Kevin Clune jokes that he has transformed some terrible defenses into mediocre ones during his 24 years coaching football. So Oregon State's plight is no shock to his system. At this point, Beavers fans would be thrilled with mediocre.
How bad was Oregon State's defense last year? Let us count the ways:
It ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, yielding 37 points per game;
It ranked last in the conference in yards per play (6.4);
It ranked last in pass-efficiency defense, yielding a stunning 68.5 completion percentage, which might be a conference record (no team has been worse since 2008);
It ranked last in sacks, its 17 being 10 fewer than any other team's total;
It ranked last in forced turnovers, its 12 being four fewer than any other team's total.
Clune, Oregon State's new defensive coordinator, inherits no players who earned even honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. The closest thing to returning star power was linebacker Rommel Mageo, who led the Beavers defense in just about everything last year, including tackles, sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles. But he transferred to Ole Miss.
When his old coaching buddy Gary Andersen came calling after defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was hired as BYU's head coach, Clune had no illusions about the hand he was being dealt. Andersen and Sitake have respected defensive minds, yet they had no answers for Pac-12 offenses in 2015.
"There was going to be a lot of work to be done," Clune said.
What Oregon State is hoping for could be best illustrated by what Clune did in one season at Hawaii, where he took over an unsound, woebegone unit from 2013 and made it respectable in 2014, reducing its points-per-game yield by 12 and its yards-per-game total from 494.7 to 418.2.
While Clune isn't looking back at what happened with the Beavers last year, or making any guarantees for this season, he and Andersen are all-in together. Andersen is coaching the defensive line, giving Oregon State five position coaches on defense. Yes, there's a lot of teaching going on this spring.
"That was the main thing -- trying to get back to basics, trying to start re-teaching from Day 1," Clune said. "[Andersen] thought that was important."
In terms of scheme, Clune is bringing in his version of the 3-4, one that falls in line with a shared vision from Andersen, who he has known for more than 15 years, occasionally as members of the same staff. Through six spring practices, however, that scheme is as much a work in progress as Clune's young personnel. Clune has repeatedly used the term "evolve" when asked about his defense, and it's pretty clear there are talent gaps that will require some patchwork in the short term.
"We have our vision but it's going to evolve," he said. "The 2016 version of Oregon State's defense is going to be different from what it is right now and then next year we'll have different players and it's going to change again ... I think a major evolution is going to happen after spring ball. Right now we're still kind of throwing things at them, seeing how they react."
Clune has a positive first impression with some of his linebackers -- Manase Hungalu, Caleb Saulo and Bright Ugwoegbu -- as well as cornerback Dwayne Williams, but it's too early to start putting the puzzle together.
Said Clune of player evaluation at this point, "Is he just flashing or is that really who he is?"
The old-school Clune is pushing his players hard and taking their measure. It will require mental toughness to improve next year from bad to mediocre because merely arriving at mediocre is emotionally taxing as a unit tries to outflank more talented foes with opportunistic stunts and sheer want-to.
Yet mediocre would be the positive first step for Clune, Andersen and the Beavers, winless in Pac-12 play in 2015, as they try to reverse the trajectory of a program that won nine games in 2012 and is hungry to join the Northwest renaissance in the conference's North Division.