Into the great wide open: Eddie Pleasant's journey from linebacker to safety
In his 23 years as Oregon’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, Don Pellum has always been able to count on one thing to bring a smile to his face. Call it The Change, the metamorphosis he watches every year as boys become men.@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=22689@@
They come in as wide-eyed 18-year-olds, fresh out of high school and ready to dominate the world. Some are more prepared than others, but The Change eludes no one. Every player undergoes an evolution under Pellum and the rest of Oregon’s coaching staff, even if it’s as subtle as an extra bounce in their step or an enhanced sense of maturity.
Eddie Pleasant was no different. After arriving on campus back in 2007 as a restless freshman linebacker, Pleasant moved on to convert to safety last season and in this, his senior year, ranks as one of the most consistent players on Oregon’s defense.@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPSID=3378&SPID=233&DB_LANG=C&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=1149816&Q_SEASON=2011@@
His best characteristics — a blinding intensity on the field and that ever-present smile off of it — remain unchanged. It’s the smaller things that Pellum has picked up on, the signs that Pleasant’s evolution is nearly complete.
“He’s just a more mature person,” Pellum says. “He’s just a different guy: carries himself differently, walks differently; he’s mature. And it’s really neat.”
None of this should come as a surprise, really. Throughout his career, Pleasant has been about as versatile as they come.
He’s known as a safety now, a linebacker before that. But before he set foot in Eugene, Pleasant was most widely recognized as a star running back. From the time his father introduced him to the game at age 8, he could most often be found carrying the ball rather than trying to pry it loose.
“I was a running back my whole life until I got up into college,” Pleasant says. “So I didn’t really play defense until I got up in college.”
As a senior at a Kennedy High School in Southern California, Pleasant rushed for 1,356 yards and 18 touchdowns, adding 247 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver. He was named All-Orange County player of the year and honored on the all-state team as well.
He sells himself a bit short by claiming not to play much defense before Oregon. Pleasant totaled 57 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and a blocked field goal as a safety during his senior year, impressing Oregon coaches enough to offer him a scholarship to play on the defensive side of the ball.
It didn’t take much convincing for Pleasant to make the trip north.
“I didn’t want to stay at home,” Pleasant says. “But I didn’t want to go too far, and I felt like Oregon was the perfect place.”
The slow, serene atmosphere of Eugene didn’t hurt either, and Oregon presented Pleasant with a chance to play for an up-and-coming program. The much-publicized uniforms, however, had no bearing on the decision.
“If you’re coming for the uniforms,” Pleasant says, “you’re crazy.”
No, his choice had more substance than that. Oregon was the right place to be, though he could never have predicted the strange path that lay ahead.
Pleasant stood out early on during his redshirt season, dutifully playing his role on both the offensive and defensive scout teams. In 2008, his first full season, Pleasant totaled 16 tackles and a forced fumble as a reserve linebacker, setting the table perfectly for a breakout 2009 campaign.
As Oregon marched its way to the Rose Bowl, Pleasant started in 11 of the team’s 13 games at linebacker. His 54 tackles ranked sixth on the team, and just one player (defensive end Kenny Rowe) managed to eclipse his 4.5 sacks. Those days at running back were long gone.
Pleasant capped the season with four tackles in a 26-17 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, before his role was turned upside down once again.
Oregon coaches had a dilemma on their hands as the 2009 season came to an end. Safety T.J. Ward was set to graduate, leaving a gaping void in the secondary next to John Boyett. With veterans Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger returning, and Josh Kaddu showing promise in his sophomore year, the Ducks conversely found themselves overloaded at linebacker.
The solution: Pleasant would move back to strong safety, while Kaddu punched his ticket as the starting linebacker. In a situation that might have jarred other players, Pleasant simply went with the flow.
“Eddie was awesome,” Pellum says. “Eddie said, ‘Whatever’s the best thing for the team I’ll do, coach.’”
Of course, that didn’t keep Pleasant from approaching the move with a certain degree of trepidation. The most difficult aspect of the safety position, as it turned out, had little to do with speed (Pleasant has been clocked at 4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash) or inexperience. Rather, it was the space — that great, ever-present void between him and the goal line. If an opposing player broke through the first two levels of Oregon’s defense, only Pleasant’s compact 5-11, 210-pound frame stood in the way of a touchdown. No longer would there be a player to bail him out if, God forbid, he missed an assignment.@@http://www.nfldraftscout.com/ratings/dsprofile.php?pyid=71363&draftyear=2012&genpos=SS@@
“If you make a mistake, it’s a touchdown,” Pleasant says. “Opposed to me playing linebacker and making a mistake, I’ve got the secondary behind me.”
It was, in some respects, a leap of faith for Oregon’s coaching staff. They knew what Pleasant was capable of as a linebacker, but would those skills translate to safety at a collegiate level?
“He’s a hell of a tackler, he can run, he can hit,” Pellum says. “But all of a sudden when he went to DB, it was a question of how well would he gauge the ball in the air? How well would he make tackles coming down hill with a lot of space?”
Pleasant responded with 65 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries as Oregon rode an undefeated season to the BCS National Championship Game. The loss to Auburn stung though, as did Pleasant’s season-low two tackles and now infamous whiff on Michael Dyer’s 37-yard run on the final drive.@@http://www.latimes.com/sports/lat-bcsgame_leufygnc20110110215727,0,2507555.photo@@
Yet for all of that it was an impressive debut at a new position, and Pleasant has only improved as the 2011 season nears its midpoint. His 27 tackles rank third on the team, and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has taken notice of Pleasant’s renewed presence on the field.@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=205266631@@
“As a second-year safety, I think Eddie Pleasant has really made unbelievable strides,” Aliotti says. “I think he’s playing at a very high caliber. I see a different guy this year from last year, and I see a guy that’s really, really stepped his game up, particularly mentally.”
That vast open space still nips at his back, but Pleasant can only focus on what’s in front of him.
A changed man never looks back.