EUGENE — For the oft-maligned members of the Oregon Ducks’ defense, the 2015 college football season has felt like one, long look in the mirror.

Sometimes, it’s been on purpose.

Thanks to defensive line coach Ron Aiken, a fastidious 60-year-old Ducks assistant who left the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to join Oregon three seasons ago, his charges have nightly homework that requires a certain amount of reflection.

Aiken wants his linemen to get low and crouch into their pre-snap stance in front of a mirror at home. At the hike of an imaginary ball, the players fire out of their stance for one or two steps, staying low for leverage and placing their hands on the chest plates of fictional opponents’ pads. Ten repetitions is all. It can be finished in fewer than three minutes.

“It seems kind of weird, it seems kind of elementary,” said sophomore defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux, whose 20 tackles this season include 4 1/2 for loss. “It kind of seemed ridiculous, but it really helps.”

It is a deceivingly simple assignment that comes from an equally simple idea: Only linemen must play from a three- or four-point crouch, which forces enormous athletes to coil themselves into an unnatural stance. Nine Oregon defensive linemen stand 6-foot-5 or taller. The temptation is to stand up straight after the snap, but football’s holy grail is leverage from being lower than an opponent. 

“I feel bad for the guys who are 6-8, 6-9,” Mondeaux said.

The work with the mirror isn’t only a teaching tool designed to allow players to watch their form. It’s also a description of UO’s defensive scheme, which requires defensive linemen to “mirror” their blockers to plug a specific gap rather than penetrate into the backfield.

“We’re going sideways, whichever way they go,” said freshman Canton Kaumatule, a five-star recruit for whom that style of play was completely different than his freedom to “attack, attack, attack” during high school in Hawaii. “With us getting used to moving with what’s directly in front whatever’s in front of us, a reflection, it helps us.”

For players, it is a telling reminder about the value of doing football’s little things correctly while also a challenge to their standards: Will they put in the work to be the best?

For Aiken, it can be equally informative. If a player doesn’t spend the 2-3 minutes finishing the mirror drill, the results eventually will speak for themselves on the field.

“If they can do that 10 times a day in front of a mirror it will help them,” Aiken said. “It’s just reps. I think they do it. It’s such a small amount. I’m not asking them to do 30 minutes of it.”

The defensive line is not alone in its extra-curricular football studies. Veteran assistant Steve Greatwood asks Oregon’s offensive linemen to run through variations of the pre-practice drills UO uses daily to warm up. One involves laying two towels on the floor in an ‘X’, and stepping into the four quadrants 10 times in each direction, moving forward, left to right, and backward, as if running a drop step in pass protection.

“I always relate it to building a house,” Greatwood said. “If they don’t get the foundation right nothing’s going to turn out if they can’t operate out of a decent stance. Every kid is built a little different, some are higher cut than others and some don’t have the core strength to support the body, so you have to work around that to get them into a functional stance.”

Before practices, Greatwood adds resistance to the ‘X’ drills by wrapping an elastic band around a player’s waist and tugging in differing directions to improve balance, as well as flexibility throughout the hips and knees.

As a high school linebacker and tight end, Henry Mondeaux wasn’t always accustomed to playing in a three- or four-point stance. But drills from his defensive line coach, Ron Aiken, have eased that transition since he arrived at Oregon two seasons ago.

“I think it’s even harder for offensive linemen because our stances have to be much more balanced than a defensive lineman,” Greatwood said.

For players who can spend up to 10 hours a day at Oregon’s football facility watching video, receiving medical treatment, eating in the cafeteria, in meetings or at practice, even 10 extra repetitions can feel like another obligation added to an already stringent fall workload. Counterpoints are that Oregon’s scheme can be unusual for newcomers — said Kaumatule, “the defense here is totally different” — and that UO’s defense should have all the motivation in the world to improve itself in any way possible. Even if it posts a shutout in the Jan. 2 Alamo Bowl against TCU, Oregon will break the 1977 school record of 33.4 points allowed per game.

Amid that backdrop, Oregon’s pressure on quarterbacks has stood out as a bright spot. UO ranks 10th nationally with 3.0 sacks per game. Led by DeForest Buckner’s team-high 9.5 sacks, four of Oregon’s top five sack artists this season are linemen. They include Mondeaux (4.0), Alex Balducci (3.5) and Jalen Jelks (3.5).

To a man, fellow linemen spoke of wanting to become as talented as Buckner, the 6-8 senior defensive end honored by Pac-12 coaches and AP voters as the conference’s defensive player of the year. The only way to get there, they said, was to mimic his work ethic. Aiken, in particular, lauded the drive of Mondeaux, a high school linebacker and tight end who has used the mirror drills to ease his transition to playing in a crouch nearly full-time.

In his two seasons with UO, Mondeaux has become a valuable player at multiple positions along the line, from end to nose tackle and even back at linebacker.

“I guarantee if I asked him to do 15, Henry would do 16,” Aiken said.

And so the defensive line squeezes in extra drills after practice for 5-10 minutes of fundamentals. The Ducks review hand placement, staying low, squaring shoulders with that of a blocker and starting a stance with a flat, rather than arched, back.

Yet the work is not done until linemen finish their 10 reps at home, in front of a mirror.

It can feel funny, at first, Kaumatule acknowledged. But no one makes fun of him. His roommate, after all, is Austin Maloata, a fellow defensive lineman.

“Actually,” Kaumatule said, “I use his mirror.”

— Andrew Greif
[email protected]
@andrewgreif

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