Defensive Growth Proving Clune was Smart Hire

Many in Beaver Nation were underwhelmed when Kevin Clune was named as the Beavers new defensive coordinator. The growth of the defense is proving fans wrong.

Full confession time.

At the time, the hiring of defensive coordinator Kevin Clune was very underwhelming. It felt like a major downgrade from Kalani Sitake, who was considered the gem of Gary Andersen’s staff. 

Clune’s previous two stints as defensive coordinator were at Utah State and Hawaii, and were both for one year each. Not exactly inspiring for a defense that was coming off one of the worst seasons in Oregon State history. 

But after Saturday, it’s hard not to be impressed with the job Clune has done so far. The OSU defense is showing major growth especially when it comes to defending the pass, despite the fact that it’s front 7 has struggled getting pressure on QBs. 

Some of the Utah highlights: Utes averaged only 4.3 yards per play, scored just seven points in the second half, and fumbled the ball three times — all thanks to the Beavers’ defensive effort. 

Utah’s Troy Williams completed 4-of-13 passes for 42 yards last Saturday, 25 of which came on one reception. Two weeks ago, Davis Webb, one of the nation’s top passers, threw for 113 passes, no touchdowns, and an interception.

You might be saying, “But, the weather was terrible for the Utah game, and Webb apparently was hurt when he played us, so…” Both of which are valid points, but consider that two of the best receivers in the Pac-12 have been shut down as well. 

Cal’s Chad Hansen, who had more than 700 yards receiving and eight TDs heading into the OSU game, was held to 16 yards on four catches, while Utah’s star wideout, Tim Patrick, didn’t have a single catch! Kudos to Treston Decoud and Co. They have been superb! 

In fact, did you know the Beavers rank second in the Pac-12 in Pass Defense, allowing 179.5 passing yards per game and 5.4 yards per reception? Or that they are third in pass defense efficiency at 101.8?

And back to a point I mentioned above, this is all despite that the fact the front 7 isn’t getting a ton of penetration into the backfield or pressure on the quarterback so far; through six games the Beavers have just 26 tackles for loss and nine sacks.

Conversely, Washington, OSU’s opponent this weekend, has 46 tackles for loss and 24 sacks this season. So, that’s an area where the Beavers have to improve for sure, and honestly, at this point is my biggest gripe about the defense. In a pass-happy conference such as the Pac-12, pass pressure is must.

The lack of a pass rush has been surprising for two reasons, Andersen is coaching the defensive line, and the coaches recruited several junior college linemen, to help in this area this season.

But considering how well the secondary is playing, there should be optimism that Clune will get the rest of the defense up to par eventually. If I was a betting man, I would say next up is the linebackers. Their play stood out to me in the Utah game, and was their best performance of the season.

Caleb Saulo (13), Manase Hungalu (13), and Bright Ugwoebu  (11) were the Beavers’ top three tacklers, and Ugwoebu also added a sack and forced fumbled. If the Beavers could add a little more speed to this unit, ala Derrick Doggett, it could take another step forward.

The blitzes the Beavers used against Utah also were nice to see. With the OSU secondary holding its own, Clune can afford to take more risks with his play calling. And with pressure hard to come by, more blitzing is a smart move, or at least more creativity. 

Another sign that Clune is quickly making an impact is the number of young players that are being asked to step up and make plays, even after recently getting their redshirts pulled. Looking at you, Joah Robinett. The 6-8 linebacker recorded five tackles in his first college action. Not too shabby.

All of this has made me change my outlook about Clune. Maybe he doesn’t have fanfare or presence that Sitake has, but he appears to be what the Beavers need right now during this rebuild: No-nonsense, all about the fundamentals, and not afraid to take chances. If he can pull in a few big-time recruits, my praise will get louder.  

There’s bound to be some more ups and downs for the OSU defense this season, but the good news is that Clune has this unit moving in the right direction.  It will be exciting to watch OSU defense evolve, especially as Clune gets more of the right players for his system. What will he throw at Washington this weekend?

One last confession, at this point, there’s another OSU coach or two, I am skeptical about, but as a Beavers fan, I hope they prove me wrong too, just like Clune. 

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