May 5, 2016
All spring, Brady Hoke has stated that he wants to hear football.
He wants to hear the collisions; the clashing of pads; the tackles. He wants to see Oregon play a more physical brand of football than it did last season, when the Ducks gave up more points than any team in the Pac-12.
During Oregon’s spring game last Saturday, the former Michigan head coach and newly minted Ducks’ defensive coordinator unveiled his new 4-3 scheme in a ‘game situation’ for the first time. His consensus?
“We’ve got to get a lot better, I can tell you that,” Hoke said. “We’ve got to get a lot more physical and really get more of a mentality of how we want to play football. The transition from the two gap to the one gap has taken longer than I would think it would have.”
“It’s taken a little bit of a transition, which is understandable.”
Hoke rightfully acknowledged there is still work to be done, but Oregon’s defense appears to be taking a step in the right direction. Ducks fans are accustomed to seeing skill-position players run wild during the annual spring game, but on Saturday the defense had the upper hand, as Mighty Oregon topped the Webfoots 21-20. The two teams combined for just 13 first-half points, and if not for two circus catches by Dillon Mitchell for Mighty Oregon, the final score might have been much lower.
Hoke said he and the other Oregon coaches didn’t dig too deep into the playbook and that kept the schemes relatively simple.
“We didn’t tackle well a couple of times… We’ve got to do a better job of that,” Hoke said. “I also think that we made some pretty good physical plays from a defensive standpoint.”
The Mighty Oregon and Webfoots defenses combined to register 10 sacks — the term sack should be used lightly, though, as quarterbacks were ruled down on contact as soon as they were touched. Defensive numbers are hard to evaluate in a glorified scrimmage, but it’s obvious that rushing the passer is of higher priority for Oregon than it has been in the past.
Last season, while playing in a conservative 3-4 scheme, Oregon sent four or fewer pass rushers on most of its plays. Quarterbacks were able to sit in the pocket and exploit Oregon’s defensive backs, as Oregon’s pass-rush consisted of DeForest Buckner obliterating double teams, but not much else. The Ducks’ defense was shredded by pass-happy Pac-12 offenses and surrendered the third-most passing yards in college football.
Aside from shifting to a scheme that is more suited for the Pac-12, Hoke’s arrival also offers a fresh start for many players.
“All the guys are freshmen again; no one has a spot,” junior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux said. “We’re returning starters but it doesn’t mean anything because everyone’s starting from the same point. It was definitely a good motivator because guys have maybe gotten discouraged or guys that were maybe in the three-deep or four-deep last year now are on the same level as the guys starting last year.”
During the spring game, Oregon’s front seven flooded the pocket and looked like a group capable of causing mayhem. Mondeaux and junior linebacker Paris Bostick had standout performances; each could benefit from the shift in scheme this fall.
“The biggest adjustment is instead of waiting and reacting to offensive linemen, it’s attacking first,” Mondeaux said. “Pushing the line of scrimmage back is the biggest thing.”
In 2013, Oregon ranked 37th in the nation and held opponents to 4.61 yards per-play while primarily playing in a 4-6 scheme. Only time will tell if Hoke can return the Ducks to that level of success, but if Saturday’s spring game was any indicator, things are headed in the right direction.
“This will be good to evaluate; good to learn from,” Hoke said. “I think I heard a little more football than I have in some other scrimmage situations, so that was positive.”
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