Pac-12: Jerry Azzinaro

Helfrich's Oregon staff complete

February, 1, 2013
With the hiring of Ron Aiken as defensive line coach and the promotion of Scott Frost to offensive coordinator, Oregon has completed the post-Chip Kelly coaching staff under Mark Helfrich.

Good hires. And both coaches inherit loaded decks.

Frost gets eight starters back from the nation's best offense, including a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. Aiken gets an experienced crew that goes seven deep.

Frost, of course, will be on the spot, and we mean that in a good way.

While Oregon's staff under Kelly was known for its notable continuity, Frost has long been viewed as an up-and-comer. He's had opportunities to leave Oregon, but he seemed content in Eugene, at least until someone handed him his own offense.

It was just a matter of time before he'd get one. In fact, if Kelly had stuck around, I'd rate the chances of Frost being at Oregon in 2014 at less than 50 percent.

Frost, 38, brings a compelling resume. Not only has he been working under Kelly and Helfrich -- a dynamic mentoring duo -- as receivers coach for four seasons, he knows both sides of the ball as a player and coach.

After starting his college career at Stanford, he won a national championship as Nebraska's quarterback in 1997. He then played safety in the NFL. Before he came to Oregon, he was the defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa.

As the Ducks' new quarterbacks coach, he'll bring plenty of perspective to the position he'll oversee.

He's played for Stanford’s Bill Walsh and Nebraska’s Tom Osborne as well as the New York Jets’ Bill Parcels in the NFL. Toss in his needing no get-to-know-you period at Oregon, and you see there are plenty of reasons to have faith in his taking the keys to the Ducks' offense.

All Frost needs to do is make sure Oregon continues to average 50 points and 540 yards per game. No problemo?

As for Aiken, he's spent the past six season coaching defensive line with the Arizona Cardinals. NFL experience will give him immediate credibility with his players. He also knows college football, as he coached the defensive line at Iowa for eight season (1999-2006). He's also had stints at San Diego State, Texas, Vanderbilt and New Mexico.

He's also filling big shoes, though.

Jerry Azzinaro, the lone full-time assistant who followed Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles, was a critical part of the Ducks' staff. For one, he brought an emotional intensity to practices and games that will be hard to replace. He also played a key role in the changes -- improvements -- over the past couple of years, including the adoption of a base 3-4 look, which Kelly ridiculously acted like hadn't happened.

Still, you'd have to say Helfrich has deftly handled the first decisions following his elevation to head coach.

Kelly's decision to leave surely inspired some handwringing among Ducks fans. These staff moves should ease those initial concerns.


Gang Green, take 2: Oregon's defense is surprisingly stout

October, 28, 2009
Posted by's Ted Miller

Oregon's defense doesn't pencil out. It's clearly very good, but it shouldn't be.

The Ducks lost six starters, four of whom were NFL draft picks, from a 2008 defense that ranked 82nd in the nation in total defense and 78th in scoring defense. T.J. Ward was a returning starter at free safety, but he's only recently returned to action after being injured in the first half of the season-opener at Boise State. Cornerback and team captain Walter Thurmond III, generally considered the Ducks' best player, blew out his knee on Sept. 26.

Look at it like this: Name a defensive starter for Oregon.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Linebacker Spencer Paysinger and the Oregon defense have surprised many with their performance so far this season.

Defensive end Will Tukuafu? Good for you. He's long been an underrated player. Clay Matthews? Actually, Oregon's middle linebacker is "Casey" Matthews, but it's the same gene pool, so that's not too bad.

It's a no-name crew that has been riddled by injuries -- Willie Glasper, who replaced Thurmond, also was lost for the year to a knee injury -- yet here Oregon is, ranked 19th in the nation in both total defense and scoring defense.

When Washington scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 43-19 defeat last weekend, it was the first TD against the Ducks' defense in 15 quarters.

How can this be? Oregon hasn't ranked among the top 40 in total defense since 2004. It hasn't had a "special" defense since 1994, when the "Gang Green" led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.

There are a lot of explanations, though.

"They're being very aggressive and they've really been aggressive mixing their odd front and their 4-2 front," said USC coach Pete Carroll, whose Trojans visit Oregon on Saturday. "It's been problematic for their opponents. They've had a lot of pressure and a lot of plays in the backfield."

