Without question, the head coach transition from Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly has required a leap of faith and trust. Without incident, a new regime has taken shape, and its earliest actions have been carried out judiciously, with long-term and short-term consequences considered.
No better part of the Oregon football team represents this change than the defensive line. As head coach, Kelly had the difficult task of replacing three reliable seniors — Ra’Shon Harris, Cole Linehan and Nick Reed, the school record-holder in sacks, as well as replacing a position coach after letting Michael Gray go. Not long after, Kelly hired Jerry Azzinaro away from Marshall University and established the desired mentality of his unit in a hurry through Azzinaro’s volcanic demeanor. Then, Kelly began the personnel shuffle.
Several recruiting misses and miscues left the Ducks with less-than-desirable depth, so Kelly and Azzinaro have improvised. Thus far, it’s paid off. Brandon Bair has moved from end to tackle (where his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame seems ill-suited at first glance) to raves from coaches, and he earned his starting position decisively this fall. Kenny Rowe, noted for pass rushing, will start at defensive end opposite senior Will Tukuafu. The question of depth, for the most part, has been resolved with the additions of junior-college transfers Terrance Montgomery, Zac Clark, and Andrew Iupati — but all three will be significantly tested.
Overall, questions of effectiveness remain, but Azzinaro’s fire-and-brimstone coaching technique instills a brand of confidence in a unit so near and dear to a Pacific-10 Conference team’s success; four teams will feature new starting quarterbacks in 2009, and two more (Oregon State and Washington) will see quarterbacks returning from injuries. Pressure is critical, and if recent comments are to be believed, the Oregon coaches have obsessed with pressure over the offseason.
An Aug. 23 Register-Guard article focused on defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s drive to speed up the Oregon defense, making it more adaptable to no-huddle situations and capable of changing its look quicker. Executing this requires position flexibility, which Aliotti intends to implement further into Oregon’s program.
“We want nine guys that can run like hell, and two big tackles inside that can hold the point,” Aliotti told the Register-Guard. “That’s what we’re striving for, and that’s what we’re recruiting for from here on out.”
Recruiting to fit a no-huddle defense is a sensible strategy, given the sheer difficulty in finding those two big tackles inside. Haloti Ngata was a once-in-a-generation player, and defensive tackles are generally harder to recruit than defensive ends because of the physical requirements for the position. (Ideally, your standard collegiate defensive tackle is around 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, with speed and functional bulk to match. Not many people fit this bill.)
Reed was a standout defensive end despite being listed at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, without being particularly fast. Azzinaro made his name in large part for his tutelage of Dwight Freeney at Syracuse; the Colts’ defensive end checks in at 6-foot-1 and 268 pounds. Bigger is not always better. Technique matters. Further, the no-huddle defense fits with Oregon’s biggest strength: a plethora of talented linebackers, only one of whom, Riley Showalter, will be lost to graduation after this season.
I am as excited as anyone for the season opener against Boise State, and I have confidence in Oregon’s ability to play well in a hostile environment. I save my greatest enthusiasm for the long-term direction of the Oregon program. With Kelly and his staff, fans should feel just as confident that Oregon is thinking long-term while acting for the betterment of the team in the short term.