Pac-12: Oregon Ducks
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
2012 record: 12-1
2012 conference record: 8-1
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker
Top returners: QB Marcus Mariota, RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, C Hroniss Grasu, TE Colt Lyerla, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DE Taylor Hart
Key losses: RB Kenjon Barner, OLB Dion Jordan; LB Kiko Alonso, LB Michael Clay
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Barner (1,767 yards)
Passing: Mariota* (2,677 yards)
Receiving: Huff* (493 yards)
Tackles: Clay (101)
Sacks: Hart* (8)
Interceptions: Erick Dargan* (5)
1. Little changed post-Kelly: The biggest story of the Oregon offseason -- the departure of coach Chip Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles -- was played down by the Ducks, both coaches and players. After the initial weirdness -- new coach Mark Helfrich's term -- it was mostly business as usual. Little changed, in large part because the staff remained largely intact under Helfrich.
2. Mariota the man: While practices were closed, a brilliant spring game performance as well as the general scuttlebutt, related that QB Marcus Mariota was sharp on the field and took a step forward as a leader. Mariota enters the offseason as a top Heisman Trophy candidate, and that makes him the frontman for a team that has to replace some key leaders. Playing great is the best sort of leadership.
3. Passing fancy: The expectation is that the Ducks will throw more next year. For one, Mariota has considerable passing skills. Second, the Ducks are deep and experienced at receiver, even if De'Anthony Thomas becomes primarily a running back. But it's not only about Josh Huff and company. There's also a nice tandem at tight end with Colt Lyerla and the emerging Pharaoh Brown.
1. How will the offensive line stack up? The Ducks welcome back three starters on the O-line, but both guards need to be replaced, and that didn't get resolved this spring, mostly due to injuries.
2. The pecking order at RB, LB? The general feeling is that Thomas and Byron Marshall will step in to replace Kenjon Barner, but the wildcard is touted incoming freshman Thomas Tyner. If he's ready for primetime, and Marshall steps up, that would allow the offense to use Thomas in a more natural hybrid WR/RB role. The biggest holes on the team, of course, are at linebacker, and injuries clouded the picture this spring.
3. Will the Ducks really just keep motoring along under Helfrich? Oregon fans are right to be confident that Helfrich can keep the Ducks momentum going. After all, the "promote the offensive coordinator" model has worked great since the Ducks began their rise to national relevance. But because we haven't seen Helfrich as a head coach, and because the bar has set about as high as it possibly can be, the change at the top of the program is the primary issue heading into 2013.
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
Oregon: C Hroniss Grasu
2012 production: Helped the Ducks average 315.2 rushing yards per game (third nationally), 537.3 total yards per game (fifth nationally) and 49.5 points per game (second nationally).
Why Grasu is so important: This is where the subjective element of this series really gets interesting. When talking about a team like Oregon -- a national championship contender with potential All-Americans on both sides of the ball -- it really comes down to personal preference.
As noted above, we've taken quarterbacks out of the equation to make this series more interesting. But behind every great quarterback (or in this case, in front of) is usually a great center. And Grasu is a great center.
In Oregon's offense, the center and quarterback share the line calls and protection assignments -- so Grasu and Mariota had better be on the same page. And they almost always are. "They work in concert and Hroniss and Marcus are telepathically linked," noted new head coach Mark Helfrich.
Oregon's offensive line doesn't always get the credit it deserves. It had to deal with an unfair stigma that because Oregon ran an up-tempo, unconventional offense, that the linemen were somehow soft. I'd argue the opposite -- that because of that pace, they are remarkably athletic. You don't finish in the top five nationally in rushing four out of the last five years by being soft on the line.
Naturally, comparing offensive linemen to players with more tangible stats is always difficult. But the 6-3, 295-pound Grasu enters 2013 as one of the nation's top centers and should be in the mix for All-American honors. Helfrich noted that his job is to be the "key communicator" in the run game and making sure everyone is on the same page. Given how quickly Oregon is up and running its next play, that requires some pretty quick thinking.
There are lots of other great options for the Ducks -- and strong arguments could be made for all of them. But for a team so prolific in the ground game, it's worth singling out the leader of the offensive line.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that during this time of transition from Chip Kelly to Helfrich, Grasu stepped up his game this spring in the leadership department.
"Hroniss had a really good spring," Helfrich said. "He's a guy that's grown in his role as a leader. He's a great kid. Soft-spoken by nature, so we really tried to amp up his assertiveness, and he did a much better job of that this spring. Certainly more than he ever has before."
From Brandon P. Oliver : This week's mailbag looks at new commit Morgan Mahalak's experience (or lack thereof), as well as updates on offensive line and running back recruiting.
