I saw the sign and it opened up my mind.

Q&A: Oregon DC Don Pellum

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
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Don Pellum has been around the Oregon football program for decades, first as a player and then as a coach. Following the Valero Alamo Bowl, coach Mark Helfrich announced that Pellum would be taking over for defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. On Monday, following the Ducks' first spring practice, he sat down with ESPN.com to talk about his new coaching duties, the 3-4 defense and improvements from Day 1.

How different is it coming into this spring season as a coordinator instead of a position coach?

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsNew Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum has a lot more on his plate this spring.
Don Pellum: The biggest difference is that you’re looking at the big picture. Prior to this year the focus was just on the run game and the inside. Now, you have to continue to look at the big picture. It’s going to stretch you a little bit more because you have to continue to take care of your position group, but you have a lot more people that you need to see, a lot more things you need to see on the field. It’s exciting.

Many more meetings?

DP: Just longer meetings. We’ll have the same meetings but before when you sat in that room, you watched your guys. You pay attention to everything but you didn’t focus as hard; now you’re focusing on everything. It’s longer meetings, and then prior to some of these meetings, you have to go watch the film and be prepared to discuss everything. But it’s going well. No complaints.

Is the transition to defensive coordinator made easier because the linebackers have the most depth of any defensive position group?

DP: Having a veteran group helps from the standpoint of the fact that some of they understand the way we want to teach things, so there’s flexibility with that group because I can tell them one thing and they get it. They understand exactly where I’m coming from. So from that standpoint, the veteran group helps. I still have to spend the same amount of time getting them ready because those are my guys. I can’t let those guys not be prepared. But it’s comforting because it is a veteran group. If it were a freshman group or just a young group, it’d be a bit more difficult because I’d have to spend some extra time with them.

Even though the depth is in the linebacker group, with how much the Ducks struggled against the run last season, would you consider playing a 4-3 defense instead of a 3-4 this season?

DP: I’m not familiar with the debate at all. I don’t watch as much TV as I should and I read a lot of things, but I don’t read that news. The debate between the 3-4 and the 4-3, it varies. I honestly believe that we need to be smart enough to look at your players and your talent and your abilities and ask, ‘What can we do?’ We run some 4-3, but we’re more 3-4. I think everyone has a package where you run both, but some teams are much more predominant with one or the other. But our personnel, if you say the strength of our team or the strength in terms of veteran players on our team is at the linebackers, then we should be in a 3-4. Because that’s going to put more of those guys on the field. I think both of those defenses are good. I don’t think there’s any bad defense, as long as you understand it. I don’t think you can declare, ‘I’m going to run this defense,’ but then not know it and not have the personnel -- I think that’s a recipe for disaster.

Which part of the game needs to make the biggest strides this spring in order to be successful next fall?

DP: Fundamentals. You look at our defense, and I’d suspect this is everywhere, you look at the big plays and lot of the big plays are from a missed tackle, poor angles -- those are fundamentals. To improve this defense from where we are right now to where we want to get, we’ve got to improve our fundamentals. So that’s tackling, shedding blocks, getting off blocks and running like maniacs. That’s what defense is.

Even though you were only able to see the group for one day, are you starting to see the early forms of that?

DP: Was it near where we want? No. But for the first day was it pretty good? It was pretty good. The communication was really good. You could tell that although we appear to be a young group, you could tell that the guys have been paying attention because across the board they were pretty savvy today about what we were asking them to do. The communication was good. The angles were good. As you walk down the sideline, they weren’t talking about what happened yesterday; they were talking about today and the next [practice], so they’re thinking like you do in a game situation. That’s what we’re trying to create because that’s the culture we need on the sideline. It was encouraging.

Helfrich also said he was impressed with the communication on Day 1. What can that be attributed to?

DP: I think we’ve made that a point as a staff. We’ve made that a concise point to the team that we need to be smarter. We need to increase our knowledge and understanding. As a coaching staff we’ve done a phenomenal job of going through everything, nit-picking everything and making sure that we’re really on the same page with a lot of different things. We changed some things. We’ve reduced some of the words. We’ve tried to make some of the words friendlier for the players and more specific to those techniques. So we’ve done a lot of things ourselves as coaches. We looked at what we were telling them, looked at what we were talking about. Let’s break that down and then go and reteach it to them and give it to them in a different form. So that’s what we’ve done. And it was kind of neat because it was just the first day, but there was some evidence of it.
On Monday, we took a look at how the Pac-12's offensive players stack up as NFL prospects in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Tuesday, it's the defense's turn.

Defensive line

  • DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)
  • DT Will Sutton, Arizona State: No. 8 (Kiper), No. 10 (McShay)

If you've been following along since the end of the season, Sutton's spot isn't all too surprising. He didn't have a good showing at the combine and has taken heat about his physical condition, dating to before last season. Even with the concerns, it's hard to imagine he won't eventually find his way in the NFL. After all, he's only the second player in conference history to be a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91) was the other. That's not by accident.

