PORTLAND – Oregon head coach Willie Taggart wants his defense to force turnovers.
“I like it when our defense takes the ball away,” Taggart said Saturday after his team’s public scrimmage at Jesuit High School.
Senior cornerback Arrion Springs must have pleased his coach on the first play of the scrimmage when he went high in the air to intercept a long pass from Justin Herbert. It was the only turnover of the day but it set the tone for a defense looking to improve from a season in which it was one of the nation’s worst.
The scrimmage featured the defensive coaches preaching flocking to the ball and finishing tackles, a clear point of emphasis. The defense responded to this, especially early in the competition before seemingly running out of gas.
“Everyone is playing very physically, everyone is getting to the ball,” senior outside linebacker Jimmie Swain said.
One of last season’s bright spots on defense, Troy Dye, has moved from outside linebacker to inside, where he will anchor the squad. “We’re just trying to push each other,” said Dye, a freshman all-American last season while averaging 8.3 tackles per game.
A number of players expected to contribute to the defense this year – including safety Brendan Schooler, linebacker Justin Hollins and defensive linemen Rex Manu, Drayton Carlberg and Rutger Reitmaier – did not see any action Saturday. In their place, fans were treated to some new faces, including redshirt freshman safety Brady Breeze, true freshman corner Thomas Graham, Jr., and true freshman defensive tackle Jordon Scott, all of whom played with the first team.
“Those guys are big-time competitors,” Taggart said. “They’re literally taking what we said and running with it.”
Scott, a massive presence listed at 6-foot-1, 335 pounds, is playing nose guard in new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s 3-4 defense. “When he’s fresh and he’s not tired, he’s powerful,” Taggart said.
It remains to be seen how the pieces fit together, but senior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux, playing on the field of his high school alma mater, has high hopes for the defense this year. “We have coaches who have coached at a high level, we have players who have played for a national championship. That helps set the standard.”