Oregon Football Defensive Preview
If you ignore the Georgia game, Oregon's defense is actually doing alright.
Oregon got off to a rough start of the season, getting dismantled 49-3 by head coach Dan Lanning’s former employer, which just so happens to be loaded with 5-star future NFL talent. Given that there isn’t a team in the Pac-12 that can out-talent or out-scheme Oregon to that degree, it seems fair to give them a mulligan for that Georgia game. More recently, they held a strong passing offense in Arizona to just 22 points, and a strong rushing offense in UCLA to just 30 points (and Oregon was up 31-13 at halftime and 38-16 heading into the 4th quarter, so I think that final score is a bit misleading as Oregon took their foot off the gas).
The only team to really put up points on Oregon in the Pac-12 was Washington State, and they did so through a combination of trick plays and QB Cam Ward voodoo magic (surviving in the pocket for so long that he could eventually take advantage of the Oregon secondary). Given that, I think it’s fair to say that Oregon is probably an above-average defense in the conference, and that’s probably why they are currently sitting at the top of the Pac-12 standings.
Although Dan Lanning was the defensive coordinator last year for Georgia, one of college football’s all-time great defenses, you’d have to expect that the defensive coordinator is taking a more proactive role in the defense this year.
Oregon’s defensive coordinator? Cal’s own
Benedict Tosh Lupoi.
Lupoi was a defensive lineman at Cal from 2000 to 2005, and later became the defensive line coach under Jeff Tedford, where he quickly gained a reputation as an ace recruiter. After all, who better to sell recruits on a program than an alum who’s just a few years older than them and can relate to what they’re going through? When he tells you, a recruit, that he loves Cal, you believe it.
You can’t fault a coveted coach for moving on to a bigger program, but you can definitely fault him for going completely scorched earth on the way out:
I get being underappreciated and all the ramifications that come with it but when you clear out in the middle of the night with no warning and are immediately in contact with recruits that morning when your employers don't even know yet and start not only recruiting for your new program the guys you recruited for Cal but tell them, "DON'T GO TO CAL?"
That and other actions make this an irreparable rift, imo.
In case you don’t remember this saga, the general gist of it was that Lupoi asked Jeff Tedford for a raise, and then broke his word to Tedford in order to leverage an even bigger offer from Washington, who wanted him as the defensive line coach there. I think Cal fans could get past that, except for the part that Lupoi kept recruiting his previous Cal commits to his new school (UW), and even partook in negative recruiting to scare recruits off Cal (not all of them went to UW, some went to other places, e.g. UCLA). Instead of Cal gaining some 5-star recruits (and future NFL players), Lupoi blew up Cal’s recruiting class at the worst possible time. After all, who better to scare recruits away from a program than an alum inside the program telling you it’s a sinking ship, and to come aboard his new boat in Seattle? When he tells you, a recruit, that Cal is the worst, you believe it.
Cal went from 7-6 in 2011, to 3-9 in 2012 after Lupoi left, and Tedford was fired at the end of that season. There’s something to be said about loyalty to your coaching staff here.
One thing about Lupoi is that he’s definitely coached alongside some great defensive coaches. When he left to become the DL coach at UW for Steve Sarkisian, his defensive coordinator was actually Justin Wilcox (and Wilcox was actually Cal’s linebacker coach when Lupoi was a player at Cal). He then became a “defensive analyst” (read: ace recruiter) for Nick Saban and Alabama when current Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was then the defensive coordinator, and eventually worked his way up to “Defensive coordinator & outside linebackers coach” there (although there may be some speculation on how much defensive coordinating he actually did under Saban, and how much of it was just fluffing titles to earn a bigger paycheck each time the Alabama coaching staff was poached). He then spent one year stints as a DL coach in the NFL for the 2019 Cleveland Browns (6-10), 2020 Atlanta Falcons (4-12), and 2021 Jacksonville Jaguars (3-14, although Urban Meyer was fired mid-season).
Now, he’s back to the college ranks as Dan Lanning’s defensive coordinator. The two met at Alabama in 2015, when Lupoi was a defensive analyst and Lanning was a graduate assistant. Of course, Oregon fans used to hate Tosh Lupoi, and I had to hear sour grapes from Oregon fans for like ten years about how Cal “cheats,” dating back to the time when Cal faked injuries to slow down Chip Kelly’s hyperspeed Oregon offense. Was Lupoi actually guilty of this, or was he just the scapegoat? Is this what led to the breakdown in the Tedford-Lupoi relationship, ultimately culminating in a savage backstabbing? I don’t know, I’m just asking questions here.
My general read of the Oregon defense is that they’re a pretty good pass-rushing, run-stopping team, but not that great in pass coverage. Let’s take a closer look.
Oregon’s best pass rusher is the defensive end, Brandon Dorlus. Dorlus was the beneficiary in the past playing opposite Kayvon Thibodeaux (who demanded extra attention from offenses), but Dorlus has definitely held his own this year. Dorlus probably grades out somewhere as a mid- to late-round NFL Draft pick. Dorlus has a variety of pass-rush moves, and a good mix of speed and power:
With Cal’s offensive line underperforming, you may be wondering how Cal would do against Oregon if they still had a big power running back like Christopher Brooks who could create his own yards. Well wonder no more, it probably wouldn’t help:
Although Dorlus doesn’t have overwhelming power (the kind of power you’d like to see for the next level), he’s still able to be a disruptive force on most plays:
On the other side of the line is the “Edge” (DE/OLB) DJ Johnson. Johnson is a very versatile player, and had previously played tight end for the Ducks (he both caught a pass and sacked QB CJ Stroud in their upset victory over Ohio State last year). He has a lot of athleticism for a guy his size, which is probably why he’s in the defensive line position most likely to drop back into coverage.
