For a defense that aspires to be “extremely confrontational and aggressive", the departure of Kayvon Thibodeaux to the NFL will be significant to the Oregon pass rush moving forward. In place of Thibodeaux, Oregon head coach Dan Lanning and Defensive Coordinator Tosh Lupoi have a promising and versatile group of pass rushers ready to fill the void on the outside.
Perhaps the most promising candidate to lead the Oregon pass rush is senior DJ Johnson. Johnson, who started his college career at the University of Miami, made contributions at tight end as well during his time at Oregon, catching 10 passes for 113 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.
“Wherever they need me to play,” Johnson said when asked what position he expects to play in 2022. “What I’m asked to do is just play how I play.”
In 2021 Johnson had just one reception for 11 yards while transitioning mostly to the defensive side of the ball, where he had 11 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss.
“He’s a special individual because he's his own hardest critic, Lupoi said in spring. “He's constantly trying to find ways… hitting me up, putting in the extra work, doing what it takes to get the edge.”
The Ducks also return Bradyn Swinson, whose steady progression during his first two years in Eugene suggest readiness for a larger role in 2022.
"We run a versatile system. A lot of the time he is going to play what looks like a defensive end, he's also going to be an outside backer for us depending on what package we are in, Lupoi said. “He's embraced that, he's done a real nice job mentally as well as we tax him with the volume of our defense.”
Swinson played in all seven games in his pandemic-shortened freshman season recording three tackles. Last season he played in 11 games and had perhaps his strongest game against Ohio State where he recorded one of just two sacks Oregon would get that day.
Three-year starter Mase Funa is also poised to thrive. After being voted to the All-Freshman second team in 2019 by The Athletic, Funa followed with two productive seasons posting 31 tackles in 7 games in the shortened 2020 season before having another productive 2021 season with 28 tackles.
“Our depth is just crazy,” Funa said in August before the 2021 season.
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The two sides of the ball battled and showed signs of growth on Saturday.
Another player looking to take the next step is junior Treven Ma’ae. After playing in only two games his redshirt freshman season, Ma’ae appeared in all 14 games in 2021, recording 20 tackles.
Listed as an outside backer, Ma’ae has put on weight to increase his versatility, now making him a serviceable option putting his hand in the dirt as well.
“We really function and like a versatile but bigger, stronger defensive end type guy, outside backer,” Lupoi said. “A guy like Treven really stood out where at the beginning of spring, you compare that to the scrimmage or just our last week. I think he’s really progressed, he's a guy we can count on.”
Since the conclusion of last season against Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl, the Ducks have retained many other pieces including and Jaden Nevarrette, sophomores Terell Tilmon, Jabril McNeil, and Brandon Buckner.
The Ducks also gain in-state four-star recruit Emar’rion Winston, brother of 2019 captain Lamar Winston and Anthony Jones.
With many outside backers possessing the ability to rush from the defensive end position in addition to covering the outside, Lupoi and Lanning have a variety of looks they can give offenses.
“Every guy in our program is going to learn multiple positions,” Lanning said. “We want to have position versatility and be able to play our best 11 in a multitude of ways.”
The first challenge faced by the Oregon defense will be slowing down a loaded Georgia offense that just won a national championship.
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