Yesterday we looked at the Oregon Duck offense as Auburn prepares to face Mario Cristobal and company in the opener in Arlintgon. Now, we turn our attention to the side of the ball with some questions — a new defensive coordinator and a ton of talent return, but we’ll see how they handle the transition.
Oregon got to experience fairly good success last season under Jim Leavitt’s control on defense, but in the end the defense wasn’t the reason that the Ducks got to 9-4. Only three times did they allow less than 20 points (Portland State, Oregon State, Michigan State), and in their four losses they allowed 38, 34, 44, and 32 points.
It’s pretty easy to see that those numbers weren’t good enough, and Jim Leavitt’s no longer commanding the defense. Enter Andy Avalos —
— as new defensive coordinator. Avalos came from Boise State, where he led a defense that was in the upper quarter of the country in most metrics. What Auburn will see in terms of a basic formation is the 3-3-5, with four players rushing on most plays. He’s a linebackers coach by trade, having played the position for the Broncos years ago, and he’s coached some really exceptional talents like Demarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch. He’s going to have some interesting guys to work with as he coordinates the Oregon unit this season. Let’s see what they’ve got to work with in Eugene.
If you want to check out the projected depth chart after spring practice, courtesy of a familiar name, it’s listed here, and it features a ton of returning players across the board.
Up front, the guys you’ll need to know are big Jordon Scott in the middle, and then the defensive ends of either Gus Cumberlander (rSR)/Kayvon Thibodeaux (FR) on one side and Drayton Carlberg (rSR)/Gary Baker (rSR)/Austin Faoliu (rFR) on the other. Oregon will rotate all of these guys, who played extensively last year aside from Thibodeaux, who was one of the top recruits in the country.
Scott’s a bowling ball (the big one, not the little pink one) at 6’1, 329 pounds, and he’ll clog up the middle while allowing everyone else to make plays. On one side, Gus Cumberlander only had 13 tackles last year, but four of them were sacks. He’ll play a more extensive role this year along with Thibodeaux. On the other side, the trio mentioned above combined for 99 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2018, and with two fifth-year guys they won’t have any trouble adjusting to playing against an Auburn offensive line that’s going to have just as much experience.
There are a lot of these guys coming back, including the top tackler from last year’s team in Troy Dye at weak-side linebacker. He brings in his 109 tackles (6 TFLS, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FF) as the most active member of the defense. It’s a good thing that he returns for Oregon since Andy Avalos will likely lean on him as the linebackers coach as well as defensive coordinator. Dye’s a big linebacker as well at 6’4, 224, so he’s able to scan the field and range around to make plays in all areas. Backing him up is Sampson Niu, who finished with 23 tackles last season.
With the 3-3-5 defense that the Ducks will run, they’ll have the middle linebacker and a weak-side linebacker, but they’ll also have what they call the “Stud” manning the strong side. It looks as though the guy with the edge for that position is La’Mar Winston Jr., whose 2018 season was a fruitful one with 39 tackles, 4.5 TFLS, and 2 sacks. He’s another senior, and at 6’2, 218, he may be one of the guys asked to bring pressure along with the defensive front.
Then in the middle, Isaac Slade-Mautautia seems to be the frontrunner for the starting spot. After playing in seven games in 2018, he returns with more experience, and ran with the first-team defense in the spring until the last week of practice, when Bryson Young made an unexpected jump into the starting role. This may be a battle all the way down through fall camp, as Young only had 17 tackles in 12 career games coming into the year. However he’s progressed, he says that he feels as comfortable as he ever has in the Oregon defense. At 6’5, 244 pounds, he’d be a huge weapon for the Ducks if he can wrap his mind around the task of playing linebacker.
The interesting part of trying to figure out where guys are going to fit is that Oregon’s eliminating a linebacker position from last year’s 3-4 defense as they go to the 3-3-5. That means that there’s just more experience for fewer spots, and that’s likely a problem that Avalos is enjoying trying to solve.
The secondary’s a spot where there aren’t many questions aside from the emergence of a new nickel role, where Oregon’s going to have to find a good starter to play alongside some seasoned vets.
Let’s start with the cornerbacks, where it doesn’t seem as though there are many questions at all after spring practice. Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir return for their junior seasons with a combined 6 interceptions and 27 pass deflections to their names from last year. Clearly, these are going to be two tough corners to throw on in the opener in Texas for whoever starts at quarterback for Auburn.
At safety, it’s another story with returning starters, as Nick Pickett comes back at boundary safety (59 tackles, 1 INT in 2018), and Jevon Holland looks to follow up a fantastic freshman year at field safety. Holland led the team in interceptions with five as he racked up 42 tackles as well in the back end. The starting four at corner and safety are going to be ready to go, and boast a ton of time on the field.
The new wrinkle comes at the nickel position, where they have to find a new face to fill a new role. It seems as though that job’s going to be done by Verone McKinley, a redshirt-freshman who played in the first three games of the season last year. Now, he’s looking to take a starting role for Andy Avalos after a spring that saw him emerge as a top talent in the secondary. In the spring game alone, he notched 5 tackles and a pass deflection, showing his anticipatory nature on the field in making plays.
To be honest, I hadn’t really looked at this defense much since Justin Herbert gets a lot of the publicity for this team. After further review, however, they’re experienced, have upperclassmen at nearly every position, and will be coached by a guy that had great success at Boise. After finishing near the middle of the pack in most categories last year on defense, there’s a ton of room for improvement, and it’s hard to believe that they won’t succeed.
Coupled with the fact that Auburn’s going to be breaking in a new quarterback, and there seem to be some really good guys in the secondary, either Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix are going to have be exceptionally careful with the ball in the opener. Perhaps we’ll get to see the Auburn offensive line wear things down with the run game first before we start to work in too much in the passing game.
This won’t be the Oregon defense that we saw in the national championship game, where Cam Newton outweighed pretty much the entire starting lineup. These guys will match up better with us in terms of size, and a new scheme will mean trying to plan against a little of the unknown for the Auburn offensive staff.