With a friend nearby and a big job ahead, Brady Hoke is ready to fix an Oregon defense in serious need of repair
EUGENE, Ore. — Like he has done for 27 years, Scott Sanders immediately picked up the phone when he saw that his best friend was calling.
Brady Hoke's voice boomed through the line. "I've got great news! I took a new job and I'm only going to be 45 minutes away."
On the other end, Sanders groaned. The former Oregon State linebacker and outfielder found himself in an impossible position: As the best friend of the new Oregon defensive coordinator, did Sanders now have to root for the Ducks?
Sanders, 49, and Hoke, 57, have a friendship spanning almost three decades, dating back to when Hoke was an Oregon State defensive assistant and Sanders was finishing his football eligibility. Hoke would eventually make coaching stops at Michigan, Ball State, San Diego State, and then back to Michigan, but the two have remained close despite Hoke's travels. Now he's just down the road from Sanders, trying to revive a defense that desperately needs resuscitation.
Since Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene in 2007 and installed an up-tempo spread, the Ducks have been known more for their high-flying offense than defense. Oregon developed a "bend but don't break" reputation under longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, now a TV analyst for the Pac-12 Network, while becoming the team to beat in the conference and playing for two national championships in the last five seasons). When Kelly took over as head coach in '09, the Ducks switched from a 4–3 to a 3–4 and kept the scheme even after Kelly skipped off to the NFL (he took defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro with him, first to Philadelphia and then to San Francisco). Aliotti retired after the 2013 season, and Oregon—which likes to promote assistants from within—announced that linebackers coach Don Pellum would fill the void.
It did not go well. Despite leading the Pac-12 in scoring offense at 43 points per game, Oregon also ranked last in points allowed, at 37.5. The Ducks also had some spectacular meltdowns; they blew a 31-point halftime lead in an Alamo Bowl loss to TCU and suffered a disastrous 62–20 home loss to Utah, its worst in 38 years.
It can't all be blamed on the inconsistency at quarterback. The Ducks ranked last in total defense in 2015, giving up 485.3 yards per game. But this year, with a second consecutive graduate transfer expected to take the reins (Dakota Prukop is expected to succeed the graduated Vernon Adams), the defense simply has to be better. So in the offseason head coach Mark Helfrich announced that Pellum would return to coaching only linebackers, and the Ducks hired Hoke.
Even with the addition of one of the best defensive minds in college football though, outsiders have their doubts about Oregon. The Ducks were picked lower in the preseason polls than usual, which prompted Helfrich to note that, "we've had our demise forecast for many, many years."
In other words, he's not stressed. "If our guys use that as fire to stoke their preparation," he said, "awesome."
Asked if he thinks the criticism of Oregon's defense last year was warranted, or if it was a case of ignorant message board hacks complaining, junior defensive back Arrion Springs said, "it's a little mix of both.
"We have our moments and then some things that appear to be our fault that aren't our fault." Asked if he could give a specific example, Springs laughed. "Uh, no. I'm not trying to get in trouble." Hoke, Springs said, has brought a new level of energy and excitement to practice. While Hoke initially expressed hesitancy at the breakneck pace of practice, Springs said it's actually a little faster than usual. "He's really big on running to the ball and emphasizing that, so everyone is moving faster and there's more tempo than usual."
After Oregon's first fall camp practice last week, Hoke told reporters he had changed his tune about the speed. "I like the stress it puts on us as defensive players," he said. "I think it's important, that it builds mental and physical toughness." Helfrich said that nothing had changed or slowed down and in fact it was "all systems go" with Hoke around, joking that in the first practice it was more like "all systems … sometimes go," as players got used to being back on the field.
Hoke also likes that an increased tempo forces guys to hone in on details more. And there are plenty of new details to go around, as Hoke has switched UO's scheme and installed a 4–3. The change means Oregon is still shuffling players around to figure out who fits into what new rush end role. Springs said that when Hoke arrived in Eugene right after Signing Day, he told the defense they had the pieces to win they just "have to attack more, and stop being so conservative." As a result, the Ducks are blitzing considerably more.
After being fired from Michigan on Dec. 2, 2014, Hoke spent the 2015 season with Sirius XM Radio, touring college football practices and chatting with colleagues and friends from around the country. "I knew I was going to coach again," he told SI.com. "And I was going to take that year to really stay engaged."
He felt no need to defend himself or his résumé when he got to Oregon, and didn't worry that players wouldn't buy into his plan. And though he came from a school known for sparking facilities and a seemingly endless supply of cash, he acknowledged that the Ducks have some cool toys, too.
"You look at this building," Hoke said, gesturing around Oregon's impressive $138 million football operations center," and it's like Back to the Future!"
And no, he does not have a favorite uniform combo yet, though he admits he might eventually decide on one. "I've never been a guy who talks a lot about swag," Hoke said, "but some of the stuff here is pretty neat."
But so far, none of it has been cool enough to convince his BFF to change alliances.
Sanders has spent the last 27 years supporting Hoke through ups and downs, wins and losses. He's attended almost every bowl game Hoke coached in, including the one in Canada. "I got a passport, just for him," Sanders said proudly. He took his boys to football camp at Michigan and often picks Hoke's brain for coaching advice (Sanders is going into his 10 th season as head football coach at Crescent Valley High in Corvallis, Ore. This season, the CVHS Raiders will run a simplified version of Hoke's 4–3 defense.) But he draws the line at actually rooting for the Ducks.
Since Hoke took the job, Sanders has spent more time than he'd care to admit in the offices of his archenemy, laughing and joking with other Oregon coaches. When Helfrich asked him recently, "Am I gonna find you wearing green soon?" Sanders had the perfect response.
"I hope you lose every game 3–0," he said. "Because that means Brady is doing a great job, and you're still losing!"