Coincidentally, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, isn't ranked in the top 10 by either. See the list here. Insider

Other Pac-12 defensive linemen who figure to be in the mix in the draft are Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Taylor Hart (Oregon), Deandre Coleman (Cal), George Uko (USC), Tenny Palepoi (Utah), Morgan Breslin (USC), Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Josh Mauro (Stanford).

Linebacker

  • [+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFormer UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr could be the first Pac-12 player to be drafted this year.
    OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA: No. 2 (both)
  • OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 9 (McShay)
  • ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford: No. 3 (both)
  • ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: No. 8 (Kiper)

Barr is widely considered the Pac-12's best hope at landing in the first 10 picks, but if McShay was drafting, that wouldn't be the case. On drafting Barr, McShay wrote:
[Barr] of UCLA is a speed-rusher who stalls out when attempting to convert speed to power, and there is too much finesse to his game for me to pay a top-15 price for him. He looks like he's on skates when he attempts to set the edge.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the same player Stanford coach David Shaw compared to Jevon Kearse. Shaw called Barr called the best (defensive) player the conference has had in the "last few years."

Murphy is in a similar boat to Sutton in that his college production isn't necessarily being viewed as a lock to translate to the NFL. He still figures to be a good fit for a 3-4 team and should be expected to contribute right away.

Outside of the four listed, it wasn't a very deep year for linebackers in the conference. Utah's Trevor Reilly, who can play both OLB and DE, Arizona State OLB Carl Bradford and USC's Devon Kennard headline the rest of the NFL hopefuls.

Defensive back

McGill should send a thank you card in Pete Carroll's direction. It's largely because of Seattle's use of big-bodied corners en route to a Super Bowl victory that the league appears to be trending in that direction. At 6-foot-4, McGill's size -- in addition to his solid showing at the combine -- is a rare asset among the group of corners.

Bucannon looks like he'll be the first defensive back off the board, but will he be a first-round pick? That's unlikely, but it would be a surprise if he lasts into the third round.

Another storyline to watch is where the three defensive backs who left early -- safety Ed Reynolds (Stanford), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and cornerback Kameron Jackson (Cal) -- wind up.

See the lists for linebackers and defensive backs here.Insider

Video: Mailbag on improving Oregon

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
5:30
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video
Kevin Gemmell answers a reader's question about what Oregon has to do to get over the hump.
video

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota discusses his decision to return for another season, growing as a leader and what he needs to do to take the next step in his development.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
2:30
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I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

ESPN CFB Spring Tour: Oregon

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
11:00
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How will Year 2 in the Mark Helfrich Era go in Eugene? Our ESPN College Football Spring Tour continues in the Pacific Northwest, where Oregon reporter Chantel Jennings will be bringing you the sights and sounds from campus today. Keep this page open starting at 10 a.m. PT as Chantel provides insight, interviews, pictures and videos from Ducks camp.

Five keys for Oregon's title run

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
10:35
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There may not be another team in college football with as wide of a set of expectations as the Oregon Ducks. Some have the Ducks finishing as one of highest-ranked teams in the country (including ESPN Insider Brian Fremeau), while others believe Oregon could end up outside of the AP Top 25 by the end of the 2014 campaign.

A case on either side of the debate can be made, but in reviewing the game tapes, metrics and scouting notes, it's apparent that there is a clear path for Oregon to a Pac-12 title and national championship playoff berth.

Five elements will be key to Oregon achieving this goal.

A fully healthy season from Marcus Mariota

Mariota is one of the few players who can give reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston strong competition for the 2014 version of that award.

Last season, Mariota led all college football QBs by posting an 89.5 mark in Adjusted Total QBR. (This metric revises the Raw QBR mark by strength of schedule and thus balances showings in this statistic.)

He also set a modern Oregon single-game record with seven total touchdowns (five passing, two rushing) against Colorado and set a Pac-12 record by going 353 passes without throwing an interception.

What makes the Total QBR and zero interception numbers even more amazing is how well Mariota fared against Washington, UCLA and Stanford -- even though the Stanford game was a clunker based on the outcome. These three teams all finished in the top 32 in Adjusted Total QBR allowed and Mariota's composite performances against them yielded a 90.3 Adjusted Total QBR that was actually slightly higher than his season-ending total in this category. He also racked up zero bad decisions in these contests (defined as a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team) and thus protected the ball just as well as his overall numbers would suggest.


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By most football standards, last season in Eugene, Ore., was a success. Under a first-year head coach the Ducks had an 11-win season while their 273.5 rushing yards per game and 291.5 passing yards per game were among the best in the country. But there was no Pac-12 championship and no BCS bowl game (ending the Ducks’ run of four-consecutive BCS bowl game appearances). So, year two is going to be as big of a test as the first for Mark Helfrich & Co.

