Oregon Football Defensive Preview

Oregon's defense stars the presumed #1 pick in next year's NFL Draft and the talent of a playoff-caliber team. So why aren't they playing like an elite defense?

Prior to the start of this season, I was expecting Oregon to have one of the best defenses in the country. They have one of the most talented rosters in the conference, leading the Pac-12 in recruiting in 3 of the past 4 years, and picking up four 5-star recruits on defense in the past 3 years. One of those 5-stars, Kayvon Thibodeaux, was ranked the #1 prospect in the country by ESPN and #2 by 247sports. As if that wasn’t enough, they liked how well our defense looked the past couple years (a 21-17 Cal win last year, holding Oregon to 17 points the year before that with Justin Herbert managing just 214 yards/1 TD/1 INT) that they also decided to steal our old defensive coordinator, Tim DeRuyter. With a defense like that, why aren’t they shutting out their clearly overmatched opponents?

Well, for one thing, injuries. DeRuyter built a defense around Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was then injured in the beginning of their season opener. Without Thibodeaux drawing double teams and Oregon generating pressure, their corners couldn’t hang around forever, and opposing quarterbacks managed to move the ball consistently against Oregon. Thibodeaux returned to play a couple snaps against Arizona and made his full return against Stanford the following week, but he didn’t really look like himself against Stanford. With another week plus the bye week to recover, I expect Thibodeaux should be returning to form. On the bright side for Cal, Thibodeaux will be forced to miss the first half against Cal due to a late targeting penalty in their previous game.

Another big loss for Oregon was another 5-star player, linebacker Justin Flowe, who is out for the season with a foot injury. They lost their safety Bennett Williams to a season-ending injury as well. They still have plenty of young talent all over the field, but I’d have to say that Oregon’s defense has fallen a bit below expectations.

Defensive line

There’s no better way to start this preview than with a closer look at Kayvon Thibodeaux. Every team will be specifically game-planning around Thibodeaux. He has been a monster since his freshman year, with that rare combination of size and speed where he’s too fast for strong guys and too strong for fast guys, and hence why NFL teams are drooling over him. When everyone was healthy (say, on one of the first drives in the first game of the season), Oregon did look like an absolutely elite defense. Take this play for example:

Thibodeaux bursts through the line between two blockers, smashes the quarterback to force a fumble, and Oregon recovers it with excellent field position. The quarterback is trying to make a quick throw, but he doesn’t even have time to do that. That’s fast.

Here’s another example:

Thibodeaux eats the double team from Stanford’s two best offensive linemen, but still manages to drive them back enough to force QB Tanner McKee out of the pocket and improvise. That’s power.

When you have a defender that routinely demands a double team, it frees up someone else on the play and gives you a lot of creativity in what you can do on defense, whether you want another pass rusher matched up against a weaker member of the offensive line or you want to drop an additional defender into coverage.

Thibodeaux is thus the sort of player that is making an impact on every play, even if it doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. This is also why a lot of Oregon’s defensive plans went out the window when they lost Thibodeaux to injury.

On the other end of the line is Brandon Dorlus, who is also a pretty good pass rusher. Dorlus is a bigger guy with a powerful bull rush against weaker offensive linemen. He’s also made some boneheaded plays, like roughing the passer or late hits out of bounds to prolong opposing drives. I didn’t take any good clips of him, but I did get one of his freshman backup, DE Sua'ava Poti:

I also wanted to mention the redshirt freshman defensive tackle, Keyon Ware-Hudson. He is making a much bigger impact this season, and he’s starting to find his way through the offensive line for sacks and TFLs:

And because I love two-way players, here’s the now tight end DJ Johnson (a converted defensive end) lined up as an edge defender, for the game-clinching sack on Ohio State:

Along with the linebackers, Oregon has a very strong front-7.

