EUGENE — Last year, Raymond Woodie was Oregon’s special teams/outside linebackers coach.
When Woodie left for Florida State with Willie Taggart, Mario Cristobal split those jobs up.
Cristobal named Cort Dennison outside linebackers coach and hired his former co-worker from Alabama, Bobby Williams, as special teams coordinator. Williams ran the special teams for Alabama from 2008-15 before spending the past two seasons as a special assistant to head coach Nick Saban.
“Bobby is one of the most respected professionals in the business,” said Cristobal, who coached the offensive line at Alabama for four seasons before arriving at Oregon last season. “I think he saw what we all saw when we came out here. An opportunity at one of the premier places in the country that we all believe in.”
Williams visited Autzen Stadium 20 years ago as running backs coach for Michigan State under Saban when the Ducks beat the Spartans 48-14 on Sept. 8, 1998.
“I have always been intrigued by Oregon since I came out here when I was at Michigan State,” Williams recalled Saturday. “It was an incredible atmosphere. It wasn’t a good result for Michigan State, we got beat pretty bad, but I always watched this program from afar.
“In the first year of the College Football Playoff, Oregon got in and Alabama was in so I had the chance to break down Oregon, and I was really impressed by the style and flair. I was just intrigued by this program.”
Williams’ final season as an assistant at MSU was 1999, when the Spartans beat Oregon 27-20 in East Lansing, Mich. Saban left following that season to become head coach at LSU and Williams was hired as his replacement, but after going 16-17, he was fired near the end of his third season on the job.
Williams reunited with Saban at LSU in 2004 and moved on to the Miami Dolphins with Saban for two seasons as running backs coach. He joined Saban again at Alabama in 2008 for a 10-year run with five national championships, including one last season.
“The challenge of sustaining at a high level, one of the most difficult challenges we had was to be able to come back and perform at that level knowing we were everyone’s big game,” Williams said. “Coach Cristobal has done a great job establishing that culture here. … We had a great working relationship and coach Cristobal is a relentless coach who brings a lot of energy and excitement. I saw the challenge and accepted it.”
While Williams runs the special teams, the rest of the staff also plays a role in those units.
“Bobby is the special teams coordinator, it’s his baby,” Cristobal said. “He runs everything, but we do use every single assistant coach to help on special teams. It’s too many bodies to coach by yourself. Every coach is assigned to a different phase.”
Oregon needs to replace four-year starting kicker Aidan Schneider with sophomore Adam Stack, who is expected to take those duties along with punting after averaging 38.3 yards per punt last year. The Ducks also return Dillon Mitchell and Tony Brooks-James, who led the Ducks in punt and kickoff returns, respectively, last season.
“It’s been going great,” Williams said. “Great group of guys, fun to work with. … We had some success at Alabama in the kicking game, so we’re bringing some new ideas here. They’ve embraced what we’re doing, and the guys have been all in. It will be interesting to see how well we progress and take the next step in development as we move forward.”
Williams is willing to audition anyone for special teams.
“We’ve always been able to play the best guys, because it’s one-third of the game and very important,” he said. There are a lot of plays to be made in the kicking game. We also use reserve players, because you can’t use starters all the time. So those guys are going to be a big part of the personnel we utilize. Some of these guys played real well last year on special teams and some were starters.
“We’ll look at doing some of that and look at younger players and some walk-ons. We’re looking at everybody.”
The NCAA approved a new rule Friday to allow kick returners to call for a fair catch inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback to cut down on injuries.
“It’s going to be up to the kickoff and return units to come up with some new strategies,” Williams said. “I’m sure some teams are going to come up with ideas to create even more issues.
“We’ll still see some returns because of kicks being placed in different spots on the field, shorter or longer. It will probably help some guys that don’t have as strong of a leg, but we’ll definitely see some different strategies.”