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?
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.