Oregon went through its final padded football practice of the week on a sweltering Wednesday in the Willamette Valley.
Andy Avalos, the Ducks’ first-year defensive coordinator, walked off the practice fields at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex with sweat dripping down his smiling face.
“We're excited about where we're going to be. Today was by far our best practice,” Avalos said when asked about the players’ ongoing transition to his scheme. “We're definitely moving in the right direction. That's exciting.”
Specifically, Avalos was pleased with the way the Ducks handled their pre-snap reads, stayed disciplined against attempts at deception by the scout team and ran to the ball.
These principles will be critical for No. 11 Oregon’s defense against No. 16 Auburn’s offense on Saturday at AT&T Stadium.
Gus Malzahn has a wealth of experience calling plays in marquee matchups, including national championship games.
Auburn’s coach reassumed those duties to spark a slumping offense in the Music City Bowl last December. The Tigers scored 56 points in the first half of a 63-14 razing of Purdue.
“There's been a lot of film study, needless to say,” Avalos said. “Making sure that we’re dotting our i's and cross our t's. Obviously, coach (Malzahn) has been a very successful head coach and offensive mind. So we’ve got a tremendous challenge up in front of us.”
Oregon has been focusing on mastering Avalos’ defense while also preparing for some great unknowns in Auburn quarterback Bo Nix and wide receiver Anthony Schwartz.
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Nix is the first true freshman Auburn quarterback to start an opener since 1946. Joey Gatewood, a 6-5, 233-pound redshirt freshman, could also get some snaps against the Ducks.
“I’m assuming with the trust that his coach has in him that he’s playing like a veteran,” Oregon senior outside linebacker La’Mar Winston said of Nix. “We’re just going to prepare for him like a veteran, like he’s been in the system for years, and go off of that.”
Schwartz, an elite track athlete who ran the fourth-fasted 100-meter dash (10.09 seconds) in American prep history, is a game-time decision with a hand injury.
“He's the fastest player in the sport,” Avalos said. “So we've got to do a great job on the edges and handling that stuff. We’ve got to be aware of his location and where he's at.”
Auburn returns five senior starters on the offensive line and its top three rushers from last season.
Oregon’s defense, which smothered Michigan State during a 7-6 win at the Redbox Bowl in what proved to be Jim Leavitt’s swan song, returns seven starters and adds some blue-chip talent to the rotation.
“We we feel pretty good about the depth we've been able to create,” Avalos said. “We need to continue to improve in some areas, but we're excited about where we're at.”
Avalos was clearly in a good mood after Wednesday’s crisp practice, but the seniors who have been through the lows of the Brady Hoke debacle and the gradual climb back to respectability under Leavitt understand the Ducks haven’t arrived yet.
“Right when you think you’re perfect, somebody’s going to hit you right in the mouth and you’re going to realize you’re not perfect anymore,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “So we’ve just got to keep going and just keep chopping wood and just keep getting better.”