Three seasons in, Jalen Jelks is leading the way for the Ducks’ defense

Jalen Jelks has seen it all during his time as a Duck.

After spending the 2014 season as a redshirt and watching the Ducks advance to the National Championship game, three defensive coordinators in the following three seasons have forced Jelks and the Ducks to learn different schemes and undergo many adjustments.

Jelks saw plenty of action during the 2015 and 2016 campaigns, but had yet to make a start. Even so, when Willie Taggart was brought in to be the head coach of the Ducks, he had high expectations for the 6-foot-6 defensive lineman.

“Our defense definitely needs a vocal leader,” Taggart said prior to the start of fall camp. “I think Jalen Jelks [can be one of those guys].”

Seven games in, it’s clear that Taggart wasn’t kidding. Jelks has started all seven games in a defining 2017 season. Not only has he been one of the top performers for the Ducks’ defense, his play has put him in the ranks with some of the best defensive linemen in the country.

“Using what you use at practice, it kind of translates into the game,” Jelks said. “I’m just trying to take it one series at a time to help my teammates.”

In the Ducks’ first game of the season versus Southern Utah — also Jelks’ first career start — his impact was felt right away; he recorded five tackles and blocked a field goal attempt.

It was at Arizona State on Sept. 23, though, in which Jelks had his breakout game. A graduate  of Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Jelks’ homecoming game was one to remember: nine tackles (seven solo), five tackles for loss, and three sacks — the most by a Duck since 2008.

“[His] energy, just the love for the game,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said of Jelks. “It’s just making the most of the opportunities.”

In his first full season at Oregon as a starter, Jelks is taking advantage of those opportunities and those outside the program are taking note. Pro Football Focus has Jelks ranked as the No. 2 defensive end nationally in pass rush, No. 4 in run defense nationally and the No. 2 overall defensive lineman in the Pac-12, even as a player who is a bit undersized for his position.

“I just have to do everything different than everybody else,” Jelks said. “I’m about 20 pounds lighter than everybody else. You have to compensate and do things better.”

Even with the increased attention surrounding Jelks and his NFL prospects, elevating the Ducks is still priority number one. Following his breakout performance at Arizona State, Salave’a said that Jelks “would’ve traded it for a win.” With Oregon shorthanded without quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks’ defense has a much taller task. Yet, Jelks is still holding them accountable.

Jelks’ impact on the defense goes further than the stat sheet might show, too. In addition to his 4.5 sacks on the season, absorbing double teams has allowed others on the line to put pressure on the backfield.

From a redshirt to spotted playing time to a full-time impactful player, Jelks’ rise has mirrored that of the Ducks’ defensive turnaround. For a unit that is looking for increased consistency moving forward, Jelks is setting the tone and leading the way.

Follow Cole Kundich on Twitter @ckundich

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Cole Kundich

Cole Kundich