The Aliotti Surprise Party

I suppose just as everyone else, I went to the Oregon Spring game anticipating a rout of the defense by the offense. After all, the table was set. The Oregon offense averaged 27 points a game last year while the Oregon defense gave up an average of 27 points a game. The offense was returning eight starters including junior quarterback Kellen Clemens. <br><br>(PHOTO LEFT) Robby Valenzuela (99) closes in on Kellen Clemens (11) during Oregon's spring game on April 1, 2004. (Neil Wilson/eDuck)

The defense was only returning five starters not including last year's number one and number two leading tacklers, linebacker Kevin Mitchell, and safety Keith Lewis, both now with NFL teams.

Heck, this is the West Coast. This is Oregon, Quarterback U. Yes sir, I was expecting some real dancing in the end zone, some deep passes to junior receiver Demetrius Williams, some over-the-middle ropes thrown to junior tight end Tim Day, and perhaps some long scampers by an Oregon running back compliments of the four returning starters on the Duck offensive line.

Boy, was I shocked to see the Duck offense limited to a single touchdown on a 4-yard run by redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny DuRocher. The longest pass completed all day was a 48-yard wounded duck from DuRocher to sophomore tight end Dan Kause, which set up a wide right 38-yard field goal miss by senior place kicker Jared Siegel. The heralded Oregon offensive line gave up six sacks, nine tackles for a loss, and Clemens went four of ten for only 50 yards and one interception. Using a creative point counting system installed by the coaches the Oregon defense outscored the Oregon offense 124-43. Surprise!

Following the game, I was inspired to go find Oregon defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti who is now entering his 29th year in coaching including three stints at Oregon covering 15 years. Aliotti is a remarkable Oregon coaching personality. He has coached through the hungry days at Oregon leading up to the 1994 Oregon Pac-10 Conference Championship. He then coached three years in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams. In 1998 he tried the waters at UCLA as defensive coordinator and again contributed to another conference championship but was singled out as the fall guy for the 10-2 Bruins not winning the National Championship. In 1999, Aliotti was convinced by his old friends to return to Oregon where he has contributed significantly to Oregon's recent success including conference championships again in 2000 and 2001. Aliotti was born in California and is part of the UC Davis to Oregon pact including head coach Mike Bellotti and assistant head coach and offensive line coach Neal Zoumboukos.

How was your defense able to stymie the more experience Duck offense?

"(By) controlling the possession downs and not giving up big plays and making them drive the length of the field."

Are you satisfied that this group is now ready for the fall?

"We've got a lot of work to do. Every position, every player, weight room, conditioning, knowledge of the game, going to school, technique – there's still a lot of work to do.

As far as what we are, what we are all about, will depend on the fall. How much we've matured with the guys we've got here and who comes in and can be ready to play."

Are you looking for the incoming freshmen to contribute right away?

"It's hard to know how many freshman can come in and play for you. We're counting on some of those guys to be in the two-deep. So, it's going to be interesting to see what we've got after we evaluate that first week of fall camp."

How would you evaluate the defensive squad this year? Is it further behind those in the past?

"I like the kids. I think they'll work hard and I think they'll give great effort. It's exciting to me. I love coaching football. We have a challenge and an opportunity ahead of us, which is exciting.

"No, I wouldn't characterize (this defensive squad) as further behind. We've got some positions we're not as strong two-deep wise as we'd like, but that happens every year."

How would you break down the positions?

"I think our d-line is our strength right now. I feel good about our depth. Our linebacker depth is not as good. We can put three starters on the field that are pretty darn good players but I don't like our depth at this point. Our secondary is still in a state of flux in evaluation because depending on who comes in and who can play that will allow us to mix and match and move guys from corner to safety or safety to corner and so on. We have some experience there, guys who have played in games but a lot of it is going to be determined (on) how we look after the first week of fall."

Are you contemplating any major retooling of your system or schemes?

"You're always evaluating what you do and tweaking things or stealing an idea or whatever, but I like what we do, and I think we've got a chance to be good if we work at it."

What players are looking to make a difference next year?

"Anthony Trucks (junior linebacker), Haloti Ngata (sophomore defensive tackle), Devan Long (junior defensive end). Those are three starters. Then, I hoping guys like Jerry Matson (senior linebacker) and Ramone Reed (senior linebacker) and J.D. Nelson (sophomore safety) and Aaron Gipson (junior rover) and Matt Toeaina (sophomore defensive tackle), guys that did practice hard this spring get better."

After speaking with Aliotti I went on to find coach Bellotti who made these remarks about the Oregon defense.

What were the keys to the defense's success?

"If you look at what the defense did…we made a huge emphasis on possession downs, on fumbles, fumble recoveries, stripping the ball, getting your hands on the ball – when you do that, it changes the complexion of the game.

"Our defense is designed to have our d-linemen hold gaps and occupy blockers and let the linebackers run and make plays and I thought our guys did a great job of that today. Ramone Reed's play on third and one I think set the whole tone for the day for the defense because it stopped what would have been an apparent first down (conversion) and gave the momentum going into the fourth down (which failed)."

Who are some of the key defensive players?

"Robby Valenzuela (senior defensive tackle) has been a steady performer for us. He's a fourth year player in our system who really could have been a starter a lot of places last year.

"Matt Toeaina has been the most, I wouldn't say surprise, just pleasing development because he's played consistently well all spring long.

"Chris Solomona (senior defensive end) has also stepped up his level of play. He's played both inside and outside for us a lot like Igor Olshansky (junior defensive tackle who left early for the NFL) did last year and I think that has helped him actually with his pad level and his performance.

"I was very pleased overall, certainly with the way the defense finished this spring."

In closing, I might add the name of another defensive player the Oregon faithful might keep an eye open for next fall, junior defensive end Darius Sanders. Number 95 is 6-5 and 275 pounds and looks like a prototype NFL rush end. During the spring game he garnered three tackles with one for a 2-yard loss and a sack. He also had a number of hurries – a real heat-seeking missile.

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