Jim Leavitt turned Oregon’s defense around. Now, UW is preparing to face ‘athletic,’ ‘physical’ Ducks

UW offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan previews UW-Oregon

Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan previews Saturday's game between UW and Oregon at Autzen Stadium.
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Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan previews Saturday's game between UW and Oregon at Autzen Stadium.

Washington knows what to expect from a Jim Leavitt defense.

Leavitt was Colorado’s defensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 before taking the same role at Oregon prior to the 2017 season. He transformed both groups, leading dramatic recoveries for what were previously two of the worst defenses in the Pac-12.

On Saturday, UW won’t be facing the Ducks’ defense from 2015, the one that ranked 11th in the conference in points and yards allowed. And it won’t even be the same as last year, when the Huskies scored five touchdowns en route to a 38-3 victory.

Oregon’s defense has only gotten better in its second season under Leavitt, and UW is well aware.

“It’s going to be physical,” said Huskies offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan. “They are long. They’re athletic. Schematically, they cause a lot of issues.”

Leavitt had a similar effect on Colorado’s defense when he took over in 2015.

In his first year, the Buffaloes went from allowing 460.9 yards per game to 416.9 yards per game. By 2016, the Buffaloes were allowing 342.5 yards per game and just 4.69 yards per play, which ranked eighth in the country.

As for the Ducks, they allowed 518.4 yards and 41.6 points per game in 2016. Enter Leavitt, who turned around the defense in his first season. Last year, the Ducks gave up 29 points per game, a 12.4 point difference. Oregon also moved up to fifth in the conference in total defense, allowing 440.9 yards per game.

Those numbers have continued to drop this season. Through five games, the Ducks are allowing 24.4 points per game and 346.8 yards per game.

“They probably play to his personality,” Hamdan said of Leavitt’s ability to swiftly improve defenses. “They are always going to be aggressive by nature. They’re going to stop the run, which they’ve done a great job of. He’s done a great job every place he’s been.”

The Ducks’ rushing defense ranks second in the Pac-12 (108.6 ypg). Utah leads the conference in rushing defense, giving up just 75.4 yards per game. But the Huskies were able to get their running game going in their 21-7 victory over the Utes as Myles Gaskin ran for 143 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries.

Hamdan said Gaskin will be key again, especially because opponents have often opted to load the box against the Huskies this season.

“I think with our identity right now, a lot of teams have (prepared for the run),” Hamdan said. “I think Myles has done a great job of making some guys miss, but we’ll always look for opportunities to be as balanced as possible.”

UW tight end Drew Sample complimented Oregon’s front seven, which is a big reason why the Ducks are second in the conference in sacks with 16.

“They got some good edge guys, some really good guys in the front seven,” Sample said. “We’re excited for that challenge. We’ve faced a lot of good front sevens and I think every week we’re looking forward to that challenge. We’ve got to bring our best stuff. We’re excited about it.”

The Ducks also thrive on forcing turnovers. They lead the Pac-12 in interceptions with eight and have two players — safeties Ugo Amadi and Jevon Holland — who are tied for the Pac-12 lead with three interceptions each. Linebacker Justin Hollins not only has four sacks, but also three forced fumbles.

“They’re very athletic,” said wide receiver Aaron Fuller. “They can make plays. They all make plays, they’re all over the field. They have (three) defensive touchdowns … They’re just everywhere.”

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