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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Don't be surprised if ... Oregon

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Fifth in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.

Don't be surprised if ... Oregon's defense is better in 2009, despite welcoming back only five starters.

If you are surrounded by Oregon fans who are bothering you, pretend you see somebody behind them and then yell, "Hey, is that Nick Aliotti?"

Then step back and watch the impassioned discussion over the Ducks' defensive coordinator.

Heck, the debate over the Ducks' defense in 2008 -- the subtle quality or abject underachievement -- even extended into the Web pages of The Oregonian, where Paul Buker (Oregon State beat writer) made fun of Oregon beat writer John Hunt's completely reasonable defense of the Ducks, er, defense.

It was a hoot, as Buker's posts from the "dark, rainy, bullet-riddled southeast [Portland]" usually are.

Some surely have imagined offensive-minded Mike Bellotti's internal but never uttered answer to questions about his defense over the years as, "Defense? We don't need no ... stinkin' defense!"

Bellotti, when asked, always said he cared most about points-allowed, not yards, which justified Aliotti's bend-but-don't-break scheme.

Points you say? Well, the defense gave up 28 of 'em per game last year, which ranked seventh in the Pac-10 and muted the factoid that the Ducks only surrendered 4.9 yards per play, which ranked fourth in the conference.

And now the Ducks head into a 2009 season, one filled with high expectations, with a defense that not only lost six starters, but it lost five starters presently on NFL rosters, four of whom were drafted and two of whom were early second-round picks.

So why the belief the Ducks' D will improve despite the turnover?

To be honest, it takes root in this: Chip Kelly said so.

Kelly just grinned and grinned at me when I rung my hands over his defense during a March interview, and you can sense his confidence during this Q&A he did toward the end of spring practices.

Another big reason goes back to Hunt's story: The Ducks' no-huddle offense works about as fast as an offense can work. It ranked last -- 119th! -- in the nation in time of possession last year.

(Pause for a moment and consider the quick-strike efficiency of Kelly's offense, which averaged 42 points and 485 yards per game).

But in 2008 Kelly wasn't responsible for the defense. Now he is.

The Ducks' coaches in the past have discussed tempo. Kelly loves controlling it. And here's a guess that Kelly will be more willing to mix-and-match his approach and even slow things down. Not to the detriment of his offense, mind you, but as an added way to keep opposing defenses guessing. And, of course, to help his D rest.

It also should help that most of the best offenses Oregon will face -- Utah, California, USC and Oregon State -- will be visiting Autzen Stadium.

Moreover, the new personnel, particularly on the D-line, looked good this spring. And there are plenty of quality, experienced players to hold things together.

Cornerback Walter Thurmond III is healthy, which means he's an All-American candidate. T.J. Ward will become a star when he learns that there's more to playing safety than blow-up hits. End Will Tukuafu, stepping out of the shadow of Nick Reed, could play his way into the first day of the NFL draft. The linebacking unit is faster and deeper than it has been in years.

Of course, we won't have to wait long for an early statement: Oregon opens on Sept. 3 at Boise State, which hung 37 points and 386 passing yards on the Ducks a year ago.