There is so much for Oregon’s defense to work on this offseason that spring practice, handled incorrectly, could have been paralysis by analysis. Instead, linebacker Jimmie Swain preached a simple priority for Saturday: “Just be physical.”
The defense was better at accomplishing that at the start than the finish, when their legs grew tired and UO’s lack of depth showed, but defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has some tools to work with.
“Are we there defensively, no we are not,” Leavitt tweeted after the scrimmage. “Am I proud of the players, YES I am. We as coaches need to continue to grind. We will get there!”
Positives for the defense included cornerback Ugo Amadi’s breakup of a potential Herbert-to-Carrington touchdown and Fotu Leiato’s “sack” off the edge of Travis Jonsen, which is at least the third time he’s done that in the past couple days. Leiato and Khalil Oliver, who both could play safety or undersized linebacker, each lined up on the edge of the formation at times in what could perhaps be a new iteration of the “rover” position of old under Nick Aliotti. Safety Mattrell McGraw leveled tight end Cam McCormick over the middle on one incompletion, and later defensive end Jalen Jelks hammered running back Kani Benoit at the goal line to save a touchdown.
Yet missed tackles, a staple of 2016, were on display, too. Benoit ran into a cluster of defenders and blockers at the goal line in another play and somehow burst out of reach for a touchdown. Corner Tyree Robinson, working with the second unit, could catch Burmeister in the open field on a 15-yard scramble, as Taggart noted.
“He didn’t touch him!” Taggart yelled at the defensive sideline, to ensure his point was heard.
The first-team defense generally looked like this Saturday: McGraw and Brady Breeze at safety, Graham and Springs at corner; Swain, Dye, AJ Hotchkins and Khalil Oliver at linebacker; Henry Mondeaux, Jordon Scott and Elijah George on the line. Jelks also worked in with the first unit at times.
Taggart expected a lag from the defense to start spring because defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt “kind of threw the whole package at them, and they were ‘swimming’ for a while.”
But Friday and Saturday, things seemed to click for offense and defense alike.
“If you think about our defense, it’s like a third coordinator in three years. so it’s going to be a learning process as them as they go, but it’s great they’re picking it up now,” said Taggart, and the coaching count is actually higher — redshirt seniors are playing under their fourth coordinator in five years. “I thought we started off the scrimmage well (defensively). I thought we got tired and lost some focus there. We had some guys come wide open but I think a lot of that had to do with fatigue and our guys got to understand we can’t get tired. We have to play at a high level even when we’re tired.”