From Johnny Curren: Talented sophomore TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick got a chance to shine due to some injuries in the spring, and he's hoping that pays off come fall.
From Blair Angulo : This week's recruiting mailbag answers reader questions on USC's efforts at recruiting cornerbacks and offensive linemen in the 2014 class.
This year's premier game in the Pac-12 figures to be Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 7. Both teams are predicted to be top-five, and the fact that they are in the same division makes it even more compelling. So assuming that's the most anticipated game on the 2013 docket, what's No. 2?
Glad you asked.
AP Photo/Matt YorkArizona State, after falling to UCLA on the last play in 2012, gets a shot at revenge Nov. 23.
From just an Arizona State point of view, I still think it's the Arizona game for all of the reasons explained in the post. But from a conference-wide perspective and conference-wide interest level, then I'd go with the Sun Devils' Nov. 23 showdown at UCLA.
For starters, there are so many interesting similarities between the two rising programs.
- Both schools have second-year head coaches who accepted their positions with a healthy heaping of skepticism from their respective fan bases.
- Both exceeded expectations last year.
- Both have second-year starters at quarterback who were fantastic in their first years. Even their numbers are pretty similar. Taylor Kelly: 3,039 yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 516 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown. Brett Hundley: 3,745 yards, 66.6 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 355 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns.
- Both have much tougher schedules in 2013 than they did in 2012, so with the increased level of expectation comes an increased level of national scrutiny.
- Both have premier defensive players in Will Sutton and Anthony Barr, who were atop the conference stats leaders last season in sacks and tackles for a loss.
So while this game might not only determine the Pac-12 South champ, the sidebar is it could also determine the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
I'm guessing since I took this game, Ted is going to go with UCLA-USC -- which would be my second choice (or third, as it were). I'm sure he'll make a very compelling argument.
But when you look at the returning starters -- for both teams on both sides of the ball -- and how last year's game played out at Arizona State, it's likely that the 2013 edition at the Rose Bowl will match the excitement level and the stakes will be equally high. And the fact that the 2012 encounter came down to a game-winning field goal as time expired makes the rematch that much more compelling.
Arizona, still looking for a quarterback and down an A-list wide receiver, has seen its stock drop over the past few weeks. USC is by no means a darkhorse in the division and could very well return to prominence in 2013.
But for now, we know that Arizona State and UCLA have the fewest question marks. Most would agree that the Sun Devils have fewer. But with the Bruins the two-time South champs, the road to the conference title game has to go through Pasadena until proven otherwise. And with a pair of teams loaded with talent, this game might actually end up being the most significant of the season.
Ted Miller: I'm with Kevin in that I think the UCLA-Arizona State game will play out in the South Division like the Stanford-Oregon game in the North.
AP PhotoUCLA goes for two in a row over rival USC on Nov. 30; how warm might Lane Kiffin's seat be then?
Before UCLA impressively triumphed 38-28 in last year's game, USC had won five in a row and 12 of the past 13 in the series. The Trojans had owned the Bruins. And then Jim Mora came to town, and the Bruins started looking like a different team, one with some swagger and one that seems to be on a strong uptick.
Meanwhile, there's USC. A year ago, folks were celebrating the Trojans as national title contenders and heavy Pac-12 favorites. Coming off a strong 10-2 finish in 2011, many were on the cusp of rethinking their reflexive aversion to coach Lane Kiffin. The feeling was that Kiffin not only had grown up but also perhaps we -- college football fans, the national media, etc. -- had been too hard on him.
Then 2012 happened. It was yucky from all angles from a USC perspective. And Kiffin took the brunt of the blame. He doesn't even seem to be getting much credit for being a stand-up guy this offseason and owning up to his own shortcomings. Heck, the guy basically pushed his own father out the door, so you know there's some soul-searching going on.
The stakes in the USC-UCLA game are always going to be high because it's a bitter rivalry. It's also likely it will have some bearing on the Pac-12 South race, the national rankings and the pecking order for bowl selection. While Arizona State and UCLA are the two South Division favorites, USC is right there. In fact, if someone could magically guarantee that the Trojans would fully and consistently play to their capabilities, the reaction would be to make them a solid South favorite.
But many now doubt the Trojans and Kiffin. That's also why this game is interesting.
Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. This matchup might rate as a must-win for his survival. Many USC fans probably just mocked that "might" qualifier.
For UCLA, Mora going 2-0 versus the hated Trojans would provide further proof that the Bruins are headed back to national relevance. Another celebration around the Victory Bell might be prelude to another shot at the Rose Bowl in the Pac-12 title game.
