After Tosh Lupoi won a national championship with Alabama and made his move to the NFL, he didn’t see himself ever returning to college football.

From 2014 to 2018, first as an outside linebacker coach, then a co-coordinator, and finally the sole coordinator of the Alabama defense, Lupoi was part of Crimson Tide teams that played for four national championships and won two of them. A stalwart atop 247Sports’ recruiter rankings, a champion, and working under one of the best coaches in the game’s history? Hard to get much better than that at the college level. So Lupoi jumped to the NFL.

He first coached with the Cleveland Browns and pass-rushing dynamo Myles Garrett. Then it was the Atlanta Falcons and Grady Jarrett. Then it was the Jacksonville Jaguars and Josh Allen. Lupoi was living out an experience at “literally the top of the game,” he said this week. A college program that would want to lure him back would need to hit some pretty serious benchmarks.

“Plain and simple, for myself and my family to come back (to) college football, (I needed) a place that could compete consistently to win a national title, a place where we could consistently coach first-round draft picks, and a place where we can truly go into any living room and be able to express the fact that your life is going to be a great life no matter how football works out because of the alumni base, the connections, and the unbelievable resources at a university,” Lupoi said.

Oregon checked those boxes.

Welcome back, Coach.

Lupoi is the Ducks’ new defensive coordinator under first-year head coach Dan Lanning. Lanning worked as a grad assistant with Lupoi’s outside linebackers in 2015 at Alabama. They’re reuniting in Eugene, a defensive brain trust that has overseen some of the best modern defenses college football has ever seen.

When Lanning was introduced at Oregon, he said he had a list of coaches he’d try to work with. Surely Lupoi was at the top of it. And the Oregon brand doesn’t need much selling; Lupoi seems enamored with it just as much as he was with the prospect of working with Lanning again, which he called “the icing on the cake.”

Lupoi coached in the Pac-12 before Alabama. He was at Cal, his alma mater, from 2008 to 2011. You could say coaching was in the blood. At the time of his hiring, Lupoi, then 26, became the youngest full-time coach in the program’s history. He was at Washington for two years directly before heading to Tuscaloosa.

Though as an outsider, he knew Oregon before. But Oregon has changed since then. The Oregon Lupoi and Lanning forge moving forward will look different still. One thing remains, and it feels especially impactful to hear Lupoi gush over it given the places he’s been and the programs he’s been around.

“There are resources and stuff here that no other place in the country can offer,” he told reporters. “Just like a recruit, as a coach you want to be part of the highest-regarded brand of football and that’s why we’re coming here.”

Lanning just won a national championship as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. Lupoi has rings himself. They know what it takes. The goal for this first spring period is to convey that.

“We want to end knowing we have a relentless defense,” he said when asked what their goals were for spring. “That we feel good about installing the defense, implementing our fundamentals, our technique, our schematics, but at the end of the day, before all that, we’ve got to have a relentless culture here on defense. That’s something we’ve got to take great pride in. That’s our goal. When you turn on the film, we want to be known as relentless. 

“I’m representing them, they’re representing myself, we’re representing an unbelievable university, we want to make everybody proud and the way we’re going to do that is attack and be relentless.”

So much of Oregon’s national brand now is synonymous with offense and flash and scoring and tempo, but the defense shouldn’t be overlooked. From 2008 to 2013, Oregon never finished a season outside the top 30 in defensive SP+—Bill Connelly’s ranking system built upon five factors: success rate, explosiveness, field position, turnover luck, and finishing. That included top-20 finishes in four of six years.

In the seven years since, Oregon has just two top-30 finishes. After an eighth-place finish in 2019, the Ducks slipped to 24th in 2020 (a weird year so maybe slipped isn’t totally accurate) and then 60th in 2021.

Players last week spoke not of wholesale changes but tweaks. New ways of looking at things. Lanning and Lupoi aren’t talking about what they’ve done. Instead, they’re focused on what they can do for the guys in front of them now, and the way they can best maximize potential.

“I love his juice that he comes with every day,” rush end Bradyn Swinson said of Lupoi. “The way he coaches is the way he is every day. Every day you’re getting the same him, you’re getting the best out of him, and he’s trying to make sure you’re getting the best out of yourself. 

“It has been nothing but real and straight hard work. He’s going to get us all to the next level. What we want to be, where we want to be as a defense, he’s going to bring that out of us.”

Inside linebacker Jeff Bassa said there’s a noticeable difference in the energy.

“Everybody’s out there flying around having fun and stuff like that,” Bassa said. “Coach Lanning, he’s a young coach, so he can relate to us a little bit more. He’s flying around out there with us and all the defensive coaches, they’re running with us. If we make plays, they’re jumping up and down and stuff like that.”

The exciting thing about the Lupoi-Lanning partnership—and it feels exciting to the team just as much as it does Lupoi—is that this whole thing is going to be unique. Their style breeds versatility. DJ Johnson is now a full-time defender, but don’t ask him to nail down what role he’s playing to a specific position. “As far as what I’m asked to do, it’s just play how I play,” he said.

“We love simulated pressures, we love five-man pressures, we love blitzing, we’re gonna drop eight, we’re gonna rush four. We’re gonna be a versatile defense at the end of the day,” Lupoi said. “The growth and understanding of what we did at Alabama and branching off Kirby (Smart), I think it’s a collaborative effort. But what’s most important in where we attack this process is not really who we want to be, it’s who we can be. 

“It’s our job—and what I think makes a great coach—(to assess) the personnel and not be doing something because your past system did. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now, and it’s a blast. We’re finding out who we are and who we can be.” 

The staff is pushing players to make situational decisions about their alignment and feel confident in those. Guys are moving around. Bassa is at inside linebacker. Jackson Powers-Johnson is on the defensive line after playing on the other side last year. And maybe his play presents the perfect window into how the team has taken to the new defensive philosophies.

“He’s just turned into a freakin’ monster down there on the inside,” Swinson said. “Now that he’s at (nose) guard, it’s just a completely different feeling from him. And he’s loving it. You can tell that he’s loving it. He’s out there enjoying everything he’s doing.”

That would speak to a staff pushing all the right buttons.

Yes, it’s still very early, but listening to defensive players, there doesn’t seem to be any issues with buy-in or concerns about their commitment to a new way of doing things. Oregon has recruited among the country’s elite for years. Lupoi and Lanning are looking to see the fruits of that labor. Early returns are promising. “With the new defense we have, it’s really bringing out the talent we have,” Swinson said.

Inside linebacker Noah Sewell just smiled when asked what it was like to watch Lanning coach defense in the national championship game, knowing that guy was coming to him. “We’re really about to get that guy,” he thought then.

Maybe Lanning had the same thought when recruiting Lupoi to Eugene.

Expectations are high.

They should be when you assemble the staff Lanning has.

And Lupoi seems like the kind of coach who won’t ever let them be lowered.

“We’re not gonna be the Atlanta Falcons or Cleveland Browns or Jacksonville Jaguars. We’re not gonna be Georgia,” he said. “We’re gonna be Oregon. This is our brand of football. We’re building that together right now.”