Dan Lanning gaining favor in the ‘Land of Green’

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series that will focus on Oregon football and its development under new coach Dan Lanning, the former Georgia defensive coordinator. Oregon will face the defending national champion Bulldogs in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff on Sept. 3 in Atlanta.

EUGENE, Ore. — You can’t get much more Oregonian than John Canzano. That’s the name of the newspaper for which he wrote columns for 20 years before he went out on his own this past March. Now he shares his opinions online, on podcasts and on the radio under the banner of “Bald Faced Truth.”

Canzano, you see, is verifiably bald and allegedly truthful.

So, it was with pledged sincerity and local authority that Canzano revealed that he, like a lot of the folks in Duck Nation, was more than a little cynical when it came to Oregon hiring Dan Lanning last December.

“I didn’t want to like him,” Canzano said of the young former defensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs. “You have to understand, we’ve all been through a washing machine around here. It was nothing about him or Georgia. It’s just with all the changes, you kind of numb out and not get too excited about the new guy after a while.”

Indeed, despite a fairly consistent record of success, the Ducks have burned through head coaches. They’ve had five since Kirby Smart showed up at Georgia. That counts Lanning and Bryan McClendon, who served as interim head coach for Oregon’s appearance in the Alamo Bowl last year before joining Smart’s current staff at Georgia. In between were Mark Helfrich, Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal.

One only has to go back to 2008 to see Oregon’s head coach total to rise to seven. The Bulldogs have had two in that span. The last one, quite notably, just won a national championship.

Which brings us back to Lanning. There is something very endearing about him, Canzano said. He has been growing on Oregonians like the pinot grapes in Willamette Valley.

“I’ve got to say, he is really likable,” said Canzano, who has now enjoyed a couple of one-on-one interviews with Lanning. “He’s really charming. He didn’t move out here and buy a $14 million palace (like USC’s Lincoln Riley did). He seems like a family guy. He’s had some backyard barbecue things with his team. He’s mostly said and done the right things. Of course, we don’t know yet if he can coach.”

The Ducks will find out soon enough. Lanning and his new, young staff are busy readying Oregon for its opener against – wouldn’t you know it? – Georgia. The teams will meet Sept. 3 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta (3:30 p.m., ABC).

Like Georgia, Oregon is still in its first week of preseason camp. They both started last Thursday, and both have 29 days to get in 25 practices. One difference is the Ducks, who are on the quarter system, have unlimited practice time through Sept. 27. Georgia has only until Aug. 17 for unfettered preparation because that’s when classes begin on the UGA campus. NCAA rules limit practice time to 20 hours per week once school is in session.

Otherwise, though separated an entire continent, the preparations on both coasts look remarkably similar. Without attributing the words to Lanning, it’d be hard to distinguish anything that he said after last Friday’s practice from what Smart has said the last seven years.

To wit:

“Definitely embracing the strain and the opportunity to get better. One percent is what we’re looking for in each and everything that we do. So, where can we find those percentage points to get a little bit better?”

And, “practice has got to be harder right now than it is in the game.”

Also, “We’re figuring out who our best five are up front. It’s not assumed just because of who it was before.”

Lanning says he’s looking for “a level of toughness, a level of effort, a level of finish.”

Sound familiar?

Unmistakably, Lanning is the latest branch to sprout from Smart’s growing coaching tree. The 36-year-old Lanning joins Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, Arkansas’ Sam Pittman and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer in that distinction.

Lanning already has had to handle some things those guys haven’t. Spencer Webb, an Oregon senior and starting tight end, fell to his death in a tragic outdoor-recreation accident last month. Soon afterward, Lanning took the team on an excursion to climb “Spencer’s Butte,” a previously named mountaintop 14 miles south of Autzen Stadium. Lanning declared that the run will now become an annual preseason exercise.

It’s just one of several acts that have endeared Lanning to the locals here.

“I thought he handled that with grace,” Canzano said. “I don’t think his head is spinning, even though the conference is in a real weird place. There’s been disruption everywhere, but he hasn’t seemed at all overwhelmed. I think he’s enjoying being a head coach. He seems real relaxed.”

There have been a lot of calls going back and forth between Lanning and Smart. There are fewer now that the teams are in camp preparing for battle three weeks hence. But the calls will never cease altogether.

“I’ve had a lot of communication with Dan,” Smart said at SEC Media Days. “It’s more gratitude both ways. He’s had some questions as a first-time head coach – the same questions I would have had – and we’ll continue to talk. ... There’s not a lot that’s going to affect the scheme of the game. We’re not sitting there asking each other what plays we’re going to run.”

Lanning has a lot to figure out before Sept. 3. Much about his team remains unknown. Word is that the Ducks’ defensive front seven, led by future NFL player Noah Sewell, is exceptionally good. So is the offensive line.

But Oregon’s best back, 1,200-yard rusher Travis Dye, transferred to USC. And technically they don’t know who will play quarterback. But everybody from Portland to Beaverton will bet their paycheck it will be Bo Nix. Why would a quarterback who played three SEC seasons at Auburn cross the continent and not play a fourth time against Georgia, they reason.

Meanwhile, like Lanning, the Ducks’ coaching staff is young. Neither offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham nor defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi has called a game themselves. These are among the causes for true concern.

“Nobody knows what to expect on offense, and he doesn’t have 11 NFL draft picks on defense,” Canzano summarized.

People will find out about Lanning soon enough. There certainly won’t be any Georgians counting him out. They saw firsthand what he did in three short years as Georgia’s coordinator. He took the reins as a relative unknown outside linebackers coach and turned the Bulldogs’ 2021 defense into one of the most fearsome defensive units this century.

“The Georgia game is interesting,” Canzano said. “Playing there (in Atlanta) in Week 1 rather than in Week 6 certainly is not ideal. But, then, being the opener they might not get Georgia’s best punch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oregon played them closer than the point spread. They’ve certainly seen it and heard all about it.”

Seventeen points, the bookies say. Lanning will have his say soon enough.