facing a “bigger” Big Ten team. It was superior game planning by Urban Meyer and missed tackles in the secondary that cost the Ducks their first national title.
It better be a lesson they learned and rectified in the off-season or the Ducks won’t have a chance at going back to the playoff, let alone the title game.
Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum will be in his third season on the job and his system is now entrenched with the current players. There won’t be an excuse that the system is relatively new. Oregon had the talent last season to get the job done and on the whole, the Ducks might have even more talent in 2015.
A lot of those missed tackles came from the linebackers and although it was a painful experience, it was experience nonetheless. Oregon will have three seniors start at linebacker, led by Joe Walker. The Palos Verdes, Calif. native surprised a lot of people in 2013 after being a junior college transfer.
He really jumped on the scene in the 2014 Spring Game that turned Walker into a starter in the fall and had 81 tackles. Walker wasn’t officially recognized by the Pac-12, but should receive some kind of honor if he stays healthy this season.
On either side of Walker with be seniors Rodney Hardrick and Tyson Coleman. Hardrick was credited with 75 tackles and Coleman 44, including seven for loss. These three linebackers played a lot of snaps last season, but Oregon is going to miss Derrick Malone and his 85 tackles.
Up front, the Ducks are big and talented starting with defensive end DeForest Buckner. The 6-7, 290-pound senior was a second-team all-conference performer a year ago with his 81 tackles, 13 of those for loss and four sacks. Alex Balducci, another senior, is 6-4 and 310 pounds at nose tackle where he started every game last season.
The newcomer of the group is sophomore Henry Mondeaux, but he might be the biggest at 6-5 and 290 pounds. He did play in all 15 games as a true freshman, but will see more significant time in 2015. T.J. Daniel (6-6, 275), Tui Talia (6-5, 285) and Canton Kaumatule (6-7, 295 will all see a lot of reps as the season goes on.
“I’m excited about the quality of depth that we have,” head coach Mark Helfrich said of the defense as a whole. “I like where our defensive line is heading. Those guys have grown up and matured. It’s a highly competitive group. They are athletic and versatile.”
The secondary is young, talented and be tested often in the Pac-12. Oregon won’t have the luxury of relying on Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Dior Mathis to shut receivers down at the corner position. Ekpre-Olomu wasn’t available in the Rose Bowl or in the title game. While the Ducks didn’t need him against Jameis Winston in Pasadena, they sorely missed Ekpre-Olomu against Ohio State.
Oregon will put a pair of sophomores on the corners and it’s those two, not Vernon Adams or Bralon Addison or Royce Freeman, who might determine how well Oregon does this season.
Chris Seisay and Arrion Springs played a lot of snaps last season and learned a lot as Ekpre-Olomu’s and Dior Mathis’ understudies. The Pac-12 is an offensive league and full of quarterbacks and receivers dying to test out the young corners.
Seisay started three games as a redshirt freshman and two of those were the Rose Bowl and the title game. But he did play in 13 of Oregon’s 15 games as Ekpre-Olomu’s back up and managed 33 tackles. Springs was a highly-recruited player out of Tennessee and he played in nine games. Both Seisay (6-1) and Springs (5-11) are on the bigger side for cornerbacks.
The Duck secondary might be in trouble if it wasn’t for junior safety Reggie Daniels. He has 28 games under his belt and was third on the team in tackles with 83. Tyree Robinson will be the starting safety in just his second year in the program. The backups don’t have a lot of experience either in freshman Khalil Oliver and sophomore Juwaan Williams.
Oregon scored over 45 points a game last season and it’s hard to fathom that the Ducks would score just as much this season with a new quarterback. The defense shined at times, but also struggled in games like Michigan State, Utah and even Washington State.
The Duck defense doesn’t have to be great all the time for Oregon to win. It just needs to find some consistency and let the young guys’ talent shine through.