Oregon Football Defensive Preview

Oregon has a number of highly-rated players on defense, but so far they’ve looked a lot better on paper than on the field.

Although Oregon is chock-full of talent, their defense has been underperforming this year: they are 9th in the Pac-12 in passing defense and 10th in rushing defense. Although they have a lot of players who can make individually impressive plays, they just haven’t seemed to gel well as a unit yet. They are missing a lot of their top defensive players from last year, such as linebackers Troy Dye and La’Mar Winston Jr., safeties Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze, and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. Luckily for Oregon, they have a spate of young 5-star recruits looking to contribute.

Let’s take a look at each unit.

Defensive Line

The star of the defensive line is undoubtedly the 5-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (the #6 overall prospect in the class of 2019, and almost surely a future NFL 1st rounder). Thibodeaux possesses a rare blend of speed, power, and pure athleticism. He has elite speed, but as he continues to add weight to his frame, he has also found success with the bullrush. He hasn’t made as much of an appearance on the stat sheet this year as he’s demanding increased attention from opposing offenses, but that still hasn’t stopped him:

He possesses elite edge rushing speed:

However, Thibodeaux is also known to be a cerebral player. Here he is on 4th down, sitting and watching the play develop, and not overcommitting until he makes a play:

Thibodeaux is definitely a force to be reckoned with on defense. On the other end of the line is Austin Faoliu, who has a chance at being a late round draft pick next year. He has had a quiet year so far, but the one thing I did notice was the way he timed the snap in the OSU game. He was frequently offsides as the ball was snapped, but never got flagged for it, and was consequently immediately in the OSU backfield for TFLs. I was impressed with his backup, DE Brandon Dorlus, who did a good job terrorizing UCLA QB Chase Griffin a couple games ago.

In the center of the line is nose tackle Jordon Scott, who is just a gigantic human anchoring that line. He’s not much for pass rushing, but he is big and powerful enough to get push at the line and hold his run gap.

Linebackers

Oregon made some high profile 5-star recruit signings in the class of 2020 at linebacker: the #11 overall prospect, OLB Justin Flowe, and the #19 overall prospect, ILB Noah Sewell. Flowe was injured in their first game and is out for the season, but true freshman Noah Sewell is already having a big impact. Noah Sewell (the brother of star OL Penei Sewell) has the versatility to play anywhere from defensive tackle to safety. He has a big body for a linebacker, and he’s already made an impact this year with some violent hits on opposing running backs, but he has the speed and athleticism to pick up receiver routes. Sewell is the starting middle linebacker.

Here he is bursting through the line for a TFL on RB Jermar Jefferson:

Noah Sewell did a pretty good job of dealing with the dual-threat QBs Oregon has faced so far. Here Sewell takes away both the run and the pass from QB Chase Griffin:

Sewell is definitely having an impact on games, and he’s a player to keep an eye on when you’re watching the game. Here he is with a forced fumble on a QB scramble:

The weak-side linebacker is Isaac Slade-Matautia, who is transitioning into a starting role this year (where Justin Flowe was set to appear). Slade-Matautia is frequently used to blitz opposing QBs, but he’s yet to pick up a sack, and has 1 TFL. He’s not really a big impact player:

On the other end, true freshman 3-star LB Jackson LaDuke is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker for the game against Cal, which I believe will be his first start. He recorded 1 tackle in the game against Stanford, so I don’t know what to expect from him. He seems to be a speedy but undersized linebacker, who is probably better in pass coverage that run stops.

Lastly, I feel like the hybrid “Stud” position belongs here, since Oregon’s stud position functions more like an outside linebacker. I don’t have a very strong opinion on their Stud LB Mase Funa. I do remember he had a couple nice sacks against Nevada last year after Oregon put their backups in (up by 63 points or something). The Stud in Oregon’s defense functions primarily as a pass rusher first, but Funa has yet to record a sack this season. He’s another versatile type of linebacker, able to pass rush or drop into coverage, but he hasn’t made too much of an impact this year.

Secondary

The Oregon secondary is by far their most overrated unit. Although safety Brady Breeze started to have a breakout year towards the end of last season (including a huge game in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin), he is sitting out this season for coronavirus reasons, as is PI-machine cornerback Thomas Graham Jr.

The most impressive member of the Oregon secondary is Verone McKinley, who tied for 1st in the Pac-12 last year in interceptions (and led in interception return yards). He has good instincts and is an aggressive ballhawk. McKinley is the field safety, playing on the wider side of the field (as opposed to the boundary safety, who plays on the short side of the field, e.g. the side of the field between the hash marks and the boundary).

More concerning for Oregon is the boundary safety. This is the position Brady Breeze was supposed to play, but with Breeze out, the backup safety Nick Pickett took the starting role. Pickett has been less than impressive so far this season, and was repeatedly picked on in the Washington State game. However, Pickett was injured late in their previous game against Oregon State, an he’s listed as questionable for the Cal game. If this is the case, Oregon will likely playing someone with very little game experience as their starter.

Oregon’s top cornerback, the boundary corner (which can expect less help from the safety) is Deommodore Lenoir. Lenoir has a bit of NFL Draft buzz, but I’m just not really a believer. He’s a very physical corner, but I find he’s really hit-or-miss. A lot of best pass breakups look like pass interference to me at times (and he does get flagged for it), and other times he gets beat badly by bigger and more physical receivers.

On the other hand, the starting field corner (now that Thomas Graham Jr. is gone) is Mykael Wright. Wright is in his second season (after receiving significant playing time as a true freshman last year), and he’s a very exciting and dynamic athlete (Wright is also the kick returner, and he averaged 38 yards/return with 2 kick return TDs last season). I was most impressed with the way he handled his own last year against USC’s receivers. Wright has done well in coverage:

Wright is also an excellent open field tackler. I think Wright has the potential to develop into a special player.

Conclusion

As I went over in the offensive article, I think Cal will have trouble slowing down the Oregon offense, so they key to this game is whether or not the Cal offense can score enough on this defense to keep up. This is why Oregon has been in offensive slugfests in most of their games this season: coming from behind to beat Washington State, and getting into “last score wins”-type games against UCLA (W, 38-35) and OSU (L, 41-38). Although Cal is a 9.5-point underdog, I think this game might very well be closer than people think.

Go Bears.