Raymond Woodie

LB Justin Hollins ready to "cut loose" in Leavitt's 3-4 defense

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USA Today

LB Justin Hollins ready to "cut loose" in Leavitt's 3-4 defense

EUGENE - When Oregon announced that Jim Leavitt would be the new defensive coordinator last December, the first thought that ran through Justin Hollins' mind was, "what type of defense does Leavitt run?"

When Hollins discovered that Leavitt's scheme of choice is the 3-4 , the next thought that went through the redshirt junior's head was, "what position will I play?"

“I was praying that they would move me (to outside linebacker)," said Hollins, who played defensive end in Oregon's 4-3 defense in 2016. "I can’t do that defensive end thing, in the 3-4 especially.”

Leavitt eased those concerns with a single phone call.

“I got that call and he said I would be playing outside linebacker and I was real thankful,” Hollins said. 

To put it mildly, Hollins didn't much appreciate his lot in life on the Ducks in 2016. No player on Oregon's team, and maybe in the Pac-12, played more out of position than Hollins, a 6-5, 238-pound athletic marvel who fits the mold of former Oregon standout hybrid 3-4 linebackers/ends Dion Jordon and Christian French. 

Hollins was recruited in 2014 to fit that mold. But when Oregon moved to the 4-3 defense in 2016, Hollins found himself at defensive end. He held his own with 51 tackles (27 solo) and finished second on the team with 9 1/2 tackles for loss and had three sacks. But he certainly ran into trouble when battling 290-plus pound offensive linemen. 

“It was hard,” Hollins said bluntly. “It was hard being a little undersized. But I got after it and did what I had to do.”

Playing defensive end in the 3-4, built for 280-plus pound defensive linemen, would have been even more difficult for Hollins. 

"I can't do that," he said. 

He won't have to. Instead, Hollins will be turned loose on the outside where his athletic ability should make him a devestating pass rusher as well as strong in pass coverage.

"He's looking good," UO coach Willie Taggart said. "He's a playmaker. We've got to know where he's at at all times. I've been really impressed with him."

Oregon's defense ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (246.5 yards per game) last year because the front seven offered little resistance. 

Even though Hollins, slowed by injury during spring drills, will move to outside linebacker, he still must improve against the run. Outside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie said the last thing he wants to do is allow a linebacker with pass rushing skills to ignore developing the skills needed to play well against the run. 

Woodie, who said Hollins is contending for a starting spot on a fluid depth chart, must play the run first to avoid getting out of position and allowing free running lanes.

"We're teaching him to play the run because we know he has some pass rushing ability," Woodie said. "If he gets that down, he's going to be a force."

Whether it's filling against the run, setting the edge, pass rushing or dropping into coverage, Hollins is simply happy to be playin the position he was meant to play. 

“I’m very excited about that," Hollins said. "I finally get to cut loose a little bit. Have fun with it again."

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

Taggart and Ducks enter spring with five glaring questions

The Willie Taggart-era at Oregon on the practice field began this morning when the Ducks opened spring drills, which will include 14 sessions before the Spring Game on April 29. 

Oregon enters spring with a new staff but most of the same players who were largely responsible for a 4-8 season in 2016, a year that led to the firing of former coach Mark Helfrich and a staff that featured some assistants who had been in Eugene for as many as 20-plus years.

In order to win right away, Taggart must do so with the players recruited by the former staff. That's not impossible. In fact, it's highly likely. Oregon played mostly a young and battered group in 2016. It's a core that should be considerably better in 2017 after taking their collective lumps during the program's first losing season since 2004 (5-6). 

That development process began during the winter and continues this spring. Many questions linger for this staff to sort out, but here are five that must be addressed this spring: 

1. Will a quarterback controversy develop or will Justin Herbert re-establish himself as the guy for this new staff? The only quarterback in Oregon history who at the same age could have beaten out what we saw from Herbert as a freshman would be Marcus Mariota. Maybe. That's how good Herbert is. So, when Taggart says that the position is open, he is essentially hoping that either redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr. or redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen demonstrates some Mariota-level skills.

We shall see. 

Herbert took over as the starter in week 6 and in seven starts completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,986 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Project those numbers out over 13 games (with a bowl) and you get 3,688-35-6. Those numbers are almost identical to what Mariota put up in 2013 (3,665-31-4) as a redshirt sophomore while playing on a much better team.  No doubt Taggart witnessed all of Herbert's skills while reviewing game video from last season. 

Still, Taggart points out that UO won just four games, so whatever Herbert did last season wasn't good enough. Truth be told, Herbert won just two of those four (Arizona State and Utah), but Mariota wouldn't have won much more with the defense Oregon put on the field. 

Taggart does liked the physical abilities he saw from Wilson and Jonsen during winter workouts, but added that Herbert has also looked great, so far. 

“Really impressed with winter conditioning watching him run around and change directions, and doing those things," Taggart said. 

Now, Taggart wants to see Herbert, or another quarterback, become an established leader. 

“At the end of the day, I want to see who can lead this football team," Taggart said. "Who can get this team to rally around him.”

Let the QB games begin. 

