First, we travel back to 2016, when Oregon’s abysmal defense allowed 6.1 yards per rush and 7.8 yards per pass.
During Willie Taggart’s program revival, he landed an exciting defensive coordinator in Jim Leavitt. The twelve-year head coach at USF who left amid scandal also had the privilege of coaching a prolific San Francisco 49ers linebacker corps. The Ducks paid up for Leavitt’s services in hopes of a quick turnaround; he surrounded himself with quality assistants like defensive line coach Joe Salave’a and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward.
Yet Oregon’s 2017 campaign was modest. The team flipped between dominant and sub-par on both sides of the ball. Justin Herbert’s offense was explosive, while Braxton Burmeister’s drives were ineffective. On defense, the Ducks were at times clueless as opposing quarterbacks marched down the field. On the other hand, they had flashes of brilliance, shutting down running backs and applying constant pressure to passers. With the swift betrayal of Willie Taggart, the rumor mill wondered if Jim Leavitt would follow him to FSU. Leavitt even hinted at the fact he wants the opportunity to be a head coach again, a position he’s nearly ten years removed from. Oregon retained him as the 2018 defensive coordinator and added two more assistants, Cort Dennison and Donte Williams, on the defense.
Let’s identify last year’s starters who will have the defense on their shoulders in 2018:
Senior Ugo Amadi needs to improve and be a steady presence at safety. Oregon’s roster lists them with nine different safeties — fans are eagerly waiting to see if one of them steps up and becomes a reliable starter. Oregon also sports nine cornerbacks, including four freshmen. The only two upperclassmen cornerbacks will be playing their first games for the Ducks. Oregon needs to discover some hidden gems if their pass defense wants to improve on last season.
After that, Oregon returns a seasoned linebacker corps in 2018. Troy Dye will push to make the All-Pac-12 First Team after plenty of honors in 2017. Joining him is Lam’ar Winston Jr., recipient of the 2017 Len Casanova Leadership Award. Justin Hollins hopes to be a fearsome linebacker in his senior season. After these three familiar names, Oregon has a handful of freshmen, transfers, and players returning from injury who find themselves in a battle royale for playing time. This linebacking group is crucial for Oregon’s playmaking ability.
The defensive line will once again be anchored by Jalen Jelks. Jelks enters his senior season with hopes of being the next prolific Oregon pass rusher drafted to the NFL. Jelks is an absolute wrecking ball and one of those special players that go above and beyond what’s asked; he’s explosive with the length to destroy edges in the pass rush. Next to Jelks, hoping to break out in his sophomore year, is defensive tackle Jordon Scott. Scott hopes to be a running back’s nightmare. Oregon’s defensive line will be filled out by four juniors who saw playing time last year and a three-star JUCO transfer.
This defense is full of exciting playmakers, a stacked recruiting class, and plenty of useful transfers. The whole roster has a rejuvenating freshness to it that leaves us expecting more improvement from Jim Leavitt’s unit. Being a defensive back is tough in the Pac-12 but I’m hoping for a few more noteworthy deflections or tackles that stick in a fan’s head.
The run defense is probably going to be a strength, but they can’t allow both Stanford and Washington to run for 250 yards. We’re five weeks away from Bryce Love stopping by in Eugene so Oregon’s defense will have a chance at redemption. The last thing Oregon absolutely needs to improve on is penalties. Penalties were by far the most frustrating aspect of 2017 on both sides of the football. If they limit the flags to at least five per game on defense instead of seven to ten, the defense will force at least one or two more punts per game. The marginal improvements all across the board can help turn Oregon’s fortunes around and set the stage for a shot at the Pac-12 championship.
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