EUGENE — Oregon’s defense has emphasized turnovers during spring practice and on Thursday they materialized.
The Ducks got a pick-six from safety Jordan Happle, linebacker Keith Brown forced a fumble in the red zone and linebackers Noah Sewell and Nate Heaukulani nearly had interceptions, according to UO athletics.
“Hats off to the defense — they brought it today,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said after the team’s tenth spring practice. “It was a different type of intensity, different type of communication. They showed up and showed up big.”
Those plays came days after several defenders, including safeties Steve Stephens IV, Verone McKinley III and Bennett Williams, had takeaways or near-takeaways during last week’s first spring scrimmage.
Creating more turnovers is among the major agenda items for new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, and not only because it always is on defense.
The Ducks went from a plus-16 turnover margin in 14 games in 2019 for a Pac-12 leading 1.14 per game, to minus-9 in seven games last season or minus-1.29 per game, 11th in the Pac-12 and 121st nationally. It was the largest year-over-year decline in turnover margin in the FBS since Minnesota went from a nation-leading plus-1.38 in 2006 to a minus-1.25 in 2007.
“When you make it a huge point of emphasis it has to be more than verbal,” Cristobal said. “That’s what the coaching staff has done, that’s what the players have done. Today was a day where it really, really popped. Today they were extremely active in terms of communication, getting around the football and getting multiple hats to the ball. Everybody it seemed like it — it was one of those days where it seemed like they had an extra guy out there all the time. It’s paying dividends, it is, and we need it.
“If you look at critical statistics in football and how the game has changed that’s one that really still sticks out as a determining factor in teams having successful seasons and not. Certainly an area that we have to build upon from last year because last year we didn’t take it away much and we gave it away more than typically have. On both sides of the ball it’s a really big point of emphasis so we’re spending a lot of time on it.”
Spring practice can favor the defense in terms of turnovers because whether the play is a called run or pass is more frequently predetermined outside of scrimmage settings. For that matter, the offense doesn’t have to be concerned with the quarterback taking contact since they’re not live in practice.
For Oregon to make the improvements it’s aiming for in creating more turnovers three players who will be particularly critical are Sewell, nickel Jamal Hill and boundary corner D.J. James.
Sewell forced a fumble and tied for the team lead with 45 tackles last season. Hill had 20 tackles with four pass breakups and two interceptions, both in the Pac-12 Championship game. James had 14 tackles as a backup to Deommodore Lenoir and is in line to replace him as the starter this fall.
They all recognize the need and importance of turnovers and capitalizing when the opportunity presents itself while not be over-aggressive to the point of getting burned for a big play.
“I know the coaches are going to put me in position to make a play on the ball,” James said. “Then it’s just up to you as a player to go make a play on the ball. I feel my coaches are going to put me in the position to make plays and I got to go make the plays when I see them.”
Sewell has a knack for punching the ball free and is helping teammates.
“I be trying to give pointers to my teammates to help them create turnovers for themselves, which helps the team as a whole,” he said.