Nick Aliotti’s defense earned a B+ for 2010, but they’re taking on a heavier load of classes in 2011. They open with SEC power LSU on the road in Cowboy Stadium, and everyone in the new PAC-12 will be gunning for the two-time conference champions, including three of the best quarterbacks in the nation, future NFL first round draft picks Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, and Nick Foles.
The Ducks have a simple goal in front of them: play four points better in 2011. But even that might not be enough. The Webfoots are big time now. They’ll get everybody’s best game, including LSU’s in the Cowboy Classic.
But the biggest part of the challenge is this: Oregon has to reload on the fly as they begin a new season. Though last year’s defense was tremendous, Nick Aliotti and his assistants have to replace two starters on the defensive line, two playmaking, veteran leaders at linebacker, and a solid cornerback and sure tackler at one cornerback. Kenny Rowe, Zac Clark, Spencer Paysinger, Casey Matthews, and Talmadge Jackson III are long gone, and as Chip Kelly wryly points out, there’s no waiver wire or free agency in college football.
The task got even harder when the Ducks lost two more starters this off season to off-field misconduct issues. Athletic, bruising Kiko Alonso, the top candidate to replace Matthews at middle linebacker, is suspended indefinitely after a bizarre incident in which he broke into a stranger’s home and fell asleep in her bed, his second alcohol-related suspension in two years.
Then a month or so later star cornerback Cliff Harris, a consensus All-American as a punt returner and the conference leader in interceptions last season with six, earned an indefinite suspension after being stopped on the I-5 freeway doing 118 mph at 4:30 in the morning, driving a rented Nissan Altima with a suspended license and no insurance. Even worse, the car had been rented by a friend of his who turned out to be a university employee. Even worse, it turned out Harris had racked up over $8,000 in unpaid fines and other brushes with the law dating back to his senior year of high school. Harris, a charismatic and quotable kid with an infectious confidence and smile, had to be called out by his coach. Kelly suspended him indefinitely. In an athletic department press release, Kelly said:
“Cliff’s future clearly is in Cliff’s hands. Earning an opportunity to represent the University of Oregon and this football program certainly rests far beyond a player’s ability on the field of play. Our behavior out of the spotlight often is more important and will be held to a higher standard. Until Cliff is able to conform to the same standards all of us must comply with, his status will remain unchanged.”
Between Harris and Alonso, freshman linebacker Tyson Coleman, who had enrolled in school early and joined the team for spring practice, botched up a promising effort in spring drills by getting stopped by Eugene police walking down the street with an unopened can of Four Loko malt liquor, ditching the can and running from police. The cops were on bikes and caught him after a long chase.
All of these three might still contribute at some point in the 2011 season, but none of them will be available for LSU. For the off-season, the Oregon defense gets a D-.
Kelly and the Ducks have overcome obstacles like this before. Everybody said their season was ruined in 2009 after 1,000-yard rusher LeGarrette Blount earned a lengthy suspension for punching a Boise State player after an embarrassing 19-8 loss in the first game; they went on to win the conference title and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. Many pundits gave Kelly’s crew no chance in 2010 after they lost Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremiah Masoli, who quit the program after getting suspended for his involvement in a fraternity theft, then getting stopped by the cops with marijuana in the glove box later in the spring. Sophomore Darron Thomas took over, zero career starts, and threw 30 touchdown passes in a 12-1 season.
The Ducks fully believe their coach when he tells them that “luck favors the prepared mind.” In two years they’ve established themselves as a group that won’t give in to adversity. Now it’s the defense’s turn to overcome a seemingly impossible combination of graduation, attrition and stupidity.