That's true. Oregon ranks third in the Pac-10 and 10th in the nation in sacks (3.14 per game) and is 25th in the nation in tackles for a loss (7.0 per game).

UCLA had just 211 yards and didn't score an offensive touchdown against Oregon. Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel said the Ducks play hard, play their gap responsibilities and are good tacklers.

California's only points against Oregon in a 42-3 defeat came after the Ducks fumbled the opening kickoff. The drive totaled minus-8 yards. Coach Jeff Tedford said Oregon has speed at every position, which will be critical in the matchup with the Trojans.

"I think Oregon's defense is going to match up pretty favorably [with USC]," he said.

Washington moved the ball at times against Oregon, but the Ducks recorded four sacks and forced three turnovers, one of which concluded a first-half goal-line stand. Coach Steve Sarkisian said Oregon isn't giving up big plays, which has been a problem in the past.

"They're making teams drive down the field and not get yards in chunks," he said.

As for Oregon's longtime defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti, he gives a jovial shrug. Why is his defense so good? Beats him.

"If I had the answer to that, I would bottle it," he said.

Maybe it's better chemistry. Maybe the focus and work ethic are better.

Of course, Aliotti is being a bit coy. There have been some scheme tweaks.

Coaches who have played the Ducks, as well as Carroll, note Oregon has diversified its defensive alignments and is running more zone blitzes.

"Yeah, we're doing more of that," Aliotti said after a brief pause. "I'm trying not to give away all our secrets."

Aliotti also admitted he's not trading out personnel groups as much, which can disrupt a defense's rhythm and sometimes lead to confusion. He also talked about the coaching staff being "on the same page," which suggests some staff changes, specifically the addition of defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, have helped.

Linebacker Spencer Paysinger, one of the returning starters you've never heard of but is, nonetheless, a really good player, said he likes how the defense is playing more aggressively and is "able to put bodies on people instead of just dropping into zones."

He's also noticed how the defense's play has turned Aliotti's frown upside down. More than a few Oregon fans have groused about Aliotti's defense through the years because it didn't match the typically high-powered offense. When Aliotti defended his defense, some rolled their eyes.

Those complaints are rarer these days.

"He does have a smile on his face," Paysinger said. "He knows his defense has been lights out the past few games."

While Aliotti clearly is enjoying the defensive renaissance -- he's coached at Oregon 19 seasons, split between three different tenures -- he's also quick to note the season is only seven games old and, oh by the way, USC is coming to town.

He's not ready to talk about this crew as the second-coming of his "Gang Green" unit just yet.

Not that he's ruling out a new nickname at some point.

"Maybe we'll give them something fancy at the end of the year," he said.

Observations from Oregon: Kelly's in charge

August, 19, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

EUGENE, Ore. -- Chip Kelly has to be himself, so he's going to figure out a way to change the job of head Oregon football coach so it fits him, not the other way around.

Administrative tasks bogging him down? He'll spend all summer carefully planning out every detail of the Ducks -- and his -- schedule so that won't be an issue during the season.

"Our schedule is set until after the bowl game, whatever bowl game we go to," he said. "I could tell you what time our meeting is on Oct. 26... I can tell you what day we start spring practice. Our spring game is on May 1. We've got the whole year planned out."

A jones to continue directly coaching players not getting satisfied? Kelly created the "tazer" position, a hybrid running back-receiver, which he now coaches just like any other position coach. Kelly has daily meetings with his tazers, Ed Dickson -- formerly known as one of the nation's best tight ends -- and LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, who once were backup running backs.

A football practice with a million things going on still missing something? Hey, let's play music during practice, from James Brown to Pearl Jam to Eric Clapton to the new stuff that the kids like.

(Kelly's eclectic tastes get a tip of the cap from the Pac-10 blog. He even likes the Dropkick Murphys, whose version of "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" is the best part of the movie, "The Departed.")

"As long as the songs don't have any profanity," he notes.

In the old days, head coaches climbed towers to lord over practices. Most head coaches these days linger on the periphery, giving only occasional pieces of sage advice or offering bits of intimidation as motivation.

Kelly starts coaching at the first whistle and doesn't stop until the last.

