The Ducks finished as the No. 126 ranked defense in 2016. That offseason, Oregon hired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to turn the program’s defense around. Last year, Leavitt’s squad became the nation’s No. 46 ranked defense, but the team isn’t satisfied.
This season, Oregon will look to build the defense into a force that the Pac-12 fears with the help of upperclassmen leadership from Ugochukwu Amadi, Troy Dye and Jalen Jelks, who have the advantage of being in a familiar scheme.
“I’m more optimistic this year because we have the same defense going into year two,” Dye said. “This is the first time for me being in the same defense two years in a row since I think my first year of high school.”
Jelks, Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, with Gary Baker, Gus Cumberlander, Popo Aumavae, Andrew Faoliu will be in the trenches for the Ducks. La’Mar Winston Jr. (eight tackles for loss), Justin Hollins (11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles), Bryson Young and Keith Simms will combine off the edge.
The best judge of talent will be to ask who they are competing against every day.
“On D-line, we have the Faolius, they’re beasts,” offensive lineman Jacob Capra said. “Then you have guys like Jalen Jelks and Fat Mac (Scott) that are just amazing as well.”
There are lofty expectations for Jelks, who is fresh off a dominant junior season, which saw him lead the team in tackles-for-a-loss with 15. The defensive end was named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award watch list.
Scott will return as the nose guard one season after winning the Oregon freshman of the year award and was named to the Nagurski list as well as the Outland list for this season.
The linebackers might boast the most experience on the defense. Senior Kaulana Apelu is back after a season-ending injury against Cal last year, but will need to hold off the likes of redshirt-freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia, sophomore Sampson Niu and freshmen Adrian Jackson and MJ Cunningham. Slade-Matautia was a four-star recruit out of St. Louis High School and after redshirting last season, his role is expected to be large in this defense.
Fans, opposing coaches and NFL scouts will be focused on Dye. After arriving as a three-star linebacker, Dye quickly became the best player on the defense, totalling 198 tackles in two seasons. Now reprising his role as the star for the third consecutive season, head coach Mario Cristobal expects even more from Dye.
“Troy’s not satisfied with the things of the past,” Cristobal said. “He kind of lives where his feet are now. He’s been really good at pushing and encouraging his teammates and being a good team leader, mentor for the young guys. He will take that next step. We demand it of him, he demands it of himself and our football team needs that to happen.”
The youngest, but possibly the most talented, is the secondary. Sophomores Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir will start at corner with Kahlef Hailassie, Verone McKinley III, Charles Sudduth and Haki Woods filling out certain packages. Amadi will start at free safety and play some nickel corner. Nick Pickett, Mattrell McGraw, Brady Breeze, Steve Stephens and Jevon Holland will fill the other starting spot and spell Amadi.
Overall, expect this team to be a lot more physical than past Duck teams. The combination of Leavitt and Cristobal has forced a strong, NFL-style defense that will attract attention.
“Coach Cristobal stresses physicality and being able to impose your will over anybody at any time you want,” Dye said. “We’ve focused a lot on physicality this camp. … We want to play smart like we’re professionals, but we still got to go full speed and get good work in.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack