More than a few folks believe Henry Mondeaux will become the next big thing on Oregon's defense. The downside of that narrative is that more than a few folks believe Oregon is a once big thing in decline.
The Ducks finished ranked in the top 11 of the final AP poll seven consecutive seasons before ending up 19th last year. That run included four top-five finishes and two berths in the national title game. The preseason expectations in 2016, however, have the Ducks at the bottom of the top 25 and, more often than not, looking up at Sanford and resurgent rival Washington, a team the Ducks have beaten 12 consecutive years.
That expectation of potential decline is based mostly on defense. The Ducks were terrible on the mean side of the ball last year, yielding a Pac-12-worst 37.5 points per game, the worst total in school history. It was nearly two touchdown worse than the year before. Oregon finished in 115th or worse in the FBS in six defensive categories.
When asked to diagnose what went wrong last year, Mondeaux is mostly at a loss, requiring a long pause before answering.
“We just didn’t have the camaraderie last year," he said. "There were a lot of changes made, guys weren’t playing for the defense as a whole. We weren’t really in shape. Overall, we just didn’t have the tough mentality that lasts throughout the season.”
A lot of changes happened this offseason, too, with Don Pellum stepping back after two years as coordinator and former Michigan coach Brady Hoke taking over and installing a new 4-3 scheme.
Moreover, while the front seven last year was veteran and the secondary almost completely green, the reverse is true this season. The secondary, which struggled mightily in 2015, returns intact, while Mondeaux is the only returning starter up front. The most glaring departure is end DeForest Buckner, who was picked seventh overall by the San Francisco 49ers and new coach Chip Kelly, a name perhaps familiar to some Ducks fans.
Buckner, despite being Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, was unable to carry the defense on his shoulders, and Mondeaux won't either. But the 6-foot-5, 280-pound true junior looks like a good place to start. He surged late last season and finished with four sacks, and he reportedly was one of the spring standouts, on the cusp of an all-conference turn despite dealing with Type 1 diabetes.
One of the cliches of the college football offseason is coaches and players lauding the dedication, work ethic and unity of the locker room during summer workouts. Annually, it is called "the best ever." No coach or player says offseason workouts were poorly attended and unenthusiastically embraced. Mondeaux is not any different when describing this offseason, but he is willing to say that such flowery terms were misused by the Ducks in advance of the 2015 campaign.
“We definitely had to change our attitude and change the way we were working in the offseason," he said.
While Oregon is known nationally for its up-tempo, high-flying offense, its defense has been consistently underrated and has more often than not determined the trajectory of the team's season. Further, the talent on defense has matched the offense. Since 2009, 17 Ducks defenders have been selected in the NFL draft, including three in the first round, while the offense has provided 14 players, including two first-rounders.
While much of the preseason attention will be focused on the quarterback competition between Montana State grad transfer Dakota Prukop and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen, the trajectory of Oregon's season probably hangs on how much Hoke's new scheme transforms a young defense.
Mondeaux said Hoke emphasized his scheme would be aggressive and attacking, with D-linemen responsible for one gap instead of the read-and-react demands of the previous two-gap approach. But scheme was only part two of Hoke's story.
“He stressed how we’re going to be working harder," he said. "We’re going to be committed to what’s going on and we’re going to be more accountable when coaches aren’t around, when it’s the offseason.”
You might be noticing a recurrent theme with Mondeaux's remarks.
Mondeaux seemed reluctant insert himself into a recent Ducks D-line legacy that includes Buckner and Arik Armstead, a first-round selection by the 49ers after the 2014 season. He also didn't seem interested in engaging the media angle of Oregon's potential decline.
“I can’t say that I’ve thought about that at all," he said.
If the defense regains its mojo, Mondeaux and the Ducks probably won't have to think about it -- or answer questions about it -- much longer, particularly with the hated Huskies visiting on Oct. 8.