by Rob Moseley
Venue: Moshofsky Center
Format: Full pads
Twice during the final period of Tuesday's practice for the Ducks, I glanced over to the defensive half of the field and saw linebacker Joe Walker deep down the field in coverage for passes that fell incomplete.
This is not to suggest that two practice reps, out of 100-plus for the day and thousands in the last few weeks, tell the story of Walker's coverage skills. But there were two plays to be made, and the sophomore linebacker made both.
Continuing with yesterday's theme of pass defense being an 11-man job, as Oregon prepares to face the nation's leading passer in Cal's Jared Goff, the linebackers figure to be tested along with the rest of the UO defense Saturday night. Given the graduation of Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan, one of the major question marks about the new group was how effective they could be in their coverage assignments, and Saturday will be a major test.
"We've done OK," UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "We're going to find out a lot more this weekend."
Among the very little that Oregon's defense surrendered in three nonconference games were 11 receptions by Nicholls running back Marcus Washington, and 12 by Virginia's tight end tandem of Jake McGee and Zachary Swanson. Tennessee's leading receiver was also a running back, Rajion Neal, but he had just four catches for 23 yards, and Vols tight end Brendan Downs only caught two balls in the game.
"I feel like we've gotten better," Walker said today after practice about the linebackers' coverage responsibilities. "But the game is the test. We'll find out on Saturday."
Personally, said Walker, the backup to starting MIKE linebacker Rodney Hardrick, "I feel good. I feel like I've progressed in the last couple weeks. I feel a lot more comfortable."
But, again, Saturday will be the true test.
Highlights: After focusing on the defensive half of the field Monday, I spent more time watching the offense today, and was really impressed by Josh Huff. He had a breakaway run on one of the first reps of the day, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and caught scoring passes from Marcus Mariota both in seven-on-seven and team drills. … B.J. Kelley had a pancake block in space to spring one of Huff's touchdowns. De'Anthony Thomas scored a rushing touchdown thanks to a pancake at the line by Mana Greig before splitting down-field blocks by Keanon Lowe and Ayele Forde, and Lowe had another block late in the day to spring another Huff touchdown. …
The scout-team quarterbacks are obviously putting the ball in the air a lot as they mimic Cal's offense, and today Taylor Alie completed a scoring pass over the top of the secondary. … Jake Rodrigues made a really tough throw in team drills, scrambling to his left and throwing back to the middle of the field for a touchdown to Chance Allen, and Jeff Lockie put some nice touch on a TD pass to Johnny Mundt.
Other observations: Cal won't pass on EVERY single play, and when the Bears do run, the UO defense looks ready. Derrick Malone, Ricky Havili-Heimuli and Rahim Cassell all swarmed a runner in the backfield during a team rep this morning. … I didn't notice as many interceptions today as I did Monday, though there were still a lot of passes broken up. They just ended up on the turf rather than in a DB's arms. … Speaking of Mundt, after watching five days of practice since his breakout game against Tennessee, I'm as intrigued as everyone else to see how the tight ends will be used, as a rotation or together. Mundt, Colt Lyerla and Pharaoh Brown are all good enough to contribute with the first-team, to my eyes. …
Huff's kickoff return touchdown was one of few big plays for that group today. After practice, Mark Helfrich made a point of lauding the effort of the scout-team guys on the coverage team for that period. "That was awesome," he said. "That's the standard for the rest of our team right there." … Newcomers to the team hustled over to campus after practice for a two-hour academic orientation session, in advance of fall term starting next week.