New Oregon coach Mario Cristobal bounced back from a disappointing loss in the Las Vegas Bowl by scoring a major victory with his staff on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will return to Oregon with a new contract that will average $1.7 million per year through 2021. Sports Illustrated was the first to report Leavitt’s deal to remain a Duck.
That total would make him the second-highest paid assistant in the NCAA, tied with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and just $100,000 behind LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
“Coach Leavitt has done a great job of getting us back on the rise,” senior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux said. “We’ve shown a lot of improvement and we have a lot of young guys playing. It’s exciting. I think the mindset of a lot of guys has changed over the last couple years, and it’s good.”
Leavitt was hired to Oregon’s staff by then-head coach Willie Taggart a year ago after the former South Florida coach turned around Colorado’s defense in 2016, helping the Buffaloes win the Pac-12 South title. Under Leavitt, the Ducks improved from 126th nationally in scoring defense in 2016, allowing 41.4 points per game, to 82nd at 29.0 points per game.
The Ducks were 46th nationally in yards allowed per game, with 369.2, after ranking 126th the year before (518.4 yards per game) in Brady Hoke’s 4-3 defense.
“I knew we had the talent last year, we just didn’t have the right scheme,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “When coach Leavitt came, he put everyone in the right spot.”
During the 38-28 loss to No. 25 Boise State on Saturday, Leavitt’s defense scored two touchdowns — an 86-yard fumble return by Dye and a 100-yard interception return by senior safety Tyree Robinson — in a 30-second span to get the Ducks back in the game just before halftime.
Retaining Leavitt, who was expected to leave for Florida State to join Taggart, will help Cristobal finish the 2018 recruiting cycle strong and bolster the Ducks for next fall.
“I’m sorry so many events have happened that can be distractions,” Leavitt tweeted after the deflating defeat in the Las Vegas Bowl. “I only focused on the game today (because) I care so much for these players. Flying back to Eugene to breathe for a moment. Go Ducks!”
Oregon’s players, who signed a petition for Cristobal to replace Taggart, also planned to lobby Leavitt to finish the rebuilding job.
“I think right now we are blessed with the coaching staff we have, those who stayed and those who might stay,” sophomore linebacker La’Mar Winston said. “I’m praying we continue to keep as many of the coaches as possible.”
Defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, an elite recruiter who also held the title of associate head coach under Taggart, is also expected to remain on Cristobal’s staff.
“Coach Joe has been a great coach and so has coach Leavitt,” defensive end Jalen Jelks said when asked about how the hiring of Cristobal factored into his decision to return for his senior season in 2018 instead of leaving for the NFL draft. “As soon as I found out coach Cristobal was elected and they were staying, it just sent joy through me. I was pretty much sitting in my room thinking all this good stuff was going to happen.
“It kind of put a smile on my face when I found out coach Cristobal was the head coach because I knew coach Joe was going to be able to coach me.”
Marcus Arroyo was already announced as the permanent offensive coordinator and play caller before the Ducks were manhandled by the Broncos’ defense.
“When you’ve got a special bond and a special kind of thing going, I’m old enough know to now the grass isn’t always greener,” Arroyo said. “I’ve done a lot of different things. We’ve got a good relationship, we’ve got a good environment. Me and coach Cristobal really hit it off over the course of the season.
“We didn’t know each other from Adam when we went into this thing, and I just feel like it’s a good chemistry.”
Oregon’s offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter against Boise State.
With Royce Freeman deciding not to play in his final game, the Ducks only averaged 1.7 yards per rushing attempt.
Justin Herbert finished with two touchdown passes and three turnovers. Cristobal and Arroyo still have a lot to build around with the talented 6-foot-6, 225-pound quarterback set to return for his junior season.
Oregon finished the uneven season 7-6 after spotting Boise State a 24-0 lead and finishing with four turnovers and 10 penalties.
“When you’re building a program, or rebuilding I would say, and you want championship performances … you can’t allow mistakes,” Cristobal said. “You can’t allow penalties to creep into the process because then you really get sidetracked by that, especially against good teams.”
Robinson, one of the Ducks who played in the national championship game three years ago, dismissed a suggestion that the drama surrounding Taggart’s exit after only one season contributed to the poor performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“I don’t think so at all,” Robinson said. “We’ve got a guy like this (Cristobal) leading our team, and we just wanted to do whatever we can and everyone is on the line for him.
“We’re not worried about the decision that coach Taggart decided to make. We’re playing for this coach now, and that’s all that matters.”