The Ducks defense has fueled Oregon's rise to the top of the Pac-12 behind a physical brand of football that starts by dominating the trenches. That side of the ball took a bit of a step back last year, but is still loaded with talent and can make some serious noise in 2021.
These players will be instrumental in determining the success of Tim DeRuyter's inaugural defense in Eugene.
Note: All stats and measurables come from GoDucks.com.
1. Kayvon Thibodeaux
A member of the Pac-12 first team defense, KT enters arguably his most important year yet. His play this season will influence where he lands in the NFL Draft next year, and he's already viewed as one of the top pass rushers in the entire country.
He's been an absolute force since he stepped foot on campus in Eugene as a 5-star in from the class of 2019. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end has compiled 12 sacks across his two seasons and is looking to become a more complete prospect after improving his run defense significantly last season.
There's no question he's the player that gives this defense its swagger and can shift the momentum of the game at any moment, like we saw when he slammed the door on USC's Pac-12 championship hopes in his hometown of Los Angeles last December.
2. Noah Sewell
A young star for the Ducks, Sewell became the second straight Oregon player to take home the Pac-12's defensive freshman of the year honors, tying veteran Isaac Slade-Matautia for the team lead in tackles (45) in the process. He proved that he was worth every bit of hype he brought with him from Utah's Orem High School.
Sewell's combination of size and speed make him a versatile defender that can disrupt at the line of scrimmage or chase down quarterbacks and ballcarriers around the edge. He started his first game against Washington State and entrenched himself as starter for the remainder of the season.
It may sound odd, but it's probably not much of a stretch to say he's the best linebacker on the team after only playing one season. He's that talented. Sewell's high motor ensures that he's always around the action and his instincts serve him well.
Coming out of high school, coaches across the country thought he'd be best suited to put his hand in the dirt as a defensive lineman, but he's found his home at linebacker and will anchor the position as the Ducks try to contain the Pac-12's most explosive playmakers.
3. DJ James
With Deommodore Lenoir off to the NFL, Oregon's cornerback depth will be tested. Mykael Wright looks to be entering his final year in Eugene, so the Ducks will need someone to develop alongside him.
James, a junior cornerback from Mobile (Ala.), saw his role grow last season, showing up on the big stage to make plays in the Pac-12 championship against USC and the Fiesta Bowl against Iowa State.
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The Ducks linebacker is expected to be a big piece of the defense.
At 6-feet, 185 pounds, he has the frame to contend with taller receivers like the Drake London's and Bru McCoy's in the Pac-12, and should be competitive against Stanford's massive tight end/wide receiver hybrid pass catchers. James has developed nicely thus far, and Rod Chance will need him to take another step forward in 2021, possibly as the team's CB2. We'll also want to monitor Dontae Manning, one of three 5-star talents in Oregon's 2020 class.
4. Brandon Dorlus
Simply put, Dorlus was one of the best stories of last year's defense. For whatever reason, Jordan Scott wasn't able to have the same impact he did in 2019, and former Defensive Coordinator Andy Avalos needed someone to step up in the trenches.
The 6-foot-3, 285-pound defensive tackle filled that need nicely and was a force on the interior defensive line. He only finished with 12 total tackles and 1 sack, but week after week I found myself impressed by his play and how involved he was--whether it was penetrating the offensive line to bring down a running back or pressuring the quarterback on a pass play.
Defensive Line Coach Joe Salave'a likes to record chaos rates in practice, and I imagine the Florida native will be a constant creator of chaos next season. He's a phenomenal athlete who carries his weight well and is the next man up on the defensive line next to Kayvon Thibodeaux.
5. Adrian Jackson
Adrian Jackson hasn't seen the field as much as I expected him too since returning from injury in 2020. He played in four games, but impacted the defense as one of the better pass rushers on the roster.
I specifically remember Jackson disrupting UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin in the fourth quarter of a 38-35 win at Autzen Stadium. The Bruins were driving down the field, but Jackson was able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback and honestly, I don't think Oregon is able to hang on and win that game if not for his efforts.
With Jackson you get 235 pounds of pure muscle--seriously I don't think the guy has an ounce of fat on his body. He's a speedy linebacker and he'll be relied on to bolster an unimpressive linebacker group looking to improve from its performance in 2020.
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