By Rob Moseley
In promoting Don Pellum to defensive coordinator, UO coach Mark Helfrich has elevated a position coach instrumental in building one of the country’s most consistently solid units over the past several years.
But also, the long-time Oregon assistant sounded in his introductory press conference like a man honest enough to acknowledge shortcomings, and open to changes that will address them.
Pellum, 51, was officially promoted Tuesday after 14 years as the Ducks’ linebackers coach.
“I don’t think I got hired because I’m an Oregon guy, and for the love,” Pellum said. “I know coach Helfrich sees the right characteristics and right integrity and the right discipline – the right things to make this decision.
“This is not some ‘gimme, gift’ thing. This is, ‘You can do it.’”
What Pellum will be tasked with doing is taking one of the Pac-12’s best defenses of the last half-decade and, to use one of Helfrich’s preferred phrases, tweaking the margins.
Since 2009, the Ducks have finished no lower than third in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed. That includes leading the conference in 2009, 2010 and, yes, 2013, when the Ducks finished seventh nationally by that metric.
“Obviously there’s some holes to fill,” Pellum said, noting in particular the loss of senior defensive linemen Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli. “But I think the core is pretty good, and obviously I think we have a great system.”
To that end, Pellum sounds committed to sticking with the 3-4 defensive front the Ducks have used since 2009. Under former UO coordinator Nick Aliotti, Pellum played a significant role in game-planning to that scheme as linebackers coach, focusing on run defense, blitzes and other elements of the front seven.
But the Ducks were by no means perfect in 2013. While their statistical averages suggested a strong season overall, there were breakdowns at key times, particularly in losses to Stanford and Arizona, and the dramatic Civil War win.
Stanford converted 14-of-21 third downs, a microcosm of the Ducks’ slip in that area overall in 2013. Oregon was 68th nationally in third-down percentage defense (40.09) this past season, after being 15th in 2012 (31.24).
Arizona capitalized on the Ducks’ lackluster showing overall in their game by running for better than 5.5 yards per carry. And OSU countered Oregon’s focus on pass defense by also running wild for much of the Civil War.
Pellum addressed all of those issues directly Tuesday, and spoke of fixes he hopes to implement. His interview with Helfrich, Pellum said, included an outline of what he hoped to accomplish in his first six months, and Pellum shared with media some items that probably made that list.
Against Stanford’s massive offensive line, “we probably could have put in some bigger guys,” Pellum said. Indeed, against Texas in the Alamo Bowl, the Ducks briefly unveiled a new package using four linemen and four linebackers, the type of tweak Pellum seems open to continuing against powerful running teams going forward.
Dealing with such physical play can be addressed in offseason strength and conditioning, as well. “We’ve got to push more weight,” Pellum said simply.
Pellum talked Tuesday about trying to “hone things down” from a schematic standpoint, tailoring a game-plan more specifically to each opponent so that Oregon’s defenders have less to think about, and can play faster.
“We’ve got a whole lot of stuff,” Pellum said. “To be good at it, you can’t run every defense to every offensive system. We need to dial in, tighten up what we’re doing versus what they’re doing.”
And Pellum addressed the issue of fundamentals, including missed tackles that contributed to the big rushing performances by Arizona and Oregon State.
“We’ve got to do a better job right now of bending our knees, moving our feet, rolling our hips,” Pellum said. “When you watch film and you evaluate players you see it: ‘I’m gonna make a tackle, here comes the running back, I stop my feet, his feet are still moving’ – that’s two or three yards. We’ve got to change that.”
Perhaps more than any other word, though, Pellum harped Tuesday on discipline. That, he said, is a virtue of his time playing for and coaching under Rich Brooks, who took the Ducks from perennial conference doormat in the late 1970s to the 1994 Rose Bowl season.
“We need to be better with our discipline, and that’s discipline in all aspects of your life,” Pellum said. “It’s the little things: It’s third down and you can’t jump offsides. Those are mental things, and those are things we can control. We need to do a better job of identifying those things.”
To help himself with identifying potential hurdles he’ll encounter as a defensive coordinator, Pellum said he planned to visit with colleagues in similar positions on college and NFL staffs around the country. He intends to do so both before and after Oregon’s spring practices, in April and early May.
“What else is out there?” Pellum said. “We’ve been doing the same thing forever. There might be a better way out there.”
In Pellum, the Ducks have promoted a coach integral to the way things have been done at Oregon for years, and at a high level. And also, a coach seemingly eager to find out ways they can be done even better.