Oregon football and defense didn’t always go together.
In the days of Chip Kelly, Marcus Mariota and a lightning-fast offense that changed the football world forever, defense often fell by the wayside in Eugene. The defense under then-defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was known for its “bend-but-don’t-break” philosophy that prided itself on turnovers and stinginess in the red zone.
At the same time, those defenses far too often surrendered big yardage, and it put enormous pressure on the offense to light up the scoreboard game in and game out.
In recent years — 2015 and 2016 specifically — the defenses were just downright bad. Those groups averaged opponent points-per-game numbers of 37.5 and 41.4, respectively — both toward the bottom of the Pac-12 Conference. When those offenses dropped from “elite” to just “very good,” the defense was nowhere to be found to break the fall and the losses piled up rather quickly.
Now, with first-year defensive coordinator Andy Avalos at the helm looking to build upon what Jim Leavitt built for two seasons in Eugene, this year’s group already feels as good as it has in a long time.
“Last year, we had a pretty good defense, but we didn’t click like we have this year,” junior safety Brady Breeze said. “Between player-to-coach and player-to-player, guys are trusting each other. It’s working in all types of ways.”
One of the most impressive early takeaways from Avalos’ new defense has been just how effective it’s been for everyone. Freshmen and sophomores are thriving just as much as juniors and seniors, and that didn’t happen by accident. Veteran leaders like Jordon Scott and Troy Dye are setting an example for the less experienced guys, even as they adjust to a new defensive scheme themselves.
“Troy, he’s a fun dude,” freshman linebacker Mase Funa said. “He has so much energy. It doesn’t matter how much he plays in the game. It kind of just reflects off on everybody.”
Austin Faoliu is a little bit older, but he’s still learning every day: “I’m always picking at [Jordon Scott’s] brain, what he’s doing during the game, so I can reciprocate the same thing.”
The buzzword throughout fall camp was “culture.” Head coach Mario Cristobal stressed that more than anything, and it’s already starting to show just two games into the season.
“The most impressive thing to me was that the older guys held the younger guys accountable,” Cristobal said of Saturday’s win over Nevada in which the defense allowed just six points. “When the younger guys went in there from snap 40-whatever until the end, they made it known that they are held to the same expectation about keeping other people out of the end zone.”
In week two against Nevada, 10 true freshmen played on defense. DJ Johnson, a backup linebacker coming off a year in which he sat out due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, led the team in tackles. Funa, through his first two collegiate games, leads the Pac-12 with four tackles for loss. Redshirt freshman Steve Stephens nearly brought his first career interception back for a touchdown.
It seems that just about everyone is getting better, and that’s a testament to the standard Cristobal and the rest of the coaching staff set way back in the beginning of fall camp.
“Nothing’s gonna stay static around here,” Avalos said. “We’re gonna keep growing, and guys have an urgency. We want to grow everybody’s role throughout the course of the year, because it’s a long season.”
Breeze added: “If a backup comes in, he’s just as good as the starter. That’s something that’s going to be important going down in the season.”
These Ducks defenders want to change the narrative surrounding Oregon football. Driving that desire is the need to prove the naysayers wrong.
“We wanted to make a name for ourselves,” Faoliu said of the defense. “When people look at Oregon, they always think about the O-line, the offense. And we just felt that was disrespectful towards us.”
Funa echoed a similar sentiment.
“The defense, especially the younger guys, wants to prove what kind of defense we are,” he said. “We’re fast, tough, physical and we always want to finish.”
One of the team’s leaders and best players is just a sophomore. His name is Jevon Holland, and his mentality embodies the new culture of defense at Oregon. Essentially, good isn’t good enough.
“The best thing that Jevon does is that he competes with himself,” Avalos said. “He’s got his own standard. He works every single day to his standard, and it’s a very elite level.”
Holland is often times his harshest critic, but that’s what makes him great.
“It’s hard to focus on the good things when the bad things are so keen in your sight,” he said following the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. “So it’s all about correcting the things that are bad.”
It would be easy for Holland to be satisfied with what he did on the big stage at AT&T Stadium against Auburn: he picked off a pass, ripped off two big punt returns and overall looked like one of the best players on the field for either team for all 60 minutes. The defense as a whole looked, for the most part, very good.
But if this year’s defense really wants to take the program to the new heights it hopes to reach, good isn’t going to cut it. And everyone knows it, from Avalos to every member of the defensive unit.
“We’re chasing perfection,” Avalos said.
In game one, this group forced Auburn quarterback Bo Nix into a 42 percent completion percentage. In game two, it surrendered just six points to a Nevada team that hung 34 on Purdue the week prior. Each passing day brings more experience for some of the most talented defenders to ever play football for the Ducks.
For the first time in a long time, defense is king in Eugene.
Follow Brady on Twitter @BradyLim619