And with those circumstances in Westwood standing in contrast to a USC team potentially looking for a new coach, one might then wonder if the football monopoly in L.A. is truly over, with the City of Angels now cruising for a Bruin.
From Brandon P. Oliver : With spring practice over, Oregon coaches have hit the recruiting trail to identify and secure talent from the 2014 class.
From Greg Katz : With no solution in sight for the Max Wittek-Cody Kessler quarterback battle, Greg Katz has a creative solution -- go with a two-QB system.
From Blair Angulo : A position-by-position breakdown of USC's offensive recruiting in the 2014 class.
From WeAreSC staff : As this year's quarterback battle heats up, the WeAreSC staff looks back on some memorable quarterback controversies in USC's past.
Oregon and former coach Chip Kelly appeared before the NCAA's committee on infractions (COI) last Friday, according to an SI.com report.
SI.com's Thayer Evans reported that Kelly said Oregon used Willie Lyles and Houston-based Complete Scouting Services "the same way other schools do."
Last week, Oregon acknowledged major NCAA violations in connection with recruiting and proposed a two-year probation with the loss of one scholarship in each of the next three years, according to documents released by the school. Those documents, which were part of an abortive attempt for Oregon to negotiate a summary judgment with the NCAA, also stated that the NCAA enforcement staff had not found Oregon guilty of a lack of institutional control or unethical conduct.
That doesn't mean the COI won't -- and those documents were months old -- but those are the two most worrisome charges, which tend to lead to the most severe penalties.
The NCAA began looking into possible violations following reports about payments Oregon made to recruiting services, including a $25,000 payment to Lyles and Complete Scouting Services in 2010. Lyles had connections with Oregon recruits.
When the COI rules, Oregon will have the option to appeal. If the Ducks opt to go that direction, that could extend the process through the 2013 season.
The quote attributed to Kelly is meaningful. Oregon wasn't the only school that used Lyles, who was termed a "booster" by the NCAA. That complicates the NCAA's position, particularly with the Ducks football program operating at this time under vague rules about recruiting services.
Oregon's athletic department released a statement after the SI report.
“Regardless of when or where the hearing occurs, review is ongoing until the NCAA Committee in Infractions issues its final report,” it said. “The integrity of the process and our continued full cooperation with the NCAA prohibits us from publicly discussing the specifics of this matter.”
For the player in question, "lockdown" corner isn't a position. It's a state of mind. An underlying confidence that whatever ball gets thrown his way is his for the taking.
Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a lockdown corner -- in reputation and in mind.
“To be a successful defensive back, you obviously have to have a short memory and be able to move on to the next play,” he said. “That’s why we focus on everything in practice. Everything we do is designed to make us a better player. And when someone makes a catch on me, I consider it a mistake on my part. And I learn from that and try to do better when the next opportunity comes along.”
Last year, there were plenty of opportunities for Ekpre-Olomu to make mistakes. But he rarely did. Instead, he emerged as one of the premier defensive backs in the league, earning first-team all-conference honors along the way. Twice he picked off Arizona quarterback Matt Scott in the Ducks 49-0 win over the Wildcats, returning one 54 yards for a score. That was his "hello-world" game. He finished 2012 with four interceptions and a league-high 20 passes defended.
As a true freshman, he showed great potential with 34 tackles and eight passes defended. But heading into 2012, Terrance Mitchell was the cornerback most of the league feared. So Ekpre-Olomu was challenged often. And he usually made teams regret their decision.
Now he and Mitchell make up the top cornerback duo in the league. And there is plenty of depth behind them -- making the Ducks secondary its strongest defensive asset. Not a bad thing in a quarterback-driven, pass-happy league.
“I never really looked at it like people weren’t throwing to Terrance or that they were challenging me,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “I was just trying to do my job and make the most of my opportunities. And I feel like I’m going to get a lot more opportunities this year because we have such a great secondary. You can’t really go after one person or throw away from another person. We have returning starters at every spot.”
What they don’t have is the head coach who helped spring the Ducks into national prominence. No worries, Ekpre-Olomu says. After getting over the initial tremors of Chip Kelly departing for the NFL, the transition to Mark Helfrich as head coach has been smooth sailing. And being on the defensive side of the ball, Ekpre-Olomu said he hasn’t noticed any real difference as the Ducks head into their final week of spring football.
“I think at first we were all a little shocked,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “We all thought it would be after this year. When he did leave, it was different at first -- it took a little time adjusting to something new. Now, I feel like this is how we’ve always done it. It doesn’t feel new or different.”
