-- Jalen Jelks, DE: The most hyped player to return to Oregon this year wasn’t quarterback Justin Herbert, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell or linebacker Troy Dye.
It was senior defensive end Jalen Jelks, a player who could’ve road his breakout junior season right to the NFL. Instead, Jelks opted to return to the Ducks for another crack at Pac-12 quarterbacks and as of now, he’s probably regretting that choice due to his production this year.
It’s understandable that Jelks’ numbers are down from last year (15 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and seven passes defended) because he’s been facing more double teams and opposing offenses are choosing to run away from him. But, the 6-foot-6, 252-pound athlete needs to produce more than his five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Jelks, who could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3, entered the season as the No. 8 defensive end NFL prospect in the nation. With a fast first-step and violent hands, Jelks has shown that he can hold up against bigger linemen this year, often taking on pulling guards and setting the edge against ball carriers.
He does possess an endless motor that helps him track down running backs from behind, but he needs to do a better job of getting off blocks or finding the ball, often staying engaged too long and missing out from making the play.
If he chose to leave early last year, Jelks told the Oregonian that he was projected as a second-round pick due to his pass rushing ability, something he’s continued to flash this season without the same results. According to Pro Football Focus, Jelks was the highest-rated interior lineman to return to college football this season.
With NFL scouts at virtually every Oregon game thanks to Herbert’s possibility of being the top overall pick in the NFL Draft, Jelks will have the chance to impress again when facing a UCLA offensive line that has struggled for much of the season.
The Bruins will either go with senior Wilton Speight, an in-the-pocket type of passer, or Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a versatile freshman who can make plays with his legs.
Either way, Jelks will have to prove that he’s much more than just a key in Oregon’s defense, but rather, a star waiting to break out in his senior season.