Stephen Summers: The problem with the Oregon defense really isn’t about the scheme, it is about fundamental poor tackling, leverage and in the pass defense the Ducks allow way too much cushion in pass protection.
As you probably know, Oregon has a policy of not allowing media into practices, so reporters don’t get a first-hand look at how the Ducks practice. So given that, the only thing I can tell you as far as what I’m able to see during games is the following.
In the run game, the defensive front seems to be continually overpowered. Defenders get locked up with the offensive linemen in mano-a-mano shoving contests, while running backs simply run past them. The Ducks up front lose their leverage way too easily as evidence by 185 pound running backs running into the line and driving 300 pound linemen back. That’s poor leverage.
Hoke’s 4-3 scheme should be aggressive, but too often what we see are defenders over-running the play and again seeing better leveraged offensive linemen easily move the Ducks out of the way creating wide open gaps that allow Pac-12 caliber running backs to gain big yardage.
All of this of course leads to recent vague rumors and speculation – some insiders suggesting that if it looks bad on the outside, it is even worse on the inside. The bright spots on the Oregon defense have been freshmen linebacker Troy Dye and safety Brenden Schooler. Both have made plays and in the last few weeks have been critical of teammates not having a winner’s attitude.
Yet, head coach Mark Helfrich said last Friday, that those comments by critical players (including one from senior offensive lineman Cameron Hunt, that upwards of 30 percent of the Duck roster doesn’t really care if the team wins) were greatly exaggerated and untrue.
The response of course has brought up the question from media and fans, has Mark Helfrich lost this team?
Was he throwing the players who questioned the motivation of other players under the bus? Was he calling them liars?
By the way, that is subject of thread on Duck Pond (the subscriber accessed message board on eDuck for football). The thread entitled “Not Good” which describes some of the bad news coming from trusted sources that have had a good track record on providing more closely held information has drawn over 20,000 views and 95 responses in about a week.
I’m not yet prepared to call it either way as far as if Helfrich has a problem with the team, or if the bad reports are coming from disgruntled sources that up in arms because the team was in the National Championship game two years ago and are now facing the fate of not winning anymore games this season.
That’s one of the disadvantages of the lack of transparency the Ducks have created by closing off practices.
BT: If there's a rushing defense in the Pac-12 that's approaching how terrible Cal has been against the run, it's seemingly Oregon. Can you diagnose some of the key causes for the Ducks' difficulty defending the run?
SS: Please see my response to question #1. Some beat writers now speculate the real problem is the Ducks just didn’t recruit very good players. When I review the prospects, they appeared to have the necessary credentials for success coming out of high school, but there does seem to be a breakdown in development.
BT: Cal's leading receiver, Chad Hansen, is questionable, but the Bears still do have several weapons on the outside. Against Washington, the Oregon DBs tended to play off. Was that more of a consequence of going down early, or is that something we'll continue to see?
SS: Generally, when you see defensive backs continually give a lot of cushion to receivers it is because the coaching staff is concerned the receiver is too fast and will get by the DB. Oregon, in the past had recruited speed at all positions so when we see the DBs keeping everything in front of them then that tells me that the defenders don’t have the necessary speed to close. During fall camp, DB coach John Neal indicated he felt this group of DBs was going to very good and in fact maybe as good as any he has coached in nearly 30 years of coaching.
This group had problems with pass interference calls and I’ve yet to see them flock to the ball. I don’t expect that to change against Cal.
BT: It seemed as though Oregon was pretty excited about Dakota Prukop coming into the season. What prompted the switch to Justin Herbert? What does Herbert do well, and what are his rough spots?
SS: I don’t know. The vague explanation from the coaches was there needed to be a change. Herbert has been described by the Oregon AD Blogger (who can go to practice) as having the best long ball of the Oregon quarterbacks. Yet, I’ve not seen it in games. He’s only played in three games; the first game he was in for one play and handed the ball off. In his second game he came in when the game was decided and led an 85-yard drive for touchdown against Washington State’s backups. He did have a pass and catch that went for 63 yards, however the pass was only about 10 yards and the tight end who caught the ball gained the additional yardage on the run after catch.
Herbert made some nice throws against Washington last game, but he also over-threw receivers on the longer passes. He also hasn’t shown that he throws before receivers cut, perhaps that will come but there just isn’t enough in his body of work to really gauge if the decision to switch from Prukop to Herbert was sound. Herbert is a very nice young man so I’ll back off on being too critical because I just haven’t seen enough of his play to make any real astute observations.
SS: I don’t think Devon Allen’s injury has had any bearing on what the Ducks want to do. While being very fast and a good blocker downfield, Allen was never the primary receiving option; Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford have been.
Again, the Ducks' only game where Herbert was the starter was against Washington, and in that game Freeman went out just before halftime and did not play in the second half for undisclosed reasons (Oregon doesn’t comment on injuries) but it appeared that Freeman was dinged up.
Freeman should be good to go for Cal and I would assume he will take the bulk of carries against Cal. The Ducks actually use four backs. Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin should also see carries. Benoit had been out, but he is like Freeman, in that he is a big back. Freeman is 5-11, 230, while Benoit is 6-0, 210. Brooks-James is 5-9, 185 and Griffin is 5-10, 180. So what you have are two sets of thunder and lightning. Freeman and Benoit used between the tackles, while Brooks-James and Griffin look to get in the open spaces (used more in sweeps). All are capable of scoring anytime they touch the ball and I expect there to be some explosion plays from this group.
BT: What other names should we look out for on offense?
If healthy, tight ends Pharaoh Brown and Evan Baylis will be difficult match ups for the Cal defenders and redshirt freshman receiver Jalen Brown is also a nice receiver that runs good routes, is physical and has good hands. True freshman Dillon Mitchell is said to be a star in the making but as of yet, we haven’t seen that in a game.
BT: Can you give us a rundown of the injuries the Ducks have sustained on defense, and who's stepped up to replace those contributors?
SS: The Ducks don’t talk about injuries, even when somebody gets hauled away in an ambulance. For example, when Pharaoh Brown was injured a couple seasons ago at Utah, the Ducks wouldn’t talk about it. The only well-wishing fans came to know anything was when Kyle Whittingham was quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune saying that he visited Brown at the hospital the day after the game. Gradually the news came out that doctors had considered amputating Brown’s injured leg due the damage done. To say people were speechless that the Oregon AD kept that mum on the subject given the severity of injury is an understatement.
Incidentally, Brown’s recovery and subsequent rehabilitation is a very inspirational story. It is miraculous that he is on the playing field now and contributing the way he has.
The Ducks have yet to really be upfront about injuries but the coaches seem to now use injuries as an excuse which in my opinion is bad form on their part. If your policy is not to talk about injuries, then don’t use injuries as a reason why the team is performing poorly.
After that, I don’t believe anything that comes out of the Athletic Department in regards to injuries. Past coaches used to ask media not to publish injury information unless the head coach announced it. If asked he would give the best information he could, but now they play a game about injuries.
BT: Prediction for Friday night?
SS: This could be a very high scoring game and I expect the Cal running game will get some big numbers. I don’t think Oregon’s defense is up to the task of getting any stops and Cal wins in a pretty comfortable fashion.