For a 2013 encore, Ekpre-Olomu says it’s more of the same. He’s spent this spring refining his already outstanding skills -- a quicker break, better technique in his backpedal, more flexibility squaring his hips.
“I feel like I can get better at everything,” he said. “We lost a lot of leaders -- and I don’t think one person can replace all of those guys. So it’s up to all of us to step up and be leaders. I’m trying to get better at that also.”
Kelly's exit and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich's ascension to head coach? Just part of the business, which for him is business as usual running the Duck defense.
"At this point in the game, it's been a very smooth, easy transition, to the point I don't feel or see any difference," Aliotti said. "I guess until we start playing games and things start happening that are meaningful I might have a better answer. But my gut feeling tells me that there will be very little difference in the way Chip did things and the way Mark will do things."
Which bodes well for the program, because Aliotti, 58, isn't going to change either.
Steve Conner/Icon SMINick Aliotti brings back much of his defense but also has some major holes at linebacker.
Such as this: Oregon ranked sixth in the conference and 44th in the nation in total defense (374.2 yards per game).
Solid, but not above a chortle from our SEC friends.
Ah, but Oregon ranked No. 1 in the nation in turnovers forced -- 40, two more than anyone else -- 15th in in pass efficiency defense, 14th in third down efficiency, 10th in redzone efficiency and 26th in yards per play. Oh, and 25th in the nation in scoring (21.62 points per game).
So, yeah, the Ducks had one of the nation's 15-to-20 best defenses in 2012. Looking ahead, eight starters are back from that unit in 2013, and that doesn't include talented and experienced depth, particularly on the line and in the secondary.
Said Aliotti, "Eight of 11 spots should be as good or better. Three we have to shore up."
Shoring up is right. Those three losses are huge in terms of talent, production and leadership. They are concentrated at linebacker in the Ducks' hybrid 3-4: outside linebacker Dion Jordan and inside linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay.
Clay and Jordan were the Ducks most vocal leaders in 2012. Jordan is going to be a top-10 NFL draft pick, and Alonso figures to get selected around the third round. Clay, despite lacking ideal size, has a good chance to get drafted.
"They're irreplaceable initially," Aliotti siad. "Whoever steps in there obviously is not going to be that caliber when they first step in there. Those guys meant so much to us."
Tony Washington, who has plenty of experience, will step in for Jordan. Aliotti also said Boseko Lokombo, a returning starter at the opposite outside linebacker spot, Tyson Coleman and Christian French will help fill Jordan's void. All four have seen plenty of action.
"None of them are Dion but those four will man that position," Aliotti said.
As for replacing Clay and Alonso, Aliotti is less sanguine.
"I don't feel as comfortable in there as I do at the outside position to be honest with you," he said.
Part of that is injuries. Top candidates Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have been hurt this spring. That's brought Coleman inside -- he played well backing up Lokombo last year -- along with Rahim Cassell. Aliotti also mentioned Joe Walker.
When the discussion turns to the defensive line and secondary, Aliotti brightens considerably.
The D-line is big, athletic and, due to injury issues last fall, experienced. Expect senior end Taylor Hart to transition from underrated to properly appreciated. Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli provide 300-pound bodies inside, while DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci figure to improve dramatically after seeing significant action as true freshmen.
The secondary is potentially the best in the Pac-12 in both talent and depth. Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are the conference's best cornerback tandem. They both could end up first-team All-Pac-12, as Ekpre-Olomu did in 2012 after hauling in four interceptions and forcing six fumbles.
"I think they're pretty equal. I like them both the same," Aliotti said when asked which corner was better.
And backups Troy Hill and Dior Mathis likely would start for many conference teams, as would backup safeties Reggie Daniels and Erick Dargan.
The Ducks have three big voids, no doubt. But there's a lot coming back. Including Aliotti, who will be coaching his 22nd season in Eugene after he turned down an overture from Lane Kiffin to talk about USC's defensive coordinator vacancy.
A new, offensive minded head coach? No worries. Aliotti's seen it before and things have worked out just fine.
"It's been the same as before, so it's kind of cool," he said.
A new class of superstars has arrived. The big names in the 2014 class will now try to catch New Orleans Saint Augustine RB and LSU target Leonard Fournette at the top.
Top 15 classes
Along with the new 150, RecruitingNation rolls out the 15 programs that have had the fastest starts. A list that contains seven SEC teams.
Give 'em five
With the release of the ESPN 150, Tom Luginbill and Craig Haubert look at what it takes to earn a rare and coveted fifth star, as well as evaluate those in the 2014 class who received theirs.
Oregon's top targets
Washington's top targets
Oklahoma's top targets