Johnson has a good bull rush, but his best attribute is probably his speed off the edge:
On the interior of the line are two Nebraska transfers, NT Jordon Riley and DT Casey Rodgers. They’ve racked up a solid number of run stops, but nothing that really jumps out on tape.
I am a fan of the backup defensive tackle, Keyon Hudson-Ware. He doesn’t get a sack here, but tell me you wouldn’t also put this on your highlight reel:
Behind Edge DJ Johnson is the former strongside linebacker Mase Funa. After watching Wazzu QB Cam Ward throw short screen passes all game, Funa is the one who ended up putting the game away for Oregon:
Although Oregon lacks a super high NFL Draft pick on the defensive line (like some of Cal’s other opponents), this is still a solid and deep group that has enough talent to punish the weak spots in Cal’s offensive line.
Honestly, this is probably the most perplexing unit of the Oregon defense. Oregon runs a 4-2-5, and those two linebackers are both former 5-star recruits (the #1 and #2 rated linebackers of the 2020 class, actually) generating plenty of NFL buzz for their physical abilities. Despite such physical gifts—which are likely going to get them drafted in the early rounds regardless of how well they play in college—it hasn’t really translated on the field, mainly due to some sloppy play. Noah Sewell has been an impact player at linebacker since starting as a true freshman, but I really thought he would have been making more of an impact this year. Noah Sewell will sometimes lose gap integrity as he tries too hard to make a play, he can overpursue running backs in the backfield, and he can play too physically in pass coverage to draw penalties. For context, despite his unique combination of size, speed, and strength, he misses tackles twice as often as Evan Weaver did (per PFF), despite Weaver lacking the elite athleticism that Sewell possesses. He’ll still be drafted in the 1st or 2nd round of the NFL Draft, but it’ll be on his NFL coaches to fix his game, because it’s not going to happen this year.
Justin Flowe is even more of a wildcard, having missed entire seasons due to injury (although he looked fantastic in the limited playing time he did receive in his freshman and sophomore years, prior to injury). Flowe is even more of an explosive athlete than Sewell, but also even more likely to leave his gap or zone in order to try and make a play, even giving up a touchdown once as a result of his miscue. Consequently, he lost the starting job to LB Jeffrey Bassa. Flowe’s recruiting profile says that coverage was one of his strengths, but I haven’t seen it so far this year.
I think Noah Sewell strength this year has been in pursuit of the quarterback or running back in the backfield:
Sewell is a strong tackler when he does get his hands on a player, but it’s his size and speed that make him such a challenge to block when he blitzes.
Oregon will find creative ways to get him involved on the defense:
Jeffrey Bassa, the other starting inside linebacker, is surprisingly undersized for an ILB, listed at 6’2” 212 lbs. Although this means he can struggle against bigger, stronger blockers, what he lacks in size he generally makes up for in speed:
Flowe relies on instinct, and will absolutely beeline a player:
As I mentioned earlier, his coverage skills have not been as good as advertised. The following is just a great play design by Chip Kelly and UCLA, but I believe they did it to pick on Flowe in coverage:
Flowe does have one underrated skill that I haven’t seen anyone mention yet: acting. The flailing arms here really sell what a violent push this was by UCLA:
Oregon’s linebackers are underperforming but still have a flair for the dramatic arts: anyone want to take a guess at who Oregon’s linebacker coach is?
Although pass coverage is probably this defense’s weakness, they do have one lockdown corner: Colorado transfer CB Christian Gonzalez. I was a huge fan of Gonzalez at Colorado, and Gonzalez is still blanketing receivers this year:
Gonzalez has the rangy body type and athleticism that will result in his name also being called in the early rounds of the NFL Draft.
Gonzalez will play the receiver (not the ball), and will stick to any team’s top receiver in man coverage:
Although CB Christian Gonzalez is no surprise, one player I have been surprised by is the nickel/safety, Bennett Williams:
Bennett Williams has been making an impact all over the field. He’s a solid tackler and currently leads the team in forced fumbles:
Here he strips the elusive Jayden de Laura:
After those two, though, there’s a bit of a dropoff with the rest of the secondary. The opposing starting corner, Trikweze Bridges, is the one most often picked on by opposing quarterbacks, and the depth behind them is worse (e.g. true freshman Jahlil Florence and sophomore Dontae Manning, while talented, are still making freshmen mistakes).
The starting safeties, Jamal Hill and Steve Stephens IV (who probably misses his buddy Johnny Johnson III), haven’t really stood out that much to me. One player I have noticed is the converted wide receiver, Bryan Addison. Addison is a hard-hitting safety, and looks significantly improved since last year:
Here he is forcing another turnover:
If Cal can protect Jack Plummer (and that’s a purely hypothetical, theoretical “if”), Cal would be able to find some success passing the ball downfield.
Oregon is an offensive team; the defense is just there to do a serviceable job in support of the offense. Oregon’s front seven will likely overwhelm the Cal offensive line, both in rushing the passer and in stopping the run. Cal may not be tremendous underdogs, but only because Oregon seems to give up some points late in the game while giving snaps to their younger player after their victory is already assured. I just cannot picture a scenario where Cal’s defense stops the Oregon offense long enough for the Cal offense to take advantage. I’d almost rather Cal rest Plummer to let him heal so he can hopefully get some of that mobility back. Oregon just has too many weapons and too much talent on both sides of the ball for it to make a difference.
You can find my full clips here.