Defense – Speed and Aggression
Oregon has a lot of offensive weapons but the key to the team may lie with its great defensive backfield. The early emergence of Oregon's defense last year put that team in position for Joey's stretch run heroics. This year, senior corners Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith may set the tone for the entire team. Together with free safety Keith Lewis and Rasuli "Rover" Webster, they form an aggressive "ball-hawking" secondary that should allow Oregon to stack the front against the run and dare other teams to throw. If they take that dare, Rashad and his buddies should rise to the challenge.
At practice and in games, Rashad is a constant source of chatter and energy for his teammates to feed off. One night near the end of double days, Rashad was running around the stadium shouting to the world "I love this defense". Now his normally quiet fellow corner (and roommate) Steve Smith appears to be picking up the beat. As for Keith Lewis, Bellotti says the sophomore free safety adds the "Wow factor" to the defensive backfield.
Improving backups at corner include sophomores "Stevie" Moore and A.K. Keyes, sophomore transfer Courtney Miller, junior Jason Jenkins and redshirt freshman Charles Favroth. Senior Gary McGraw should see lots of action at rover; redshirt freshman safety Steve Clayton plays tough and might get also get on the field. Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti has the troops to play "nickel", "dime" or whatever coverage he wants.
With the loss of Matt Smith, Garrett Sabol, Saul Patu, Jason Nikolao, Jed Boice and Michael Callier, Oregon came into camp with a lot of front line questions to answer on defense.
How do you replace Matt Smith who gave us a chance to win at Wisconsin and, when the crack of doom was closing in Tempe, a chance to come back. Patu was a team leader. Bellotti says he can't choose someone to take Saul's place; "That's always been something that gets answered through the season; someone steps up; someone has the inspiration. It's not something that can be anointed by the coach."
What the front seven players on the Oregon defense lack in experience, they make up in speed. Bellotti says "this defense is probably as fast as any we've ever had". Moretti, he says, runs "4.5 and change" while defensive ends Quinn Dorsey and Kevin Mack both run 4.6. Most every Oregon fan knows tailback Alan Amundson has run a 4.1 forty meter dash this year; this fall, I saw 240 lb. middle linebacker Dave Moretti running stride for stride with Amundson on deep pass coverage down the sideline.
A lean, 215 lbs., senior outside linebacker Wes Mallard runs an eye-popping 4.3. Bellotti calls Wes a tremendous athlete who still has a way to go to replace Garrett Sabol, "the most under-rated football player" on last year's team. As for Wes, "He's learning how to take on different blocks, keep himself alive and blow up plays much like Garrett; it's simply a question of discipline." Senior Ty Tomlin (Lebanon HS) backs up Mallard until highly touted JC transfer David Martin recovers from a nagging hamstring or freshman Terrance Whitehead learns the position.
The other inside linebacker is sophomore Kevin Mitchell; at 5' 11", 215 lbs., "the best linebacker on the team right now", according to Bellotti. Solid backups include junior Garret Graham, red-shirt freshman Ryan Loftin (back from his two year mission) and JC transfer Daniel Johnson (PJ's little brother); newcomers Justin Andrews and Ramone Reed are likely to redshirt but both got some god reps this fall and show promise. All in all, Oregon looks to have the kind of linebackers they need to run to the ball and make plays. By October, this group could be very good.
And that leaves the front four. The defensive ends should be strong. Junior Seth McEwen will hold the fort on the right side while Quinn Dorsey will replace Patu at left end. Quinn is big and fast and could be very good if he stays healthy. Florida JC transfer Darrell Wright gave everyone a scare when he came down with chest cramps before one practice; he's o.k. and should scare a few opposing QBs during the season. Kevin Mack is finally healthy and, hopefully, focused on football. Not many offensive tackles have the foot speed to slow him down. Bellotti is high on true frosh Devan Long and junior Ed Wangler may have to move inside.
The inside tackles are still the big question on defense. Bellotti puts it this way, "For our defensive ends and linebackers to be effective, it requires that one of the defensive tackles command a double-team." At 6'4', 280, senior Zack Freiter just might. He's strong as a bull but had knee troubles till late last year. At 6', 275 lbs., hometown senior Chris Tetterton resembles a buffed-up "Animal House" escapee but holds his own most of the time. At 6'6", 289 lbs., red-shirt freshman Igor Olshansky has the body but hasn't quite shown the will just yet. Behind them are junior Kai Smalley and 280 lb. freshman Robbie Valenzuela. If Freiter stays healthy and Igor gets serious, they could be good; if not, we'll have to cover here.
Here's your Duck trivia question for the day. What Pac 10 Coordinator has won or shared three league titles in the last 10 years. The answer: Nick Aliotti ("Gang Green" '94, UCLA in '99 and UO in 2000). Aliotti added Mike" Gillhamer and his four years of NFL coaching experience as the new defensive back coach last fall. The "Hammer" had a chance to work with the Duck cover guys during spring ball and fall camp and the young guys look better. Steve Greatwood is back coaching the D line and Don Pellum, the linebackers. One thing for sure, Aliotti's defense will play with passion.
Bob Zagorin was Assistant News Director and Senior Reporter for KEZI-TV in Eugene as well as the Executive Director of the Oregon Guides & Packers Assn. He's currently the president of Diamond & Zagorin Creative Strategies in Eugene and an avid Duck fan who follows the team throughout practice and on the road.