PULLMAN – At Oregon, the novelty is a lie.
Thanks to a never-ending cavalcade of new uniforms and facilities, the Ducks give the impression of a football program that is trying to evolve as quickly as its offense scores.
But underneath the superficial, aesthetic transformations is a team that’s resistant to changing a good thing, with success stemming from a program-wide refusal to rock the boat.
That’s why the most extravagant program in the country hasn’t made a splashy outside hire in years.
“The coaches try to leave a foundation, whether they’re here or not,” said All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. “Shoot, (former head coach Chip) Kelly did a great job setting a foundation for the team; now what the coaches do is try to figure out ways to make it better.”
Every head coach since Mike Bellotti took over in 1995 has previously been an offensive coordinator for the Ducks.
Linebackers coach Don Pellum was promoted to defensive coordinator this offseason when Nick Aliotti retired. He played for the Ducks and first started working at UO as a graduate assistant in 1997.
He’s going to run the same base 3-4 defense that Aliotti ran, with the same occasional shift into a 46 to bring added pressure.
“In terms of changes in the defensive scheme, I don’t think we need to do that,” said Pellum during his introductory press conference. “I think we have an excellent defense. We have more weapons than we can use.”
Instead, Pellum wants to make his mark by improving the team’s defensive fundamentals. The Ducks will run the same defensive schemes they did under Aliotti, but Pellum hopes with fewer missed tackles, penalties, or mental breakdowns on third down.
“Obviously we’ve been good in those departments,” Pellum said. “You’re not 11-2 and 12-1, you don’t have these great records not being good in those areas, but we can be a lot better. That’s something I think everyone has kind of identified that we can be better at, the fundamentals.”
Ekpre-Olomu says that practices remain largely the same on the defensive side of the ball and that Pellum’s way of improving the team’s fundamentals is by demanding immediate improvement.
“He demands a lot out of you, he’s always respectful around you but he holds you accountable and stuff,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “He’s one of those coaches who tells you once, there’s no ‘Oh, my bad.’ You have to know what the expectations are and he holds you accountable.”
While Oregon is primarily celebrated for its breakneck offense, the Ducks have nearly as much talent and success on the other side of the ball. The Ducks were No. 13 in the country last season in scoring defense, and No. 17 in turnover margin.
The team’s three starting defensive lineman all range between 6-foot-4 and 6-8, and weigh between 290 and 310 pounds. Those three impactful down linemen – Aric Armstead has already declared for next year’s NFL draft – provide the disrupting force that allow NFL-caliber players like Ekpre-Olomu, safety Eric Dargan and linebackers Derrick Malone and Tony Washington to impose their wills on offensive players.
“Their whole team is good,” said Washington State offensive line coach Clay McGuire. “They all kind of look the same. They’re all really tall and really huge. If they didn’t have numbers you couldn’t tell any of them apart.”
And if you didn’t see the new defensive coordinator patrolling the sidelines it would be just as hard to spot the differences in the Ducks’ defense under Pellum, because UO has no desire to make unnecessary changes to a good thing.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.