Jim Leavitt spent a lot of time sequestered in his San Francisco hotel room, where the quirky assistant coach presumably consumed copious amounts of Pepsi, fine-tuning his defensive game plan for the Redbox Bowl.
The solitary confinement worked when Leavitt, who was not made available for interviews ahead of the bowl, emerged on New Year’s Eve at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Oregon held Michigan State to 159 net rushing yards, 4.3 yards per pass attempt and a pair of 34-yard field goals during a 7-6 victory.
Eight weeks after the 9-4 finish to Mario Cristobal’s first season as head coach, Leavitt walked away from the awkward post-Willie Taggart partnership with a financial settlement worth up to $2.5 million.
Cristobal’s new defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos, is embracing a more collaborative effort.
While installing the basics of his defense during spring practice, Avalos made sure players also heard the voices of Keith Heyward (safeties), Joe Salave’a (defensive line), Donte Williams (cornerbacks) and Ken Wilson (linebackers) loud and clear.
“When people ask how much of the defense did you install or whatever, well, we’ve got to install a foundation to run a defense and get everybody on the same page,” Avalos said of the transition during a recent interview with The Register-Guard. “I would say that even just through the spring, and following up on the spring, I think we made a huge jump.“
In order for Oregon, which returns preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Herbert and arguably the best offensive line in the country, to contend for the Pac-12 championship, Avalos’ side of the ball will have to carry its weight.
The Ducks were dramatically improved under Leavitt after fielding some of the worst defenses in program history under the direction of Don Pellum and Brady Hoke.
But in Pac-12 games last season, Oregon took a step back, finishing eighth in points allowed (29.3 ppg) and seventh in yards allowed (419.7 ypg).
After hiring Avalos, the architect of the Boise State wrecking crew that clipped the Ducks’ wings in the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl, Cristobal said the defense will be better connected from front to back.
“Everybody is very excited about where we’re going, how we’re doing it, how we’re all contributing together,” Avalos said of the working chemistry on the staff. “It’s not about one person’s idea, it’s about what’s best for Oregon’s defense, what’s best for Oregon’s culture, what’s best for our players here and the development. I think everybody in that room is on the same page.
“That’s what is fun, when you get a collaboration of coaches who are very smart and driven and you put them in the same room and it’s about what’s best to create the best possible defense you can. Then you show up and you present that to players in the meeting room and everyone is saying the same thing and we’re all on point. That’s very powerful.”
Avalos inherits some proven Pac-12 standouts in nose tackle Jordon Scott, inside linebacker Troy Dye, outside linebacker La’Mar Winston, cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir and safeties Jevon Holland and Nick Pickett.
Five-star defensive end recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux should help replace the pass rush production of NFL rookies Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins, and Miami transfer D.J. Johnson might be a perfect fit for the “Stud” position in Avalos’ scheme.
Even though Leavitt was popular with the players, the Ducks seemed to be buying in to Avalos’ approach during the spring.
“Personally, before trying to implement the scheme, he’s making it more about us and bringing us together,” Holland said. “He says a lot that we have to open our heart to each other and be able to listen to the coaches, listen to the players also. …
“He’s open to ideas and really optimistic.”
Heyward wanted to replace Leavitt as defensive coordinator and was considered for the position before Cristobal lured Avalos away from Boise State, his alma mater.
During the offseason, Heyward received the title of associate head coach, a contract extension through the 2020 season and a salary raise from $450,000 to $600,000.
“We have great dialogue and conversations about what we’re doing on the front end and how that ties into the back end. Then also with the linebackers,” Heyward said. “I think it’s a good balance with what we have and what’s going on moving forward.”
Avalos and the Ducks will begin fall camp on Aug. 2 in preparation for the marquee opener with Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.