Q&A: Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti

August, 6, 2009
8/06/09
11:56
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

If Oregon's defensive coordinator had a reality show, it would be called, "Nick Aliotti: It's Complicated."

Some Ducks fans look at Aliotti's defense and only see a unit that surrendered 28 points and 390 yards per game, both measures ranking in the bottom half of the Pac-10.

 
  Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
  T.J. Ward needs to become more "cerebral" if he's to take the next step, according to Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.

"If we only could match a dominant defense with our already dominant offense!" the thinking goes. "Then we'd be USC, only with more colorful and creative uniforms!"

But it's not that simple.

The Ducks offense operates faster than any other. It rolled up 485 yards and 42 points a game in 2008, despite playing against five defenses ranked in the top 26 in the nation and using five different quarterbacks.

But it ranked last in the nation in time of possession: 25:11 per game.

Last.

That means Duck defenders often were only halfway through a sideline orange slice before they were called back to the field.

Only one team faced more plays on defense last season than Oregon: Missouri, which also seeks a ludicrous pace on offense.

And here's an interesting factoid: The Ducks yielded just 4.90 yards per play.

That's a better number than Virginia Tech, which ranked seventh in the nation in total defense, Georgia (22nd), Oregon State (23) and Arizona (24), among others.

Oh, and Oregon also ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10 with 40 sacks and No. 2 with 31 forced turnovers.

Still, many Ducks fans never got past "a unit that surrendered 28 points and 390 yards per game."

"Complicated" sometimes doesn't wash with football fans.

So it seemed reasonable to stop by for a chat with the affable Aliotti, who's replacing six starters from last year's unit.

Good summer?

Nick Aliotti: Had an excellent summer! Did a lot of fun things. Played a lot of golf. I finally got my handicap down to a reasonable amount but you know how that goes -- I won't swing again until June or July.

So after one spring and offseason, what's the biggest difference for you working under Chip Kelly as opposed to Mike Bellotti?

NA: It's always tough when you compare somebody because one guy could get offended by what you say sometimes. But, not being too political, I think the biggest difference is we play in hyperspeed now and we practice in hyperspeed. Chip, having not been a head coach before, is more into coaching football -- doing X's and O's -- and not that CEO-type job yet. And that's not a knock on Mike. I'm just explaining my answer. So practicing at hyperspeed and Chip being a football junkie jump out to me.

When you met with Kelly, did he ask for any changes with the defensive scheme? How involved will he be with the defense?

NA: Chip has been pretty much the same as Mike at this point. Pretty much letting me do my thing. I think he spends more time wanting to know what we do, but has pretty much let me do my thing. No, he hasn't been involved in what we're doing defensively, other than asking questions from time to time.

Give me the CliffsNotes version of your defensive philosophy?

NA: We're a multiple front and coverage, gap-coordinated defense with a lot of kinetic, always moving and changing with stunts, blitzes and dogs. We try to make it difficult on the quarterback -- because he's the thinking man there -- where we're 11-on-1 and making him think about where we're coming from and what we're doing.

You guys' spread-option, no-huddle offense thrives on a fast tempo: How does that affect the defense?

NA: It was extremely difficult. You're hitting a strong point and a tough point. Defensively, it makes it very difficult. You need to be in great condition and you need to play more guys, with a little bit more platooning. It's nice when we score fast, which we do quite a bit, but by the same token you're out there right away and there's not much rest, you know what I'm saying? Also, because of the fast tempo, when they're not soaring and it's three-and-out, we're out there quite a bit, too. We played more snaps than anybody in the United States of America on defense last year [other than Missouri].

Were you disappointed with the defense's numbers last year, or do you feel those numbers were deceiving?

NA: I'm a straight shooter, Ted, but I think the numbers were deceiving. Not to get into a whole bunch of stats, but Virginia Tech, which we'd all think is a very good defense -- you agree? [Yes] -- Bud Foster has been there a long time and done a great job with that defense. Just as an example, they gave up more yards per play than we did and they were seventh in the country on defense and we were [82nd]. You could skew that any way you want, but I'm just trying to answer your question. Oregon State was in the top 25 on defense, and they also gave up more yards per play than us. We were [23rd] in rush defense and defended more running plays than almost anyone in the country [Oregon faced 503 running plays last year. No other rush defense ranked in the top 29 in the country defended more than 495]. The stats get really, really skewed when you play 80 to 90 plays per game as opposed to 60 to 70 plays. One might be quick to say, "Stop them and go three-and-out and you won't have that problem," but that doesn't happen in today's game. The amount of plays we saw gives you a distorted vision of what we actually were on defense.

Let's talk about this year's unit. Where are the biggest concerns entering fall camp?

NA: First and foremost, our secondary is new in the sense we lost two early second-round NFL draft picks [safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Jairus Byrd], so we have two returning starters and everyone else has played very little. Byrd and Chung were great players for us ... We lose that experience and that knowledge. That would be my first and foremost concern: Where we are with the secondary at this point. And there's not a lot of depth.

To me, losing three guys on the defensive front would be a big deal. It seems like you and Chip feel pretty good about where the D-line is right now.

NA: You know, we lost three starters there also, so that is a big question mark. But with the defensive line, I think we can negotiate enough things, and put enough guys in the box when we have to to stop the run. Whereas in the backend, those are where explosion plays happen and when explosion plays happen that's when bad things happen to you.

What will be the strength of this defense?

NA: Right now, it's our linebackers. To just one word: speed. Speed all the way around. We run to the ball really well. We play fast. We play hard. And we finish plays. We had a really good spring that way.

Fans love safety T.J. Ward for his hitting. What does he need to do to become an all-conference player?

NA: T.J. Ward needs to underst
and that he can't make every play. He must be more cerebral in his job assignments, meaning that a lot of times because he does blow people up and he wants to get into the mix of things -- yeah, it looks good to the naked eye -- but sometimes we might be out of position if they were doing something else. He's a very good football player, but he has to be more disciplined.

What do you expect out of a healthy cornerback Walter Thurmond this season? How do you rank him among the corners you've coached?

NA: I've been very lucky there. Walter Thurmond had an outstanding spring for us. Not a good spring. An outstanding spring. He can be a big key to solidifying and calming down that secondary back there because he's got a lot of experience, a lot of savvy and he's done a lot of great things for us. He had an incredible spring and if that continues that will go a long way for us.

What about end Will Tukuafu: What are your feelings and expectations for him? It seems like this is an opportunity for him to step out of Nick Reed's shadow.

NA: Will is a very good football player. Will is an older guy but he has not seen a lot of things defensively. Last year was his first time as a full-time starter. I think that experience, seeing things more, becoming more of a leader, I expect Will to have a great year. He's bigger and stronger and [defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro] did a great job with those guys over the spring. I expect big things from Will. We're going to need him to make a lot of those plays Nick Reed made for us.

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