Jim Leavitt took a shortcut through the media room inside the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex moments before Mario Cristobal’s news conference Monday.
When invited to take the podium for an impromptu Q&A session ahead of No. 24 Oregon’s opener against Bowling Green on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), the quirky defensive coordinator politely declined.
“No, you don’t want to talk to me,” Leavitt said before exiting stage left in search of his next Pepsi.
Despite trying to keep a low profile, Leavitt enters the 2018 season with heightened expectations on his side of the ball.
Oregon has invested in building a championship defense for a program defined over the last decade by Chip Kelly’s innovation, Marcus Mariota’s magic and Royce Freeman’s power.
Leavitt, who was retained after Willie Taggart’s departure for Florida State with a healthy bump in salary ($1.7 million per year), has enough returning talent to help Cristobal make some noise in the Pac-12 during his first season as head coach.
“Oregon has always been know for that fast, speed offense,” linebacker Sampson Niu said. “I feel like coach Leavitt came here to try to change the narrative a little bit. He’s trying to make sure Oregon is not known only for the offense, but a strong defense, too.”
The Ducks allowed 149.2 fewer yards and 12.4 fewer points per game last season under Leavitt than they did during Brady Hoke’s lone season as defensive coordinator.
Oregon’s statistical improvement from 2016 to 2017 included jumping from 126th to 46th in total defense, 122nd to to 24th in third-down defense, 121st to 25th in rushing defense, 106th to 21st in tackles for loss, 81st to 23rd in interceptions and 71st to 30th in sacks.
“There’s a lot of confidence that we have in each other. We’ve bonded a lot better,” junior outside linebacker La’Mar Winston said of returning with the starting front seven nearly intact. “Then to top that off, we’re coming back with our same defense. So we’re excited to see how well we play.”
Defensive end Jalen Jelks and linebacker Troy Dye combined for 28.5 tackles for loss in Leavitt’s 3-4 scheme. They are the top returning duo in the Pac-12 when it comes to production behind the line of scrimmage.
Oregon was second in the Pac-12 with 7.23 tackles for loss per game in 2017.
“It’s a lot different, especially for me,” Jelks said of entering his final season with the Ducks as the leader of a vastly improved defense. “It’s my last couple times I’m going to be in here at Autzen and everything like that. So I’ve definitely got to put everything on the line and show everything I’ve got and battle hard my senior year.”
Jelks, nose guard Jordon Scott and defensive end Austin Faoliu are all back. Defensive line coach Joe Salave’a will have more flexibility with the development of Gary Baker, Popo Aumavae and Drayton Carlberg behind the starters.
“When we sat down at the end of the year it was more self-evaluation, self-scouting to find out really where we’re at moving forward,” Salave’a said. “The one thing that was glaring was we had to get a little bit more confident in what we do and the scheme and the techniques we play by position.
“The one thing we harped on was playing hard, playing together.”
Justin Hollins, a fifth-year senior with 22 career tackles for loss, is the starting outside linebacker opposite Winston. Redshirt sophomore Keith Simms is listed as the backup at both spots and will get a lot of playing time if he can stay healthy.
“It does us wonders because everybody works together really well, everybody kind of knows each other to the point where we know how they play,” Hollins said. “I know I’m going to set the edge and I know my linebackers are going to run hard. I know that Jordon and them are going to stay stout in the middle and fill the gaps.”
Senior Kaulana Apelu and redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia are still competing for the starting spot at the “MIKE” linebacker spot.
Dye, who has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, will be backed up at the “JACK” position by true freshman Adrian Jackson.
“Adrian looks like a phenomenal beast,” Dye said. “The dude is just … you come out of high school looking like that, it’s crazy. He runs well, good hips, he hits hard. I mean, he uses his hands well. The only thing with him is you’ve just got to get in the playbook a little bit more and just continue to grasp it.
“Because when you think you have the defense, coach Leavitt is going to throw another defense at you and all hell breaks loose.”
The experienced front seven should be able to create a consistent pass rush and take some of the pressure off sophomore starting cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir. Senior safety Ugo Amadi is the leader of the secondary.
Nick Pickett, Brady Breeze and Mattrell McGraw are all listed as potential starters at the other safety spot. The safety players are raving about is true freshman Javon Holland, currently listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Amadi.
“When we’re talking about guys that are students of the game, Holland truly is one of those guys, one of those rare ones,” Salave’a said. “We’re excited that he’s here. He’s going to make us better.”
During his only interview of fall camp, Leavitt said it wasn’t fair to compare his second season at Oregon to his second season at Colorado, when the balanced Buffaloes won the South Division and played in the 2016 Pac-12 title game.
The Ducks plan to let their play do the talking, beginning Saturday against Bowling Green.
“It’s game week, so everybody is a little bit peppier, a little bit excited, a little bit more antsy,” Winston said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re still playing the right way with that excitement and using that excitement as adrenaline.”