With spring practices beginning Tuesday, the first steps of 2014 will be taken as the Ducks look to build on what they did last season and fix the mistakes that were made and the shortcomings that plagued them.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe return of Marcus Mariota meant big expectations are back for Oregon's offense.
Offensively, their identity is set. Marcus Mariota decided to return to Oregon, and with that decision expectations soared for what this offense could do. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers but with Mariota slinging it behind an offensive line that returns abundant talent and experience, even average receivers could look great. The receiver depth is far better than average. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison need to continue to contribute at a high level as they look to make up for the loss of two of the top three receivers from 2013.

However, since the receiver experience is limited, look for Helfrich to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game as the Ducks return a trio that could help take some of the yardage burden off those WRs. In 2013 the tight end trio of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis accounted for five touchdowns and 475 yards on just 30 receptions.

The run game, again, will be no surprise to anyone. Even without De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks should be fine. Byron Marshall -- who led Oregon with 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,038 rushing yards -- and Thomas Tyner will be able to attack defenses up front and be a very formidable matchup in the option when teams try to stop the run. They both boast good hands, so they’ll be able to help out in the pass game as well, helping Mariota put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

All of that combined will make up a high-powered offense, which is exactly what people expect out of Oregon. But the biggest question will be whether the defense can be an equal counterpart. And with an attack like Oregon’s, the defense must almost be even stronger considering it’s on the field about 10 minutes more per game than teams.

So it’s not very fair to put up their straight defensive numbers and statistics against any other team that doesn’t feature as prolific of an offense. But it is fair to say that it’s one of the bigger concerns heading into this spring and one of the facets of the game that must make the biggest strides.

Last year, Oregon was known for its deep secondary as it dared teams to throw. But in return, the Ducks struggled against the run even with an experienced group. They gave up 3.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to convert on 65.5 percent of rushing attempts on third downs (119th nationally). Oregon returns DeForest Buckner on the D-line, but overall, the group will need to improve its numbers against the run. It’s certainly a place where players could emerge through spring ball and one of the most important position groups that must build depth.

But even with the shuffling and inexperience on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum will stick with the 3-4 base defense because of the depth and experience the Ducks have in their linebacker group, which returns three starters, and their defensive backs. Even though the Ducks have just one returning starter in the secondary (cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), most of the DBs got some experience last season.

Next season could be huge for Oregon, but the foundation of what happens next December and January begins right now.
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay updated their top-10 lists at each position for the upcoming NFL draft.

Here's a look at how the Pac-12 offensive players stack up:

Quarterback

Marcus Mariota might have been taken No. 1 overall if he decided to leave Oregon, but without him the Pac-12 doesn't have any top-10 representation. Washington's Keith Price, who was not invited to the NFL combine, has a big day on Wednesday when the Huskies hold their pro day. Barring a team taking a flyer on him in the draft, Price is probably going to have to take the undrafted route to forge a NFL career.

Running back/fullback

The surprise here is how little both analysts think of Carey, who was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing yards. Sure, his 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.70) didn't do him any favors, but this feels like a situation where the film isn't speaking as loudly as it does for others.

The love for Thomas was a bit surprising as well, but it's also tough to compare him to the rest of the group because he doesn't project as a true running back in the NFL. His versatility undoubtedly scored him points, but it also should be noted that 10 other running backs clocked faster 40 times at the combine -- including Stanford's Tyler Gaffney. See the whole list here Insider.

Receiver/tight end

Cooks and Lee, a pair of Biletnikoff Award winners, will both expect to hear their name called in the first round. After that, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the pass-catchers fall into place.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOregon State wideout Brandin Cooks could be a first-round pick.
Notably absent is Colorado WR Paul Richardson, who ran a 4.40 40 at the combine and caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Buffaloes. He still figures to have a shot to go in the second-round to third-round range.

McShay lists Lyerla as the pass-catcher with the biggest risk:
Lyerla has some significant behavioral and emotional issues (leaving the Oregon program at midseason in 2013 and being arrested for cocaine possession weeks later) that just aren't worth dealing with, even for the potential reward his talent promises, were he to straighten things out.

See the whole list here Insider.

Offensive line

If they were quarterbacks, Yankey and Su'a-Filo would be forever linked. Widely regarded as two of the best offensive guards in the country, it will be interesting to see who goes off the board first. Su'a-Filo was the players' choice as the best offensive lineman in the conference in 2013, but Yankey was given the honor in 2012.

Martin is one of eight players Kiper and McShay agree is the best player at his position. See the whole list here Insider.
video

WeAreSC's Blair Angulo caught up with ESPN Junior 300 LB Cameron Smith this past Sunday at the Passing Down Elite 7on7 SoCal Regional in Fontana, Calif.
That was a crazy game of poker.

