Whether his Oregon defense had forced a turnover or given up a touchdown, held firm on third down or yielded a long run, Nick Aliotti came to appreciate the predictable silence from one familiar voice.
It belonged to his boss, Chip Kelly.
“He never once said a word on the headset during a game,” Aliotti said of the former Ducks’ head coach. “Almost unheard of.”
Kelly also rarely popped into the defensive meeting room or was involved in the unit’s game-planning during the four seasons he supervised Aliotti, the team’s defensive coordinator. Kelly fully trusted his assistants and preferred to give them complete autonomy.
“He knew what was going on but never uttered a word about, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? Why are you doing that? Let’s blitz them. Let’s not blitz them,’” Aliotti said. “It was unbelievable, the calm and the way he treated it. He just let us do our thing.”
It worked out for everyone. The Ducks went 46-7 and appeared in four major bowl games under Kelly, who is trying recapture his winning formula heading into his first season at UCLA.
The coach was known for innovative offenses at Oregon but credited defense for the program’s historic success. His fate at his latest college stop, Kelly said, will also hinge primarily on whether his team makes stops, something the Bruins rarely did last season while giving up a school-record 3,736 rushing yards.
“If we're going to be successful at UCLA,” Kelly said, “it really starts on the defensive side of the ball.”
Kelly imported a chunk of his old Oregon staff to Westwood, hiring onetime defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro as defensive coordinator and Don Pellum as inside linebackers coach. He might have tried to lure Aliotti had the veteran coordinator not retired after the 2013 season.
Some of the themes that have emerged during the Bruins’ training camp are reminiscent of what the Ducks did on defense under Kelly. UCLA has adopted an aggressive, attacking approach featuring a 3-4 front that blitzes with abandon.
“The defense we’re running is a defense that I’ve never run,” cornerback Darnay Holmes said, “but I’m definitely loving it.”
“Violence” and “effort” have been the primary buzzwords in practice, with Pellum chiding players earlier this week after they milled about between formation drills.
“Hustle!” Pellum yelled. “Do not wait for us! Hustle!”
Change was needed after the Bruins ranked last in the Pac-12 Conference last season in total defense (483.7 yards per game) and rushing defense (287.4 yards per game) while allowing 36.6 points per game.
Some of the defensive numbers of Kelly’s Oregon teams weren’t pretty, either, but came with an asterisk. The Ducks’ hurry-up offense got off the field so quickly that their defense led the conference in number of plays on the field during three of Kelly’s four years.
Oregon never finished higher than fourth in the conference in yards allowed under Kelly, but it ranked first in yards allowed per play twice and came in second another season.
“We played so many plays on defense that you had to find a way [to gauge success] that was measurable without killing your team,” Aliotti said.
The Ducks endured the barrage of plays by substituting players in a way that resembled hockey line shifts. Aliotti said he would also mix and match first- and second-string players to provide balance, build depth and mitigate the loss of departing players each season.
Aliotti’s defenses were known for limiting explosive plays and forcing turnovers — more than any other team in the nation during Kelly’s four seasons. The turnovers were generated in part by a swarming mentality.
“When a lot of guys run to the ball and get their hat around the ballcarrier or around the ball, good things happen because you’re there to capitalize on it when there is a fumble,” Aliotti said.
Aliotti attended two UCLA practices last week and raved about Holmes and linebackers Jaelan Phillips and Krys Barnes. While there is consensus among people who have watched the Bruins that they may need some wider bodies along the defensive line, Aliotti said Azzinaro is perfectly suited to mold the roster as it stands.
“I never want to put too much pressure on coaches that take over for a first year, [but] they will take a quantum leap under Azz, a quantum leap,” Aliotti said. “Because if it’s broken, he can fix it, and that’s a key in calling a game or when something’s not going right, he knows how to fix it.
“Some guys are good on the blackboard and put on a good PowerPoint presentation and a great clinic talk, but when the lights go on there’s a big difference in adjusting in knowing what works and what you need to do to stop somebody or calm your defense down. Azz can do that.”
Defensive end Marcus Moore credited Azzinaro with making him a more well-rounded player by teaching not just the nuances of his position but also coverage schemes and the players around him.
“Every time I go into the meeting room with him, I’ll always pick up something,” Moore said,
Kelly has declined to make his defensive assistant coaches available for interviews. A school spokeswoman explained that they immediately go from morning practices to meetings that stretch well past dinnertime.
If old trends hold up, Kelly won’t be dragging those meetings any deeper into the night.
Just stop it
Oregon’s defensive statistics and conference ranking under Chip Kelly:
Year; Points allowed per game; Yards per game; Number of plays per game; Yards per play; Turnovers forced per game
2009; 23.8 (4); 336.3 (4); 73.3 (1); 4.6 (1); 1.9 (4)
2010; 18.7 (2); 346 (4); 74.1 (1); 4.7 (1); 2.8 (1)
2011; 24.6 (5); 390.1 (5); 76.9 (1); 5.1 (2); 2.1 (3)