- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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EUGENE, Ore. -- In the midst of player unionization movements and NCAA rules discussions, the Oregon defense is reminding itself of a simple fact while working through spring practices: Football is fun.
“You know when you’re a kid and you can just run forever, you can play forever ... Somehow, sometimes football gets you so bogged down that the kids don’t play with that, that fun, spirited emotion,” Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “And football has to be fun.”
Fun obviously means something different to every person. Most people wouldn’t consider early-morning workouts or weight lifting until you can’t feel your quads to be “fun,” but for the Ducks, it is.
The idea is to get back to the joy most of these players felt when they were children, playing Pop Warner football in front of their parents and coaches. There’s no way to completely avoid the thoughts that they’re playing on national TV and that scouts and fans are going to have opinions. However, if each player can get to a place where he’s enjoying himself, the other stuff will take care of itself.
Coaches have scaled back in terms of the football verbiage. That means less jargon for the defense this spring, which hopefully translates to more big plays on the field in the fall.
“You have to reduce the thinking,” Pellum said. “You have to free them up to have a little more fun. You have to create practice situations where it seems fun, where it’s competitive. And you have to allow those kids to do it.”
And they’ve changed the verbiage a bit, too. Defensive back Erick Dargan said Pellum has been emphasizing two words for the defense this spring: attitude and swag.
“Attitude has always been there, but the swagger is becoming a bigger part because sometimes we lack swag,” Dargan said. “Swagger isn’t just about fashion. It’s about how we carry ourselves and how we get ready to play. Always being ready and confident. The swag -- it’s not about how you dress, it’s about how you wear it.”
Dargan said for the Ducks, that swag has been defined as dominating one’s area and doing it with confidence and strength.
The Ducks certainly need that kind of approach this spring as they aim to replace two starters on the defensive line and three in the secondary. The linebackers return starters and depth, which will help the defense as Pellum is also in charge of coaching the linebackers.
The Ducks allowed a Pac-12-best 4.6 yards per play last season. But when it came to third and fourth downs, Oregon struggled, allowing teams to convert on 40 percent and 46 percent of their attempts, respectively. Neither one of those statistics placed the Ducks in the top 40 nationally.
Another way the players are enjoying this spring is with intra-position group competitions. This winter, the competition level between players improved in the weight room, and that has continued onto the practice field this spring.
Some of the defensive backs have an open competition with interceptions. So far Dargan, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill are in. Any DB can throw his name into the hat, but there can only be one winner and that guy gets dinner from every other player in the ring.
Pellum isn’t encouraging each group to create these kinds of competitions, but he’s not going to make them scale back, either.
“All of that stuff is good,” Pellum said. “Friendly, good-spirited competition is good. This is the only time most of the kids are going to play football in their life, so they need to be enjoying every second of it.”
And if they are enjoying themselves this spring, while getting back to the fundamentals and playing with more spirit and confidence, Pellum believes there’s a better chance they’ll enjoy themselves during the 2014 season. Of course, wins are fun, and that’s also a big goal for Oregon. But right now, as the Ducks work their way through 15 spring practices, having fun is also a major concentration.
“We have to play with that spirit,” Pellum said. “We have to have a little more of an attitude. We have to play a little more disciplined, [be] tougher, meaner and have fun doing it.”