- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti knows transition. He's coached at Oregon in five different decades and under four head coaches. He's seen tough times and BCS bowl games. So Chip Kelly's departure to the Philadelphia Eagles isn't going shake the earth beneath his feet.
Kelly's exit and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich's ascension to head coach? Just part of the business, which for him is business as usual running the Duck defense.
"At this point in the game, it's been a very smooth, easy transition, to the point I don't feel or see any difference," Aliotti said. "I guess until we start playing games and things start happening that are meaningful I might have a better answer. But my gut feeling tells me that there will be very little difference in the way Chip did things and the way Mark will do things."
Which bodes well for the program, because Aliotti, 58, isn't going to change either.
Oregon's defense, as has been typical during its national rise, was again outstanding in 2012. Some folks still don't understand how the Ducks' ludicrous-speed offense skews certain numbers, which enables a scattering of lunkheads to perceive mediocrity.
Such as this: Oregon ranked sixth in the conference and 44th in the nation in total defense (374.2 yards per game).
Solid, but not above a chortle from our SEC friends.
Ah, but Oregon ranked No. 1 in the nation in turnovers forced -- 40, two more than anyone else -- 15th in in pass efficiency defense, 14th in third down efficiency, 10th in redzone efficiency and 26th in yards per play. Oh, and 25th in the nation in scoring (21.62 points per game).
So, yeah, the Ducks had one of the nation's 15-to-20 best defenses in 2012. Looking ahead, eight starters are back from that unit in 2013, and that doesn't include talented and experienced depth, particularly on the line and in the secondary.
Said Aliotti, "Eight of 11 spots should be as good or better. Three we have to shore up."
Shoring up is right. Those three losses are huge in terms of talent, production and leadership. They are concentrated at linebacker in the Ducks' hybrid 3-4: outside linebacker Dion Jordan and inside linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay.
Clay and Jordan were the Ducks most vocal leaders in 2012. Jordan is going to be a top-10 NFL draft pick, and Alonso figures to get selected around the third round. Clay, despite lacking ideal size, has a good chance to get drafted.
"They're irreplaceable initially," Aliotti siad. "Whoever steps in there obviously is not going to be that caliber when they first step in there. Those guys meant so much to us."
Tony Washington, who has plenty of experience, will step in for Jordan. Aliotti also said Boseko Lokombo, a returning starter at the opposite outside linebacker spot, Tyson Coleman and Christian French will help fill Jordan's void. All four have seen plenty of action.
"None of them are Dion but those four will man that position," Aliotti said.
As for replacing Clay and Alonso, Aliotti is less sanguine.
"I don't feel as comfortable in there as I do at the outside position to be honest with you," he said.
Part of that is injuries. Top candidates Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have been hurt this spring. That's brought Coleman inside -- he played well backing up Lokombo last year -- along with Rahim Cassell. Aliotti also mentioned Joe Walker.
When the discussion turns to the defensive line and secondary, Aliotti brightens considerably.
The D-line is big, athletic and, due to injury issues last fall, experienced. Expect senior end Taylor Hart to transition from underrated to properly appreciated. Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli provide 300-pound bodies inside, while DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci figure to improve dramatically after seeing significant action as true freshmen.
The secondary is potentially the best in the Pac-12 in both talent and depth. Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are the conference's best cornerback tandem. They both could end up first-team All-Pac-12, as Ekpre-Olomu did in 2012 after hauling in four interceptions and forcing six fumbles.
"I think they're pretty equal. I like them both the same," Aliotti said when asked which corner was better.
The Ducks have three big voids, no doubt. But there's a lot coming back. Including Aliotti, who will be coaching his 22nd season in Eugene after he turned down an overture from Lane Kiffin to talk about USC's defensive coordinator vacancy.
A new, offensive minded head coach? No worries. Aliotti's seen it before and things have worked out just fine.
"It's been the same as before, so it's kind of cool," he said.
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