2. Are there any young playmakers at linebacker not named Troy Dye? Dye made a name for himself last season as pretty much the only playmaker on defense. The Ducks will return to the 3-4, defense, which means UO needs three other linebackers to emerge. Seniors A.J. Hotchkins and Jimmie Swain must improve. Also, Oregon could use someone among the young group of sophomores La'Mar Winston Jr. and Keith Simms, and redshirt freshman Eric Briscoe, to breakthrough. 

"We have to get more athletic at that spot," Taggart said.

Translation: "We lack ballers."

Oregon will be looking for more of those this spring. 

3. Are there any playmakers along the defensive line at all? We must continue on with the defense because that side of the ball was so bad last season. So bad that there really weren't any bright spot along the defensive line to be found. 

Taggart, however, said he believes that some playmakers exist upfront. Mass confusion on defense last year, he added, led to a lot of young defensive linemen not being able to flourish. 

"Usually when you don't know what you're doing, you'll get your butt whooped," Taggart said. "But there's some potential."

Jalen Jelks, Henry Mondeaux, Gary Baker, Rex Manu, Drayton Carlberg, and others, all must develop this spring or opposing offenses will once again trample the Ducks. 

4.  Can Dillon Mitchell and Alex Ofodile ease concerns about depth at wide receiver? Oregon returns two wide receivers of consequence: seniors Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson. Taggart needs about four more receivers for him to be comfortable about the depth at this position. 

Sophomore Dillon Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile are both former four-star recruits and the next men up. But the jury is out on both. They could either emerge this spring or open the door for one of seven freshmen receivers to take their jobs. 

One such freshman already on campus is three-star recruit, Darrian McNeal, a quick elusive receiver in the mold of Nelson and former UO star, De'Anthony Thomas, but not quite as fast, according to Taggart.

Taggart said McNeal's love for the game shows in his play, play that could get him on the game field right away. 

But for this position to take off, Mitchell and/or Ofodile must take major strides in their development this spring. 

5. How will a new coaching staff mesh? Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and cornerbacks coach Charles Clark worked together in Colorado. Taggart brought two South Florida assistants, special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie and running backs coach Donte Pimpleton, to UO from his former team. Other than that, no other coaching connections exist on this staff. 

So, stands to reason that there could be some growing pains as the staff learns to work together. 

"Not everybody has been around me," Taggart said. "A lot of things I might not like and I'll continue to coach those guys up and get it the way that we want it."

So far, Taggart said, the staff has worked together very well. Camaraderie and enthusiasm have been high. Taggart said it helps that Leavitt and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal are former head coaches who get the process. 

We will see if harmony continues or if some feathers get ruffled along the way. Especially if the previous four questions go unanswered and the team is left floundering in a sea of mediocrity during year one of the Taggart era. 

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

Oregon's defense to receive some extra coaching TLC

The Oregon defense, which ranked 128th in the nation last season, will receive some extra tender love and care under new coach Willie Taggart.

During a lengthy one-on-one interview this week that will air later this month on CSN, Taggart said that special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie has recently been handed the extra assignment of also coaching outside linebackers. That will leave defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to coach only the inside linebackers instead of the entire linebacker crew. 

Oregon already has two defensive backs coaches with Keith Heyward handling safeties and Charles Clark directing the cornerbacks. 

Assistant head coach Joe Salave'a will coach the defensive line. 

The reason for the use of multiple coaches at two different position groups on defense is simple. Taggart said the defensive side of the ball needs more work in the areas of development and communication, a big issue for Oregon the past two seasons when the defense ranked among the worst in the nation. 

The decision to have two defensive backs coaches, something Leavitt used as the defensive coordinator in Colorado before Oregon hired him away during the offseason, is to increase communication within a group that is spread out all over the field. Plus, the group must communicate coverages with the linebackers. 

"We're trying to create a synergy throughout the defense," Taggart said.

Teaching a new defense to what was a very young group last year with just one senior starter will be challenging. Having two defensive back coaches working to make sure there is at least proper communication will help accelerate the growth process, Taggart hopes. 

"It's a lot easier if guys have two coaches back there," Taggart said. 

The same could happen with the linebackers. Oregon will have seven linebackers that are going to be either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Getting them up to speed as fast as possible could make all the difference next season, but especially by 2018 when four out of that group will likely make up the starting lineup. 

While the defense will have five full-time coaches handling position groups, the offense will have four. Co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal will take on the running game and the offensive line. Co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo will handle the passing game, quarterbacks and tight ends with the help of a graduate assistant. Michael Johnson will coach wide receivers and Donte Pimpleton will handle the running backs. 

Taggart finalizes staff with addition of Raymond Woodie

Taggart finalizes staff with addition of Raymond Woodie

Oregon football officially has a full staff.  Raymond Woodie will join Willie Taggart's staff as Oregon's special teams coordinator. Oregon assistant althetic director Andy MacNamara first reported the news on Oregon's Duck Insider radio show.

Last season, Woodie severed as defensive coordinator at Univeristy of South Florida. Woodie spent our seasons under Taggart at USF, and has been one of Taggart's long-time assistants, dating back to Western Kentucky in 2010-11.

Woodie is a native of Palmetto, Fla.