Oregon Preview: Defense

Taking a deeper look at the Oregon Ducks' defense, run by retiring coordinator Nick Aliotti.

Much has been made, and rightfully so, about Mack Brown's decision to step down from the Texas head coaching job after the season. But Oregon is facing its own retirement, with long-time defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti announcing that he'll retire from his job after the Valero Alamo Bowl.

While the Ducks' offense gets the bulk of (one could say all of) the credit nationally, Aliotti has turned Oregon's defense into an opportunistic trap for opposing offenses, with a high-octane approach of his own designed to create big plays. Aliotti's defense is a versatile 3-4 (though the depth chart lists four down linemen), with a mixture of one-gap and two-gap schemes, a heavy emphasis on pressure and a heaping helping of fire zones to get after opposing passers and harry them into throwing into unsafe areas.

Oregon's defense this year isn't as good as it has been in the recent past. Per FootballOutsiders' S&P+, the Ducks were the nation's No. 12 defense in 2011 before jumping up to an even more impressive No. 2 ranking (behind Alabama) a year ago.

But this year, Oregon is 36th in the category, including nearly identical ranks against the run (57th) and the pass (56th). The Ducks gave up 557 passing yards against Washington State* and 270-plus rushing yards to both Arizona and Stanford.

* To be fair, Washington State's quarterback threw the ball an FBS record 89 times, including 28 times in the fourth quarter, after Oregon had already claimed an easy victory. Mike Leach, ladies and gentlemen.

The more useful statistics are those put up by Arizona (65 carries for 304 rushing yards) and Stanford (66-274) for two reasons. First, because both of those performances resulted in Oregon losses, and second because it's a strategy likely to be employed by Texas on Monday, with the Longhorns showing that kind of potential with a 60 carry, 255-yard effort against Oklahoma earlier this season.

The goal of Aliotti's defense remains the same: generate big negative plays, including tackles for loss and turnovers, to set up the offense with scoring opportunities. But this season, the Ducks have just 63 tackles for loss, down 20 from where they were (in one more game) a year ago. And this year's team has forced 27 total turnovers. Last year's squad had 26 interceptions alone, and 40 total turnovers forced.

The defensive line, as you would expect for a 3-4 team, has plenty of size, with a ton of length at the end spots. Versatility here is key, as Oregon plays both one-gap and two-gap techniques, so players have to be able to shoot gaps as well as have the strength to hold a two-gap alignment heads-up on another player. End/Tackle Taylor Hart (6-6 287) is the best of the bunch. Hart made 11 tackles for loss and eight sacks a year ago, and while those numbers have dropped to 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, Hart has actually been more active, making 64 tackles and forcing three fumbles. DeForest Buckner (6-7 286) has 35 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Former top recruit Arik Armstead (6-8 280) has rotated through at both tackle and end. And Wade Keliikipi (6-3 299) has shown the ability to stack people up as a two-gap player at the nose spot.

Tony Washington (6-3 245) plays the BUCK end spot, making 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Rodney Hardrick (6-1 231) mans the middle, where he's made 60 stops, while WILL Derrick Malone (6-2 221) leads the team with 102 tackles on the season, though he's been banged up of late. SAM Boseko Lokombo (6-3 232) is second on the team with seven tackles for loss among his 57 tackles, including three sacks.

Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (5-10 195) is projected as a first-round pick, though he hasn't announced whether he's leaving after this year or not. He has 78 tackles, including four stops in the backfield and three interceptions. Teams generally throw at the opposite side more, a big part of the reason Terrance Mitchell (6-0 189) has five interceptions himself. Neither of Oregon's safeties Avery Patterson (5-10 189) or Brian Jackson (5-10 197) is especially big, though both are active against the run. Patterson has two interceptions from his free safety spot as well.

Punter Alejandro Maldonado (5-10 187) is averaging 40.1 yards per punt.

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