Don Pellum is no stranger to Oregon football. The newly installed defensive coordinator has been in Eugene for the better part of three decades, both as a player and an assistant coach. The former linebacker finished his playing career in 1984 and stayed with the Ducks as a graduate assistant beginning in '85. He made short stops at Willamette University and Cal before rejoining the program in '93.
Pellum, 52, has seen the Ducks grow from the ground up to become the explosive monolith they are today. Oregon's defense has improved markedly over that stretch, especially recently, finishing 25th in defensive S&P+ rankings in 2013 and allowing just 20.5 points per game.
SI.com caught up with Pellum, who talked about replacing the retired Nick Aliotti and his approach to stopping high-powered Pac-12 offenses.
SI: What’s been different about your new role as defensive coordinator?
Don Pellum: What’s been different is just a lot more time paying attention to overall details. That ranges from preparation to taking it on the field: practice plans, making sure guys are where they’re supposed to be. For instance, if it’s a nickel package and you split the linebackers, then you have the right linebackers down at pass rush and the other guys in pass coverage. Just poring over details, while before I worried about inside runs, inside backer styles, making sure the entire defense was making maximized use of our time.
SI: Most position coaches bounce around to a number of programs. Aside from a couple of brief stints elsewhere, you've been at Oregon. Was that your path for a reason?
DP: It’s a combination of things. First, I’ve been at Oregon for a while, and as we began to build this program we kept pushing to do better and get closer. Some opportunities came along the way, but the guys I work with and the ones who retired are great people, and in our minds we’re close to achieving this goal. That’s been the driving force, the people I work with and the fact we started from virtually not very much and dug this out. Now it’s about finishing it. We’ve got to finish it.
SI: You worked with former Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti for a long time. What were some of the biggest things he taught you?
DP: He was a tireless worker. He would be here early and would stay as long as he needed to. He was really sharp when it comes to breaking down other opponents and stopping things. I liked the way Nick works, and I like the way Nick thinks. Those things I’ve taken, and over the years I paid a lot more attention to because I thought Nick was very good at that.
SI: You’ve been involved in the recruiting process for so long. What are the types of players you look for? As the program has grown, how have things changed?
DP: The biggest factor for us is we have to get the right guy who will fit, not only in our program but in our city. Over the years we’ve improved, we’ve made strides and people know who we are. There’s a much larger pool of people interested in our university. The big thing for us is to continue to recruit the kid who is going to fit here in our system and our community. We’re not a big, gigantic city like other places. Some kids want that big city. We’re a middle-sized city with a lot to do, but it’s not like the bright lights of some other locations.
SI: The Pac-12 is thought of as this offensive-minded league given the way Oregon and a lot of other teams are able to put up points. Defensively, the Ducks have improved for a number of years now. What’s your approach in dealing with the number of varied offenses in the conference?
DP: The number one thing is we have to be flexible and non-traditional from the standpoint that we have to look at opponents and evaluate what they’re going to do. Are they bringing their formation in? How can we use our same principles against a spread team versus a traditional team? It’s having a lot of defense, but the parts have to be applicable to both systems. If we can do that, then we can do double reps. If not, then we have one defense for a spread team and one for a traditional team and you’re not going to be able to play both of them.
We see two tight end sets, three tight end sets, spread, and five receivers. We have to have a multiple defense we can take and use personnel – we call it job swapping – so the strong safety in one defense might be an outside rusher in the other based on the animal or he may be a linebacker based on who we’re facing. We have to teach these kids a handful of techniques they can use in different systems. I think that’s really key, to be able to get our best players on the field regardless of the offense.
SI: Do you think playing that flexibility is part of the reason why some Oregon players have found immediate success in the NFL?
DP: We do a really good job of teaching guys not just here’s what we’re going to do, but here’s what the defense does. When we call a defense, here’s what the coaches are thinking and here’s what you should be anticipating. We teach them to learn defense and learn the big picture. I think that’s helped guys have more success at the next level.
SI: As far as this spring is concerned, what have you been trying to instill in the defense? DP: First and foremost it’s fundamentals. We needed to improve our fundamentals. If you asked me every day, “Coach, what are you stressing as coaches?” Well, we’re installing a lot of defenses and concepts, but we’ve got to get better at pad level, punch, footwork and tackling. Period.