Oregon tabbed Willie Taggart to replace ousted head coach Mark Helfrich, a move that in and of itself spoke to the high standard Ducks brass held for the football program’s new leader.
He may or may not be able to match 37 wins in four seasons, a Pac-12 Conference championship and a College Football Playoff title game appearance. Taggart’s already one-upped Helfrich in one facet, however, less than two weeks on the job: His hire of Jim Leavitt to coordinate the Ducks defense demonstrates the kind of staffing mastery that ultimately cost Helfrich his job.
Himself an internal promotion in 2013, Helfrich followed the same pattern with his first major coaching hire. He replaced the retiring Nick Aliotti after the ’13 campaign with longtime Ducks linebackers Don Pellum, setting off an odd tenure that saw Pellum moved to the box and down to the field on occasion.
Pellum’s shift back to positions coach opened the door for an outsider to take over the job. Helfrich’s hire of Brady Hoke — a head coach for his previous 11 years in the profession with no defensive coordinating experience — suggested a certain lack of comfort in going behind the well-established Oregon coaching tree.
Willie Taggart was UO’s first head-coaching hire from outside the program in 40 years. It stands to reason such a bold move would precipitate another bold hire outside of the program to lure away Leavitt.
This year’s winner of the Frank Broyles Award, given to college football’s top assistant, Leavitt transformed the Colorado defense in just two years with the program. The Buffs rank in the Top 20 of scoring defense nationally; in 2014, they were No. 119.
Playmakers like Jimmie Gilbert thrived in Leavitt’s scheme, and a player who had previously been floundering — linebacker Addison Gillam — rejuvenated.
Like Taggart, Jim Leavitt comes to Eugene with Pac-12 experience, albeit limited. He spent one less season in Boulder than Taggart spent on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford, before taking over as head coach of Western Kentucky. Taggart’s success at his alma mater eventually led him to USF, and the post Leavitt was fired from in 2009, the year Taggart returned to WKU.
Before his time at USF, Jim Leavitt was primarily a Midwestern. He had stints at Iowa under Hayden, and Kansas State under Bill Snyder. His play-calling style reflects their approaches.
And yet, at the same time, Jim Leavitt’s style should look right at home with Oregon.
Aliotti’s defenses were always somewhat underappreciated during the Ducks’ rise to Pac-12 prominence. The hyper-speed version of the spread offense Chip Kelly introduced generated much discussion and plenty of individual awards, but Aliotti fed the beast.
Oregon boasted some of the best turnover-generating defenses in all of college football — particularly from the secondary. Players like Cliff Harris and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu flourished, while the Ducks finished regularly ranked in the Top 10 nationally for interceptions.
Fast-forward to 2016, when Oregon intercepted just nine passes on the campaign — six fewer than Colorado, which is currently tired for No. 14 in the nation.
Ahkello Witherspoon, Tedric Thompson and Chidobe Owuzie maximized their potential in Leavitt’s system, which both created takeaways, and limited opponents’ overall passing production. The Buffs limited opposing quarterbacks to a nation-worst 5.4 yards per attempt.
Contrast that with 2014 prior to Leavitt’s arrival. Colorado allowed 7.5 yards per pass attempts. Even more glaring? Three interceptions on the year.
Willie Taggart has a lofty standard to meet with a program that’s won four conference titles in seven years and appeared in two national championship games. But in landing Jim Leavitt, Taggart’s taking one big step toward that end.