Behind coordinator Don Pellum, Oregon's defense hopes to make a statement in the Rose Bowl against Florida State.
When Oregon coach Mark Helfrich promoted Pellum, the Ducks' longtime assistant, to defensive coordinator in January, players got nervous. Scared, some might say. A former Ducks linebacker, Pellum has a rep for being tough, and a little mean. At practice, if inside linebackers walked on the field in a sloppy manner, they’d do push-ups as punishment. If players' helmets weren’t perfectly lined up as they stretched, there would be trouble. Wear the wrong gear, risk his wrath.
Washington’s lasting memory of Pellum at practice: “Always screaming, always yelling.”
Oregon’s offense will always get the national publicity because it’s fast and cool and features the best player in the country, quarterback Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner. But in order for the Ducks to beat undefeated Florida State and advance in the College Football Playoff, it’s Pellum’s guys who must rise up and finally squash the notion that Oregon is all -- and only -- about offense.
The defense did exactly that in its last outing, quieting Arizona’s high-octane attack 51-13 in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5. The Ducks held the Wildcats to a staggering 25 yards of total offense in the first half, including minus-9 yards rushing. Arizona came in averaging almost 500 yards of offense; it limped off the field after totaling 224. The win was so impressive, says senior cornerback Dior Mathis, there weren’t many mistakes to point out in the next day’s film session.
“The only thing we talked about at halftime was that we had to finish,” Mathis says. “That was something, earlier in the year, that we didn’t always do.” He is likely referring to wins like Oregon’s 42-30 victory over UCLA on Oct. 11, when the Bruins scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, or the Ducks’ 59-41 win over Cal on Oct. 24, when the Bears trailed by just 10 points at halftime.
Conference title games can often be misleading. Teams know each other very well, so lopsided scores can be easy to come by. They are not necessarily indicative of how the winning team will play going forward. Mathis knows this. But since the Arizona win three weeks ago, he feels a different type of confidence infiltrating the locker room. Something is building, he says.
In Pasadena, where Oregon will meet Florida State at 5 p.m. ET on New Year’s Day, the Ducks will be shorthanded. Senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a consensus All-America and likely first- or second-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, was lost for the postseason when he tore his ACL the week before Christmas. It is a devastating blow, both on and off the field. Though Ekpre-Olomu underwhelmed at times this fall, he is one of Oregon’s best tacklers, and some opponents were scared to throw in his direction, fearful of an acrobatic interception. (Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston said Sunday he wouldn’t have been scared of Ekpre-Olomu anyway, quipping, “Not to sound arrogant … Richard Sherman could line up against us, and we’d throw at him.”)
As the Ducks have ascended to new heights in recent seasons, elbowing their way into college football's upper echelon, they’ve done it with a continuity few staffs in the nation have enjoyed. And for the most part, they’ve kept their big hirings in house; the notable exception, of course, was the naming of Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator in 2007, from New Hampshire of all places. One of those pillars is Pellum, who has totaled 31 years with the program as a player, assistant and administrator. His last 16 years were spent coaching linebackers.
Players say that when former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired following Oregon’s 30-7 Alamo Bowl victory over Texas in December 2013, there was no lobbying for Pellum to take his place. They trusted Helfrich, himself a benefactor of promoting from within, and believed he would keep it in the family. Then Helfrich promoted Pellum, and players started sweating.
“The approach had to be beyond reproach,” Pellum says. “There’s no questions, it’s just, ‘This is it.’ That’s the way it’s been in the inside linebacker room for a long time, and that’s where [that reputation] emanated from.”
Pellum says he didn’t want perfection but wasn’t going to hide his expectations. He would be firm but fair, a guiding principle throughout his coaching career. He has introduced no major schematic changes but added an emphasis on doing everything better. Players say he has brought an increased intensity to the field, and they practice harder than ever before. “People don’t believe it because he can be real cool and mellow,” redshirt senior linebacker Derrick Malone says. “But he can be really, uh, passionate, too.”
Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner, and Florida State will present a host of problems. Though Winston's numbers aren’t as impressive this year -- he has thrown 17 picks, compared to 10 last season -- Pellum sees “a very confident guy … and they rally around him.” He’s hardly the only threat: Sure-handed senior receiver Rashad Greene averages 100.5 yards per game; freshman Dalvin Cook (905 yards on 155 carries) has become the go-to back; and Mackey Award-winning senior tight end Nick O’Leary (47 receptions, 614 yards) has a knack for catches in big moments.
“Their offense is totally different than what we’ve been facing,” Pellum says. “There are not a lot of chinks in their armor.”
The knock against the ‘Noles this season has been that they often play down to the level of inferior competition and are forced to catch up after falling behind. But Oregon players see a roster loaded with NFL talent. They’re not buying the hype that Florida State is, well, overhyped.
“Just because people say they don’t play anybody, that doesn’t mean anything,” Mathis says. Then he raises his eyebrows and tilts his head for emphasis. “They’re on a 29-game winning streak. They’re really good.”
Oregon hasn’t played anyone quite like Winston. Mathis says he is a blend of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, a gifted athlete, and Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, a noted pocket passer who can “throw it really good.” During film sessions, coaches have pointed out Winston’s toughness: He’ll stand in the pocket for as long as it takes to find a receiver and is willing to take a hit if necessary. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he is not easily tackled, either.
Creating practice situations to simulate a player of Winston’s caliber is its own challenge. When the Ducks matched up against Cam Newton and Auburn in the 2011 BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., Kelly noted that defensive end Brandon Bair was the only Oregon player whose size was reminiscent of Newton. This time, freshmen quarterbacks Ty Griffin and Morgan Mahalak are sticking with their listed position. Without Ekpre-Olomu -- Pellum said he would use a by-committee replacement situation at cornerback, though redshirt freshman Chris Seisay is expected to start -- Oregon’s defensive line must pressure Winston early in plays. But Pellum says it can’t be that elementary because Winston will identify weaknesses if he sees “a steady diet” of the same looks.
“He can put the ball in very tight windows. He could put the ball right there,” Pellum says, pointing to a 10-inch space between two TV cameras. “He could stick it right there. He’s got the eyes; he’s got a cannon. He gets knocked down, and those guys rally around him, the same as Cam Newton, the same as Marcus. That’s what the Heisman winner brings, a leadership that’s different than anyone else.”
That’s the difference with Pellum, too. Players say he carries himself with a certain swagger, “that stink about you,” as Washington says, that you can stop anyone. His attitude has “rubbed off on us,” Malone says. Known around Eugene for his tailored suits and sharp dressing (he strolled into Sunday’s media day wearing light plaid-patterned pants and a matching button-up short-sleeved shirt, topped with a fedora), Pellum has a different appearance and approach than his predecessor. Aliotti’s calling card was as the lovable, quotable, zany Oregon assistant (His postgame rant against Washington State coach Mike Leach in 2013 ended with him asking the media, “Now, does anybody have a beer?”). Pellum is cool and confident -- and someone players don’t want to cross.
“I think I just try to lead those guys in the direction we should be going,” says Pellum when asked how his personal swagger has taken root in the Ducks’ locker room. “What those kids interpret it as, if they’re excited, that’s great.”
Since a 45-16 win over Stanford on Nov. 1, followed by a 51-27 victory at Utah on Nov. 8, Pellum has sensed “it’s been growing.” He can’t figure out an exact word for it. Confidence? Swagger? Belief? Pellum isn’t sure.
But he and his players know it’s not fear -- of Pellum, of Florida State or of the notion that Oregon can’t play defense.