by Rob Moseley
Oregon’s defense will have a new look in spring practice, with a new coordinator prowling the sideline and a new scheme being installed.
Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke was hired Saturday as defensive coordinator, replacing Don Pellum, who is remaining with the staff as linebackers coach. A long-time defensive assistant before his three head coaching stops, Hoke has favored a 4-3 front that will be the Ducks’ base defense for 2016, a departure from the 3-4 front installed in 2009.
UO coach Mark Helfrich spoke Saturday evening with media who cover the Ducks, for the first time since announcing Pellum’s reassignment and to comment on Hoke’s hiring.
“As we’ve said many times, we’re in the ‘get better’ business,” Helfrich said. “We just felt as a program, and I just felt as leader of that program, that was the direction we needed to go, as far as a different voice, a different command over that unit. …
“We needed just a different direction, and that will be schematic as well.”
While Hoke never before has had the title of college defensive coordinator, “he was intimately involved in every defense when he was head coach, and a de facto defensive coordinator many years,” Helfrich noted.
Each of Hoke’s last two coaching stops featured massive improvements on the defensive side of the ball. San Diego State allowed 6.18 yards per plays in 2008, No. 103 in the FBS; under Hoke in 2009, the Aztecs allowed 5.39 yards per play, and in 2010 they allowed 4.86, ranking 22nd in the FBS.
That same season, Michigan allowed 6.09 yards per play, No. 101 in the nation. Hoke arrived in 2011 and the Wolverines improved to 5.22 yards per play allowed. That average dropped to 4.93 in 2012, and the Wolverines ranked 14th nationally at 4.77 yards per play allowed in 2014, Hoke’s fourth and final season.
The Ducks are seeking improvement in a unit that ranked 98th last season, allowing 6.03 yards per play. Hoke will be tasked with that job during spring drills, which he’ll spend as a “walk-around coordinator” overseeing the installation of his defense and assessing his new players under the direction of returning position coaches Ron Aiken (defensive line), John Neal (secondary) and Pellum.
“He’s been an excellent head coach, he’s been an excellent defensive coach, for a long, long time,” Helfrich said. “He’s been around a lot of great people, and he’s coached a lot of great people. I think he’s going to have a renewed bounce in his step (after not coaching in 2015), as a ‘young’ old guy.”
Hoke is also considered an outstanding recruiter. His 2012 and 2013 classes at Michigan each ranked in the top 10 nationally according to Rivals.com. Helfrich said Hoke had some final paperwork to wrap up as soon as possible before joining the rest of the UO staff on the road filling out the class that will sign in February.
“He’s a great guy, fun to be around; guys like to play for him, which plays into the recruiting part of it,” Helfrich said.
Helfrich said he was “headed (the) direction” of shaking up the defensive staff even prior to Oregon’s Alamo Bowl loss to TCU, in which the Ducks squandered a 31-0 halftime lead. Pellum, who molded a string of productive inside linebackers as position coach prior to being named defensive coordinator in 2014, “has handled this incredibly well,” Helfrich said, “and is a guy who, as I’ve said before, is part of the solution.”
It’s possible, following the spring installation period, that Hoke could coach a position group in the fall, Helfrich said. For the time being, though, he’ll be installing his scheme, which will be built around a base 4-3 front.
In 2009, the Ducks moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 that featured a hybrid end/linebacker position, allowing multiple looks. Recently they’ve been closer to a traditional 3-4 team, while still varying fronts at times. Helfrich said “there’s going to be guys standing up and moving around” in Hoke's scheme as well.