By Ryan Thorburn
The (Eugene) Register-Guard
EUGENE — Don Pellum describes himself as well-organized, a grinder and a disciplinarian.
“But I’m able to communicate with a lot of different people on a lot of different levels,” Pellum added after being promoted to defensive coordinator of the University of Oregon football team last month.
Head coach Mark Helfrich already knew about the traits that made Pellum a standout recruiter and assistant coach over the decades.
On Wednesday, during Oregon’s signing-day press conference, Helfrich talked for the first time publicly about his decision to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti with Pellum.
“He’s a great person and a great coach,” Helfrich said. “Every time he has been empowered, he’s been excellent. When he’s been in front of the team, he’s been excellent. When he’s been in front of the unit, he’s been excellent.”
Before the UO football operations moved to the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, Helfrich, then offensive coordinator under head coach Chip Kelly, had a view of Pellum’s office from his work space at the Casanova Center.
Helfrich noticed that players arrived early for meetings with Pellum, lined their backpacks up neatly after taking out their notepads and then filed out in an orderly fashion after the sessions.
“Why doesn’t everybody do that?” Helfrich asked one day.
“I’m not in charge of everybody,” Pellum replied.
Now Pellum is in charge of the Ducks’ defense.
Although Oregon loses some key players from last season’s unit and the staff was unable to land one more coveted “big” recruit for the defensive line, Pellum believes that there are plenty of talented pieces in place.
In order to beat North Division nemesis Stanford and contend for the Pac-12 championship in 2014, the retooled staff will have to get the job done.
“We could be a little better prepared,” Pellum said. “That’s more of a thing the coaches can do. Then the other thing is (better) fundamentals.”
Oregon signed nine defensive players in the 2014 class and accepted California linebacker transfer Johnny Ragin, who will sit out next season while practicing with the team.
Junior college transfers Tui Talia (defensive line) and Dominique Harrison (cornerback) will help address holes created by graduation and an early departure for the NFL draft.
The Ducks will welcome three talented freshman safeties and four-star cornerback Arrion Springs this summer. The staff is also excited about Pellum’s linebackers of the future — Justin Hollins and Jimmie Swain.
The feeling is mutual.
“That was awesome. I’m really happy for him. I know he’s going to do a great job,” Swain said of Pellum’s ascension to defensive coordinator. “It works for me, because now I kind of get two linebackers coaches with the linebacker coach coming in and (Pellum) still working with linebackers. It’s great for me.”
Pellum will coach the inside linebackers, and Erik Chinander, who was on Kelly’s staff with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles this past season, will coach the Ducks’ outside linebackers.
Retaining John Neal as secondary coach was key for the program. Ron Aiken is entering his second season as the defensive line coach.
“The neat part about it is we have four great coaches in that room that will all work with each other and for each other,” Helfrich said. “And for that unit and this team most importantly.”
The work is never over.
There is still a chance Oregon could add a player or two to the 2014 class. Helfrich notes that Chinander has already “been killing it” on the recruiting trail and preparing for the 2015 class.
Spring practices begin in April and will be extremely important in creating depth and a pecking order before the freshman faces arrive to join the fray.