CFB's five most efficient offenses

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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It is the era of up-tempo, explosive offenses in college football, and records for scoring production are threatened or broken on an almost weekly basis. Nine teams averaged at least 40 points per game in the 2013 season, including six teams from "big five" conferences. There were as many 50-PPG offenses last season (Baylor and Florida State) as there were 40-PPG offenses four years earlier (Houston and Boise State).

We account for strength of opposition in our Offensive FEI (OFEI) ratings, a measure of scoring efficiency by possession based on starting field position. The top offenses according to OFEI are productive not only in terms of raw performance, but also have exceptional production against elite defenses. Florida State led the nation in baseline offensive efficiency last year, but since the Seminoles played only the 64th-toughest set of opposing defenses, their OFEI was a more modest No. 12 overall.

Which teams are projected to have the best opponent-adjusted offenses in 2014? Our model starts with a five-year measure of offensive success, Program Offense, which has a stronger correlation to next-year success than any other baseline factor we have tested.

As such, here are the top five offenses of the past five years according to opponent-adjusted Program Offense, and a breakdown of the challenges each will face in producing elite efficiency again this fall.


Baylor Bears

Program Offense rank (over past five years): No. 1
2013 Offensive FEI rank: No. 10

In 2013, the Bears led the nation in points per game for the season (52.4), their third straight season ranked in the top five nationally in scoring offense and in the top 10 in opponent-adjusted offensive FEI. However, their dominance early on in 2013 gave way to inconsistent production down the stretch. Baylor averaged at least 10 yards per play on 42 percent of its offensive possessions through the first seven weeks of the season, but posted a more modest explosive drive rate of only 21.4 percent the rest of the year. Oklahoma State held Baylor in check in its only regular-season loss (in late November), as the Bears punted on five of their first six drives against the Cowboys after having four or fewer total punts in eight of their previous nine games.


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Football will be back in Eugene soon enough, but it’s always good to reflect on 2013 and see what can be learned from last season and taken into next. Leading up to spring football, we’re going to break down some stats that need to improve next season.

Stat: Third-down passing conversions

Backing that up: The Ducks were quite fortunate at quarterback last season. Marcus Mariota had an incredible season. He threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions. And when his backups stepped in, they played well too. Jeff Lockie appeared in nine games and completed 8 of 13 passes for 57 yards. Jake Rodrigues played in seven games, completing 3 of 6 passes and threw for one touchdown.

Their combined numbers put them near the top of the nation in almost every single important quarterback statistic. The Ducks completed 60.5 percent of their passes of 10-plus yards (No. 9 nationally), 68 percent of their completions gained a first down or touchdown (No. 7 nationally) and one in every 13 passes scored a touchdown (No. 7 nationally).

But, there was one area in which the Oregon quarterbacks struggled mightily -- third-down passing conversions. In this category the Ducks completed just 32.4 of their passes, moving them from one of the nation’s best group to No. 77 nationally.

Of the 12 FBS teams the Ducks played, their defenses gave up completions on 34.8 of opposing teams’ third-down passing conversions. The difference of 2.4 percent might not seem like a big deal and in most cases it wouldn’t be. It’s just so strange in Oregon’s case because in so many of the other statistical categories the Duck offense destroyed their opponents.

Passing yards per game:
Oregon’s offense: 291.5 yards
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 248.7 yards

Yards per completion:
Oregon’s offense: 14.8 yards
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 12.1 yards

Touchdowns per passing attempt:
Oregon’s offense: 7.9 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 4.6 percent

Percent of completions that went for 10-plus yards:
Oregon’s offense: 60.5 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 46.5 percent

Percent of completions that gained a first down or touchdown:
Oregon’s offense: 68 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 55.3 percent

Percentage of completions on third-down passes:
Oregon’s offense: 32.4 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 34.8 percent

So when looking at the Oregon offense next season and the strides it must take, third-down passing conversions certainly needs to be a part of the Ducks’ game that needs to move along.

In every category the Ducks are a top-10 team and when Mariota is discussed, his peers are the Jameis Winstons of the world. But in this category that was far from the case as Winston (49), Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater (52.2 percent), Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (49 percent) and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan (44.6 percent) were far superior to Mariota.

Other stats that must improve:

Texas Relays recruiting notebook 

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30
6:30
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The state of Texas’ top track athletes descended on Austin this weekend to compete in the annual Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays on the campus of the University of Texas, and the field of competitors included several touted 2015 and 2016 recruits. Here’s an update on where a few of them stand in their recruitment.

RB Jones wants to travel

The battle for Ronald Jones II, one of the state’s top running back recruits out of McKinney North, rages on as he should be hitting the road in the next few months.


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