It’s March. We’re knee-deep in the college basketball season. The NCAA Tournament brackets are set. But last week I took a call from University of Oregon football coach Dan Lanning.
“You want to write about Bo Nix?” he asked me.
“Our running backs room is really interesting,” Lanning offered.
Nope. Not where my mind has been, either.
The Ducks (10-3) won the Holiday Bowl in Lanning’s first season. In the last few months, the coach landed a top-10 recruiting class, hired a new offensive coordinator and retained his star quarterback, Nix.
Oregon holds its first spring football practice on Thursday. The spring game is scheduled for April 29. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the missing element of Lanning’s program — defensive identity.
Lanning came to Eugene from Georgia, where he worked as the defensive coordinator. His expertise is on that side of the ball. The Ducks had some playmakers, but there were very few times last season that I found myself impressed with what was happening on the defensive side of the ball. Anyone else surprised at how forgettable the Oregon defense was in 2022?
• Oregon lost two games (vs. Washington and vs. Oregon State) that it led entering the fourth quarter.
• The Huskies 37-point output was the most points scored by an opponent at Autzen Stadium in five seasons.
• The Ducks defense ranked No. 115 nationally in sacks. It was No. 6 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, fifth in yards per game allowed, 11th in pass defense and 10th when it came to defending on third down.
UO’s offense was creative, aggressive and effective. It had unmistakable identity. Kenny Dillingham called the plays. Nix became the face of the operation. The offense attacked often, scored a pile of points, and was fun to watch.
It had very few memorable moments. That has to change in 2023 if the Ducks want to make the conference title game in Las Vegas.
“We’ve created competition more than anything this spring,” Lanning said. “We brought in some guys who have proven snaps and performance. And we’re looking for upgrades not just from outside the program, but from inside it as well.”
Jordan Burch, a transfer from South Carolina, arrived through the portal. Lanning sounded excited about the big-game experience that the five-star edge rusher brings. Oregon also got a nice surprise when Brandon Dorlus announced he was coming back for another season. That all helps. And defensive tackle Popo Aumavae, who didn’t play due to a foot injury last season, amounts to a “new” addition on defense.
The recruiting class was encouraging. Lanning added depth on defense and replaced some key players. The returning players will need to step up, particularly linebacker Mase Funa. But if there’s a burning question for Oregon this spring, it’s this: What is the Ducks identity on defense?
Before I can talk about Nix, or write about the running backs room, I’d like to get an answer on that question.
“We added a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” Lanning said. “I feel better about the group, but there’s a lot of room there for us to improve.”
Phil Knight is 85. He comes up often when you talk about Oregon football. Not just because he’s invested a billion dollars in UO, but because the Ducks would very much like to pay him back with another Pac-12 title and a trip to the College Football Playoff.
Nix’s return was wonderful news for Oregon. The hire of Will Stein as the offensive play caller looks wise. The resources are ample, the schedule is balanced, and the home field is advantageous. But unless the defense grows some fangs, the Ducks won’t be anywhere near as good as they could be.
That’s the mission for Lanning this season.
We all remember Chip Kelly’s offenses. They were a blast. But what made Oregon particularly lethal in Kelly’s 46-7 run in Eugene was how dynamic and attacking Nick Aliotti’s defenses were. Aliotti had been at it a long time, but adapted and evolved into the best defensive coordinator in college football vs. pace of play.
Auburn’s offense scored 56 points in the SEC championship game in the 2010 season. Cam Newton and that offense put 51 points on Mississippi, 49 on Georgia and pinned 65 points on a Top-15 Arkansas team. Aliotti’s defense surrendered only 22 points to Auburn in the national championship game.
I hardly remember what Oregon did on offense that day.
Lanning sounded rested and ready for spring on the phone. The regular season is a grind, then came recruiting. It’s been non-stop since he was hired more than a year ago. Oregon’s coach told me he took a few long weekends in the last month to spend extra time with his family. Now, he’s eager to get some practices in and get started on the spring on Thursday.
I’m more interested in what the Ducks defense looks like at the end.