Cort Dennison didn’t have an enjoyable experience the last time he was on the field at Autzen Stadium.
Oregon’s outside linebackers coach was on their other side of the rivalry as a player and on the wrong end of the Ducks’ 53-16 victory over Washington on Nov. 6, 2010.
“The only school that I never beat when I was playing was Oregon,” Dennison said of his Pac-12 playing days before Thursday’s practice in the Moshofsky Center. “It was a championship-caliber team, won a lot of football games, went to Rose Bowls.
“I had a lot of respect for this program for what they did.”
Dennison, a linebacker, finished with eight tackles against the Ducks in 2010 and 10 more during Washington’s 34-17 loss to Oregon in 2011, when he led the Pac-12 in tackles with 128 as a senior.
The budding assistant still looks like he could put on the pads and flush Justin Herbert out of the pocket.
“He’s kind of almost like a player in the sense that he’s young and he’s been through it all, so it’s kind of relatable,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Keith Simms said of his new position coach. “Also, he’s a good coach because he commands a presence. He’s a good guy, a good resource for me for sure.”
After finishing his career at Washington, Dennison earned a master’s degree in sports administration while working on the Western Kentucky staff as a graduate assistant. He followed coach Bobby Petrino to Louisville, where he worked as the recruiting coordinator, a co-special teams coach, an assistant secondary coach and an inside linebackers coach over the last four years.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, who had bumped into Dennison on the recruiting trail in Florida a handful of times, hired him in January.
“(Dennison) is one of the bright young minds in college football,” Cristobal said recently. “He was actually from Salt Lake (City) and played up north a little bit. Cory is a high-energy guy, just like all these guys are.”
Dennison already had a working relationship with safeties coach Keith Heyward from their time together at Louisville and cornerbacks coach Bobby Williams, who was a graduate assistant at Washington when he was still playing.
Despite some staff shakeups after Willie Taggart’s exit for Florida State, Oregon’s defense is expected to take another significant step forward in Jim Leavitt’s second season as coordinator.
“He’s awesome,” Dennison said of Leavitt, who coaches the inside linebackers. “I’m just continuing to be a sponge. He obviously has a great deal of experience and he’s won a lot of football games. The more I can be around people like him with the detail of knowledge that he has, especially at the linebacker position, it’s great.
“I’ve tried to take in everything he has given me, both with the inside linebackers and outside linebackers. The more I know and the more I gain from him the more it will help me in my career.”
Cristobal was pleased with how the front seven performed during last Saturday’s scrimmage.
At the outside linebacker positions, Justin Hollins and La’Mar Winston emerged as disruptive players last season. Simms, Fotu Leiato, Bryson Young and Miami transfer D.J. Johnson have added quality depth to the competition this spring.
“We return a lot of experience, there’s a lot of leadership coming back,” Dennison said. “So far this spring the guys who have played a lot of football for us, like Justin and La’Mar, have really stepped up in a leadership role. … Fotu Leiato and Bryson Young have really stepped up and provide flexibility. We can play them field and boundary.”
As tempting as playing might be less than seven years removed from his Washington glory days, Dennison is content with his new career path as a coach.
Don’t let the baby-faced mug shot on the team website fool you.
“I’m probably one of the younger guys out there, and a lot of people probably have experience on me,” Dennison said. “What I do in recruitment is I relate to the players. I’ve been in their shoes.
“Ten years ago I was a high school recruit, so I can really relate to these kids with social media, with the new age, new generation of kid. I definitely use that to my advantage in recruiting.”
Dennison, who redshirted at Washington during his true freshman season in 2007, witnessed five of the Huskies’ 12 consecutive losses to Oregon (2004-15) firsthand.
Washington will arrive at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 13 as the Pac-12 favorites and having won the last two meetings — a 70-21 trouncing of Mark Helfrich’s final Oregon team in 2016 and a 38-3 smothering of Taggart’s only Oregon team last season.
“I never really thought about anything like that,” Dennison said when asked if he had any hesitation about joining the Ducks. “It’s about the people who are here, the people I get to be around on a daily basis, and they’re great people to be around.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @rgduckfootball . Email firstname.lastname@example.org .