Duck Defense Heads In To Summer On High Note

In the face of doubt and uncertainty surrounding its ability to replace key starters this upcoming fall, the Oregon defense stood strong as it has all spring with the Green team pitching a 16-0 shutout over the White squad during Saturday's spring game. With a number of players looking primed for breakthrough performances come the beginning of the 2011 season, projections for the unit are bullish.

It was all smiles for the defense as the Oregon Ducks completed spring drills with their annual spring game Saturday afternoon inside Autzen Stadium. Before a record spring game crowd of 43,468, the Oregon Green team -- led by defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti -- defeated offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich's Oregon White side 16-0, as the Duck defense confidently heads in to the coming summer months with chins held high.

Entering spring, the loss of key contributors at defensive line, linebacker and defensive back was thought to be of primary concern for a team looking to build upon last year's BCS National Championship appearance and contend for its third straight outright Pac-10/12 title. Yet, with 15 spring practices under their belts, Aliotti's defense appears to stand head and shoulders above the its humble expectations heading in to August.

The losses along the defensive line have been most noteworthy, as a committee of players look to fill the voids left by Brandon Bair, Zac Clark and Kenny Rowe. Led by spring standouts at defensive tackle in sophomores Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi, the Oregon Green defense held the Oregon White offense to 63 yards rushing on 31 total carries; with Keliikipi leading all Green tacklers with six total tackles, including two for loss and one sack. White team junior defensive end Dion Jordan led the Ducks with two sacks Saturday afternoon.

"Brandon Bair, Zac Clark and Kenny Rowe played a lot of good football for us," stated Aliotti as he assessed his defensive line. "The good news is last year, Ricky Heimuli, Terrell Turner -- who didn't practice this spring -- Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart, Dion Jordan and Brandon Hanna also played a lot of good football for us and played in every game, including the national championship game.

"We really didn't have to really reload or retool that group, and under coach Azz's (Jerry Azzinaro) tutelage, I just think they just keep getting better and better and better."

At linebacker, losses to Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger have been the focal point for a unit searching to establish depth before the onset of fall camp in August. Saturday afternoon's game showcased the immense talents of players such as Kiko Alonso and Derrick Malone, two players vying for considerable playing at inside and outside linebacker, respectively, come the beginning of the season. Malone and junior Michael Clay led all linebackers with five tackles a piece, though it was the electrifying performance of Alonso in the game -- and throughout the spring -- that had the press box and coaching staff buzzing alike.

"When he gets the knowledge that Casey had -- and I never like to compare but I'm gonna be very honest with you like I always am -- but when he gets the knowledge that Casey had and if that comes to fruition, he'll play on Sundays," Aliotti said of Alonso, who finished with four tackles and a handful of punishing hits.

Coming off a season long suspension last season for a DUII, as well as a knee injury that required surgery, Alonso says that he feels like he's back to the form he was in prior to his setbacks, focused now on being a better leader for his teammates.

"I think I learned a lot from them (Paysinger and Matthews) in terms of leadership," admitted Alonso. "I'm playing this year, so I feel like I gotta be the guy who's controlling the D and making plays out there."

Though the secondary lost savvy veterans in the form of Talmadge Jackson, Javes Lewis and Marvin Johnson, a new wave of talented defensive backs wait in the wings for an opportunity to shine. As of now, a starting four of Anthony Gildon and Cliff Harris at corner, and John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant at safety, appears set, though if Saturday's game was any indication, all four will be pushed hard come fall. Redshirt freshmen Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan all had impressive outings Saturday, with Dargan and Mitchell each notching an interception where as Hill lead all defensive backs with two pass break-ups.

Head coach Chip Kelly has been particularly taken with Hill's performance this spring, lauding Hill's efforts Saturday afternoon for his work in the secondary, as well as on special teams.

"I thought Troy Hill showed a little flash on his return," said Kelly of the Ventura, Calif. native's nifty 40 yard kickoff return in the 4th quarter. "He's a kid that came in late (last season) and missed (fall) camp, but has really shown defensively."

Hill, who finished with four tackles, including one for loss, says that he has a much better understanding of the Oregon defense this spring, saying that the help he's received from fellow cornerback Cliff Harris has payed off in spades.

"I've learned a lot from him (Harris)," said Hill. "He's a leader, he helps me out all the time...he teaches me more about the game. I still don't really understand it to the best of my ability, but I'm learning from him because he's a smart corner."

Hill also said that some of Harris' big play ability and flair for the dramatic has rubbed off on him as well.

"I see him getting all the love, so I try to make the crowd go, 'Ooooh!' too," said Hill, flashing a smile. "That's what makes me go. I like to make big plays."

With spring practices now in the books, coaches and players won't convene again until August 8 and the start of fall camp. At that time, over 20 new incoming players are expected, and the expectation of Aliotti and his staff on defense, is for the veteran players to carry over momentum and impart the knowledge gained in the spring to the next wave of players who will arrive in June.

"My impression all spring is that the guys have done a tremendous job," said Aliotti. "Now it's going to be very important -- cause we go on the road recruiting in the month of May -- that our squad leaders understand they need to take their unit and try to make it the best unit it could possibly be both on and off the field while we're gone.

"If we have nine really strong units, with everyone striving to be the best, then that will lay a lot of groundwork for when we get back here in August and get a chance to coach them. This summer is very important."

Follow Chris Courtney on Twitter at eDuckCCourtney

eDuck Top Stories