Before defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt took over last year, Oregon’s defensive front was a unit full of holes and leaks. Two years ago, the Ducks gave up an average of 246.5 rushing yards per game, good for eighth worst in the nation.
After Leavitt injected a new scheme combined with his intense energy, this unit rose to the challenge. With the rise of Jalen Jelks and surprise of Jordon Scott, Oregon jumped to 25th in the nation, surrendering 128.54 yards per game.
Not entering his second season with Oregon, Leavitt is expecting big things from this group. Not only does it possess two future NFL players in Jelks and Scott, the understanding of the finer points in Leavitt’s scheme should allow the Ducks to play faster.
One of the biggest recruiting wins for new head coach Mario Cristobal was when defensive end Jalen Jelks chose to return for his senior season. It was expected Jelks was going to at least test the draft waters, if not enter, but he announced his decision to come back before the Ducks played their bowl game.
Jelks is a physically imposing player at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, who possess a high-end motor and quick burst off the line. He finished third in the Pac-12 with 15 tackles for loss and ninth with 6.5 sacks.
The future of Oregon’s defensive line is sophomore Jordon Scott, a 6-foot-1, 329-pound behemoth at the nose tackle position. Scott burst onto the scene last year for the Ducks, earning freshmen all-American honors after starting 11 games.
He shows insane burst for a man of his size with incredible first-step quickness. He’s strong enough to take on double teams yet athletic enough to dominate one-on-one battles.
The final starting spot on the defensive line will be a battle between redshirt junior Gary Baker and sophomore Austin Failou. This should be a good one as Failou has more experience, having started two games last year, yet Baker appears to be living up to his potential after a breakout spring and summer.
Regardless of who starts, both players will see a lot of action as they’re more than capable of playing nose tackle as well.
Redshirt junior Drayton Carlberg and redshirt freshman Popo Aumavae are finally healthy after dealing with injuries and should provide depth. Carlberg is somewhat experienced after playing sparingly in every game last year while Aumavae has shown flashes of good play to begin camp.
The biggest name of the newcomers is junior Sione Vea Kava, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior college transfer. Kava drew interest from Oklahoma and Georgia but ultimately settled on the Ducks because of his relationship with defensive line coach, Joe Salave’a.
Kava fills a big need for Oregon, having played collegiate football before so he comes well-equipped with the knowledge of what it takes to succeed at this level.
The other newcomer who could see immediate action is Andrew Failou, the younger brother of Austin. Much like his brother last year, Andrew isn’t expected to play right away but after a good start to fall camp, he could sneak up the depth chart.
It’s quite simple for the Ducks. They have two legitimate stars in Jelks and Scott and two experienced players in Baker and Austin Failou. All four are expected to play a lot so if they can stay healthy throughout the year, Oregon will be in good shape.
To be in great shape, Carlberg and Aumavae have to play well in spots and give relief to the starters while Kava has to prove ready for the transition from junior college to division one football. But, if the backups struggle and injuries take its toll, Oregon could be in a heap of trouble.
This is a big question mark but based on Leavitt’s track record after one year with the Ducks, I expect Oregon to continue its upward trajectory.
Projected Starters: Senior DE, Jalen Jelks — Sophomore NT, Jordon Scott — Sophomore DL, Austin Failou
Projected Backups: Redshirt Junior DE, Drayton Carlberg/Junior DE, Sione Vea Kava — Redshirt Freshman NT, Popo Aumavae — Redshirt Junior DL, Gary Baker