Linebackers

Oregon has suffered a number of injuries to their linebacker corps: Justin Flowe, Dru Mathis, Jackson LaDuke, etc. As a result, they are now starting a true freshman, Keith Brown, at the weakside linebacker position. At strongside linebacker is Mase Funa, although I’ve never been much of a fan— bigger but slower; he’s a good run defender and reliable tackler, but he has been exploited a few times when forced into pass coverage situations. The real star of the linebackers is yet another 5-star recruit, Noah Sewell, of the famed Sewell clan (his brother Penei was a high first round pick and now protecting Jared Goff on the Detroit Lions, his other brother Nephi Sewell is a terror for Utah, not to mention all the other Sewells who’ve played college or NFL football).

Noah Sewell, the middle linebacker, flies all over the field. Here, Ohio State RB Miyan Williams makes a big mistake hitting the same gap as Noah Sewell, running into a metaphorical wall here as he gets stuffed in a short yardage situation:

Sewell also has plenty of speed, making him an effective pass rusher:

Sewell has the size and speed to matchup well with opposing running backs, whether in the pass game or the run game. Here he is with an effective tackle in open space— look at the way he closes the distance on the running back:

Sewell makes a number of impact plays for the defense. Having a fast, strong, reliable tackler at linebacker is a great asset when facing mobile quarterbacks. Here, Sewell looks like the QB spy, sees the running back move into pass protection, and thus decides close in on him. His hit on the quarterback causes the pass to sail high for an interception by the Oregon defense:

Secondary

Oregon has a number of real athletes in their secondary. My favorite is probably the corner Mykael Wright, an explosive play-maker that will also show up in special teams. He’s got tremendous speed, preventing speedy receivers from blowing past him, and he also used his physicality to defend against Stanford’s big-body receivers:

Wright probably has the best coverage skills on the entire team. I don’t recall many instances of him getting beat, aside from one fluky play where Ohio State caught Oregon looking at their wristbands for the defensive play call while Ohio State moved uptempo. Wright is not the corner you want to target for a big play:

On the other side is the starting corner DJ James, who’s made some imporvements in his coverage skills recently. He had a great game against Ohio State’s NFL-caliber wide receivers:

And like Wright, he also used his physicality to match up against the big Stanford receivers. I like the following play because Stanford had a touchdown against James on a nearly identical play, but James learned from his mistake in coverage to play this one much better the second time around:

Also impressive has been the backup, freshman CB Trikweze Bridges. Bridges is pretty big for a corner at 6’3”, and ideal for matching up against the sort of players looking to catch jump balls.

The other backup corner is 5-star freshman Dontae Manning. I haven’t seen enough of Manning to make much of a judgement on him, but he does stick out in my mind for being the player that threw himself at the legs of Stanford’s star wide receiver Brycen Tremayne, resulting in a gruesome “why is my foot on backwards?” injury. (I’ve obviously chosen not to include this clip here).

The leader of the defense is the free safety Verone McKinley III. McKinley is an absolute ballhawk who consistently puts himself in the right place at the right time, likely as a result of his film study. He is currently tied for 1st in the FBS for interceptions, posting 4 INTs in 5 games so far this season. He made crucial stops late in the game as Oregon squeaked by Fresno State, picked off Ohio State QB CJ Stroud late in the 4th quarter as they attempted to mount a comeback, as well as a couple more redzone picks against some lesser competition. As a result, McKinley has been generating a lot of NFL buzz recently.

McKinley has the versatility to line up anywhere in the secondary, and it’s clear his intelligence is his best asset on the field. You’ll see him directing other defensive backs before the play, and McKinley does a great job of recognizing the play or recognizing the route in order to make a play on the ball:

He’s also a hard-hitting defensive back, which serves him well in defending against the run or blowing up shorter throws:

I can’t recall many instances of him being targeted in man coverage, leading me to believe that Oregon does their best against the pass when they let McKinley diagnose plays or defend in zone coverage.

Conclusion

I think if Cal is going to win this one, they are going to need to keep the ball out of Oregon’s hands for as long as possible and pick their spots wisely. Due to injuries, Oregon may have a couple of softer spots of the defense that Cal can exploit. One of my biggest concerns around this game is that former Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has seen enough of Chase Garbers over the years to know exactly how he’d want to contain him, especially with the extra bye week. I’m hoping Cal can win in an ugly rock fight.

Go Bears.