How is this happening? How is Oregon's 2009 defense outplaying Oregon's 2008 defense, which was clearly more talented?
How could it be that Oregon is tied for 10th in the nation in takeaways so far this season, with 19, while the USC Trojans, who come calling at Autzen this Saturday night, are tied for 100th, with nine? How, with an injury-plagued secondary, are the Ducks leading the Pac-10 in pass defense?
True, first-year head coach Chip Kelly inherited some enviable depth from his predecessor, Mike Bellotti. Yes, the youngsters defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has plugged in to replace corners Walter Thurmond III and Willie Glasper (out for the season) and safety T.J. Ward (missed five games), are talented athletes who have seized their opportunities. Take a bow, John Boyett, Anthony Gildon and Cliff Harris.
But look past the corners, if you will, to that corner of the Oregon practice field where first-year defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro is drilling his charges. Don't get too close, lest you find yourself spritzed by the saliva of the excitable coach Az, whose emphasis on high energy, hard work and technique has worked wonders with a line that, until the season started, didn't look like anything special.
"He's got those guys hitting the sled til they're blue in the face," said an admiring Aliotti.
"The way we work, how hard we hit in practice, it's a pleasure just to get to the game," said defensive tackle Brandon Bair, who recorded seven tackles and a sack against Washington last Saturday. Like lightning quick end Will Tukuafu, who split a sack and posted 1.5 tackles for loss against the Huskies, Bair has returned to the program from a Mormon mission. Both are 25; both add a focus and maturity to the unit that has elevated the play of the younger guys. Those include Tyrell Irvin, whose 37 ½-inch vertical jump is best on the team, and who recovered a blocked punt for Oregon's first touchdown at Washington.
Aliotti has long preferred to bolster run support by placing a heavy burden on his gifted corners. By requiring them to play man-up, he frees another defender to stop the run. With the plague of injuries in the secondary this season, he's been less willing to do that. Instead, Oregon is playing more aggressive up front.
"We've been zone-dogging, pressuring a little bit more, trying to take some of the heat off the corners," said Aliotti. That tactic has ratcheted up the pressure on Oregon's unheralded front four, which, so far, has been up to the task.
Before this season, I'd come to view Kelly as a kind of gregarious savant, quick with a smile and a quip, happy to be taking a break from his main gig, which entailed many hours locked in his office, blackout shades drawn, poring over video, probing for the ways to attack a defense.
Turns out the new headman is a bit of a hard-ass. Kelly had no trouble hardening his heart early in his tenure. One of the two assistants from Bellotti's staff he did not retain was Michael Gray, the defensive line coach, a favorite son who'd played his college ball at Oregon.
Kelly replaced him with the delightful, if slightly gruff Azzinaro, an itinerant assistant whose 14 stops have included stays at Syracuse (where he mentored Dwight Freeney), Boston College, Duke and, most recently, Marshall. Before a recent interview, the native Staten Islander availed himself of some smokeless tobacco, prompting a reporter to joke, "Why don't I not write that you're dipping?" Not missing a beat, coach Azz replied, "Why don't you write ... that I don't give a s___ what you write."
It was said with a smile. When I tried to draw him out on schemes -- did his guys play one-gap, two-gap? -- he replied, "All that stuff is good, but what it comes down to is -- and I wish it was more complicated than this: Do your guys play their asses off? And can you count on them? Ours do, and we can."
This is going to be very interesting. Oregon State fielded what I thought was a fairly stout dee, but the Trojans gashed vast holes in its line last Saturday night, catapulting Allen Bradford to a breakout, 147-yard, two touchdown performance. Is this Ducks defense about to be exposed?
My gut tells me no. Less talented than previous Oregon teams, there is nonetheless something special about this "band of brothers," as the Ducks refer to one another. As Thurmond told me after last Saturday's win, "That first game" -- the disastrous, punch-marred loss at Boise State -- "was either going to break us, or make us stronger."
Galvanized by a sense of urgency and a nonexistent margin for error, Oregon hasn't lost since. The Ducks have played hard, and for each other. When the offense has struggled, defense and special teams have picked it up: the Ducks have recorded six non-offensive touchdowns this season.
Another way in which Kelly has put his stamp on this program: faster, more difficult, more intense practices. This team can rattle off 30 plays in a 12-minute period. "There are times" said Aliotti, "we run a play, I can barely get the call out of my mouth before the ball's spotted for the next play. It's ridiculous."
In addition to forcing defenders to think and execute on the run, Kelly's up-tempo practices have created additional snaps for second- and third-teamers, the guys who've bailed out the team in the wake of critical injuries. To a man -- to a Duck? -- Oregon players point to their superb preparation as the main reason for their post-Boise success.
"You prepare better than anybody I've ever been around," Kelly told them in a team meeting last week. "And that's where your confidence comes from. Like I told you before, pressure is what you feel when you don't know what you're doing."
These guys know what they're doing -- especially Jerry's kids.