The Oregon defense was on an upward trajectory from the middle of the season to the end until it hit the season finale, struggling mightily against Ohio State in the national title game.
On Wednesday, Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum chatted with the Pac-12 Blog about that performance, as well as the season as a whole and what he's looking for out of his defensive unit this spring.
Warning: Pellum is as lengthy with his responses as he is sartorial with his suit choices.
With the number of ups and downs the Oregon defense had this season, how exactly do you grade the unit?
Pellum: The way we evaluate ourselves and our players is that throughout the season the issues or things that we weren't doing well, the problems that came up -- did we come up solutions? The solutions are not just changing calls or changing personnel, some of it may be that there was a period of time early in the season when we weren't tackling well and we were leaving a lot of plays on the field, we were giving up a lot of yards after contact so we created some periods [in practice] where we did more tackling, but it wasn't just your normal tackling drills. We took the film, looked at the tackles we were missing and the leverages that we were missing and created some drills to clean it up. That was kind of our approach throughout the season and I think right about midseason we played better. I think the improved performance was a byproduct of us really continuing to look at ourselves and how we could get better at what we did defensively.
I think overall from that standpoint we grew the defense. It was a new defense, a new staff, some new faces last year. Although the defense from the outside appeared the same, it was coached differently, there was a different emphasis, different stress points and it took us a while to actually get to a point where it was looking like how it was supposed to look. I think we did a pretty good job of that. Could it be better? Absolutely.
Along with tackling, communication was an area where the Ducks struggled this season early on. Did you see the same kind of improvement there?
Pellum: Absolutely. The things that improved the most … [if] we're going from the first game to the end of the season, it was the tackles and the leveraging of people the right way so that your teammate could make tackles and then the overall communication. There were a couple games down the stretch when we gave up a couple big plays and they just lacked communication but the majority of the game, even with us rotating a lot of guys, because of the communication we were successful and we played a lot better.
Not to beleaguer the downfalls of this group but one of those games that lacked communication and tackling was the title game. How many times since you've been back in Eugene have you watched that game film?
Pellum: I've seen it a fair amount of times. [Laughter] Yes, I have seen it a couple times.
They say you're never as good as you think you are, nor are you ever as bad as you think you are. What did that film say about the team -- did that saying hold true?
Pellum: Honestly, we did a lot of good things but they were definitely overshadowed. From midseason right down to the conference championship game and then spilling into the Florida State game we were playing better, we were making strides in different areas. And then in the national championship, we didn't play our best game. We had been working toward it, but we didn't. We didn't communicate as well. The thing we did a poor job of was that we didn't read well, we didn't tackle well, probably could've changed some calls and done some other things. But fundamentally, we didn't play well.
So going forward, you have to replace a lot of faces and you're coming off a rough loss, but you want to have optimism for 2015 -- what's your baseline for this group?
Pellum: We're back to basics the day after the championship game. The first thing from coach [Mark] Helfrich was, ‘We've got to get back in the weight room, we've got to get back into conditioning, we have to get back into our routine.' From a defensive standpoint, our base 3-4 package, we really, really excelled in there. Down the stretch it was very, very good. So, we've identified some things that were very good. … We've got to do a better job in some of the passing situations.
We've got to settle down on the two or three things we're going to do in the third-and-long categories and how we're going to disguise them and then really fine tune those. And then we have to continue to get better with the communication, which is something the kids can do every day. Those are areas. We've got some real good things we've identified. We've already put those on the board and labeled them ‘This is the bread and butter, here it is.' Then we have to go add the dressing on it, what are the other things we want to feature? Last year got us a lot of good and a lot of bad, but it has given us an opportunity to go through a season of what we thought we were going to do and what we thought we liked, and now we can really hone in on what we really like and the other things, move away from.