He barks: "Finish!" "Aggressive!" "Where are you supposed to be?"

Five quarterbacks throw the ball into the air at the same time during a drill. One ball hits the ground. Kelly knows exactly who and what went wrong.

At any moment, he could be explaining nuances to a player who catches his eye or debriefing with an assistant.

"That's the fun part. You have to coach the way you know how. Some guys are great at being CEOs," he said. "I want to stay involved."

He's also willing to do some things that seem strange but may soon be better described as "innovative." Quarterbacks wear helmet cams, so coaches can look through their eyes. Stand-ins for defensive linemen strap onto their shoulders what look like large black fans in order to obscure the vision of the quarterback.

If there was any question that Kelly might wait to put his imprint on a program that thrived for 14 years under Mike Bellotti, well, the answer is no. These Ducks are now Kelly-green.

  • While former backup quarterback Justin Roper's decision to transfer shouldn't be termed "a good thing," it's clear watching practices that Kelly has three capable quarterbacks who perfectly fit into his spread-option system: Jeremiah Masoli, Nate Costa and Darron Thomas. All three are good runners and passers. If Roper had remained with Oregon and had been needed for whatever reason, his skill set -- he's not much of a runner -- would have required some tweaks to the game plan. Said Kelly, "That's what we're looking for -- a quarterback who can really run. Those guys are ideal for what we're looking for. I feel better about our quarterback depth this year than I did last year ... I wouldn't hesitate to play any of those three guys."
  • Oregon is tall at receiver. At any given time it could split out wide Dickson (6-foot-5), Dion Jordan (6-foot-7), Rory Cavaille (6-foot-3), Lavasier Tuinei (6-foot-5) or Tyrece Gaines (6-foot-3). "That's kind of by design in recruiting," Kelly said.
  • A flu bug has run through the Ducks. Kelly said that around 15 to 20 players have missed practices -- almost always two days -- including four on Wednesday.
  • New defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro isn't a huge guy but my initial impression is you'd want him on your side in a bar fight. "Our defensive line is playing great right now. They really have caused some problems in camp," Kelly said. "I think [Azzinaro] is as good as any D-line coach in the country. I think it's showing."
  • The Ducks seem close to set on the offensive line with Jordan Holmes at center, Bo Thran at left tackle and C.E. Kaiser opposite him on the right side. Mark Asper is the right guard and Carson York leads at left guard. Kelly said he felt confident with Nick Cody and Darrion Weems in terms of depth.

Q&A: Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti

August, 6, 2009

Posted by'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.


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.

(Read full post)

Former Duck lands at Nevada; Are UO transfers an issue?

June, 17, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

He was projected to start on Oregon's defensive line in 2009, but Tonio Celotto quit football in March and told the Eugene Register-Guard that he was moving back "to Southern California to attend to an ailing grandmother."

Celotto has resurfaced at Nevada, where he'll resume his football career after sitting out a season.


There was also this from the Register-Guard in March:

Celotto said the departure of former UO defensive line coach Michael Gray also factored into his thinking. [New head coach Chip] Kelly elected not to retain Gray when it was announced Kelly would replace Mike Bellotti as Oregon's head coach.

Celotto called new defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro "an amazing guy" but said Gray was "not only like a father but also a friend."

Celotto also wanted to go into law enforcement and Oregon doesn't offer a major in criminal justice.

He was the first of four Ducks who were expected to start or be key reserves this season but ended up bolting this spring. He was followed by starting receiver Aaron Pflugrad, backup quarterback Justin Roper and potential starting receiver Chris Harper, a former quarterback.

Roper left to find playing time; Harper to play quarterback and be closer to home. Pflugrad skipped town because his father, Robin, was fired as receivers coach.

Celotto, it appears, falls somewhere between Pflugrad and Harper.

There is almost always player attrition after a coaching change. But, yes, this is more than usual, at least in terms of players who were likely going to be high-level contributors.

While it may raise an eyebrow or two, it doesn't strike me as terribly alarming. There's no indication anything sinister is at work here -- each of these four had valid reasons for leaving. And new coach Chip Kelly's consistent attitude of "if you don't want to be here, then go" is the correct approach.

It would only become a worrisome trend if similar transfers continued at the same rate into next year.