EUGENE — The days of fifth-string quarterbacks on Oregon’s kickoff return and coverage units are over.
Even with all their specialists returning, the Ducks are making drastic changes to their special teams units this spring, particularly in terms of personnel and also adding voices to coaching the various units.
Tight ends and special teams coach Bobby Williams will continue to oversee the various units, but other members of the staff will be involved in coaching kickoff and kickoff return, punt and punt return, and field goal and field goal block.
“Everything has to be upgraded from the way that we performed and it’s happening we feel in a couple of different ways,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said.
“We’re making certain position coaches head up and be I would say like the head coach of that particular phase along with coach Bobby Williams who over the years has done some really, really good stuff, been a great football coach. But we all know that we got to improve and it’s not on one person and it’s not on particular player, it’s on all of us as coaches, starting with me.”
Oregon’s special teams have not fared well in recent years besides punt return with former safeties Ugo Amadi and Jevon Holland and kickoff return with Mykael Wright. The Ducks regressed in punt return defense, punt return and kickoff last season. Though they improved statistically in kickoff return they also lost onside kicks against USC and Iowa State to end last season.
Inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson is working with the kickoff coverage team given his prowess in coaching tackling.
Wilson said the increased depth compared to the fall is helping as the group adjusts personnel.
“We’ve got a lot more guys competing for those positions and those are really valued positions,” Wilson said. “Special teams, just like in the bowl game or every game, special teams plays will win you or lose you football games. I’m lucky because I get to learn a lot from coach Williams. I think his resume speaks for itself how good a special teams he is, what kind of knowledge he has. I’m speaking up trying to put my little bit into it helping any way he’s asking me to help in getting my guys out there.
“Linebackers should love to play special teams. I don’t care who you are, that’s a play of defense and we should love to play special teams. I want to impress that upon my guys and I want to approach it out there as a coach like it is the most important play in the game because it is going to be. It’s a one-play series and I want to coach it and I want my players to see me coach it like it’s a one-play series. I want our special teams to dominate just like coach Williams and the rest of the staff does.”
Last week’s scrimmage illustrated the upgrades in personnel to some of the return and coverage units.
While Josh Delgado and Kris Hutson worked as the kickoff returners, among the players blocking for them were Bennett Williams, Mase Funa and Brandon Dorlus, all defensive starters, along with Dru Mathis, Adrian Jackson Jr., Jackson LaDuke and Steve Stephens IV, all defenders likely to end up on the two-deep.
Starting middle linebacker Noah Sewell, who got some some early work on special teams last season, took reps on kickoff return last week as well.
“I’m getting slowly back into that,” Sewell said. “I don’t know yet, it’s still not penciled in so we’ll see.”
Starting nickel Jamal Hill began his career on special teams and takes pride in being on kickoff return defense. Cristobal cited the third-year sophomore for regularly flying down the field to make a tackle on kickoffs.
“I know special teams impact the game and any way I can positively impact the game I want to be there to help the team,” Hill said. “I take special teams very serious.”
Weak-side linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia is also on kickoff return and he wants to add.
He said he’s asked Williams to put him on punt team too.
“I told him, whatever gets me more tackles, put me out there,” said Slade-Matautia, who tied with Sewell for the team lead with 45 tackles last season. “I’m trying to get on punt. I’m on kickoff return right now, I used to do that years past. Whatever they need help in, I’m always there to tell them that I’m ready but sometimes they don’t believe me. It’s all good though.”