Probably the least discussed unit heading into tomorrow’s(!!!) primetime showdown has been Oregon’s defense. A big reason why is the uncertainty around how this unit might look in 2019. Gone is Jim Leavitt, replaced by former Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos who brings with him a new scheme built on being multiple and causing chaos in the backfield.
Here’s a closer look at Oregon’s defense.
When talking about the Ducks’ defense, you have to start with Troy Dye. The soon to be four year starter has lead the Ducks in tackles every year of his career. Once a 3* safety recruit, Dye has morphed into one of the top linebackers in the country. A long, fluid athlete standing at 6’4” 226 lbs, Dye can cover a lot of ground and excels at making plays in space. Chances are good Auburn fans will hear his name plenty tomorrow night.
This is why I love Troy Dye's projection to the next level: NFL-ready cover skills.— Jonah Tuls (@JonahTulsNFL) August 25, 2019
One of the best man coverage reps you'll see from a college LB: Stays in phase with Colby Parkinson (a top 100 prospect), turns and makes a play on the ball at the high point. That 6'4 length > pic.twitter.com/wn8DjBFgLa
However, Dye isn’t the player that makes me the most nervous for tomorrow. That designation belongs to nose tackle Jordon Scott. A surprisingly outstanding athlete given his 6’1” 322 lb frame, Scott didn’t put up jaw dropping numbers last year but a big part of that was the scheme. Under Leavitt, the Ducks ran your traditional 3-4 attack where the defensive line is asked to 2-gap and free up space for linebackers to run to the ball. Under Avalos, he will be asked to be more attacking and I would not at all be surprised to see him put up some impressive statistics in 2019. We will find out pretty quickly if Kaleb Kim has improved this offseason.
This Oregon defensive line as a whole is expected to be a strength given its depth. Jalen Jelks may be gone but pretty much everyone else returns including 6’7” Gus Cumberlander and starting defensive tackle Andrew Faoliu. The Ducks also added two outstanding prospects up front in Miami transfer DJ Johnson and 2019 5* Kayvon Thibodeaux. Both are listed at defensive end but could flip over and play the Stud as well (Oregon’s Buck equivalent). I expect the Ducks to rotate this front group early and often in order to stay fresh for the 4th quarter.
Oregon’s secondary is an interesting group. There are three proven pieces in Thomas Graham Jr, Deommodore Lenoire and Jevon Holland. That trio combined for 11 picks last season and are excited about “welcoming” Bo Nix to collegiate football.
But there are some serious question marks at the other safety position and nickel. There’s a good chance you could see as many as three different players man the Ducks nickel spot while Brady Breeze and Nick Pickett will each see snaps at boundary safety. I would not at all be surprised to see Auburn find ways to get Seth Williams matched up on either of these positions in hopes of finding a weakness to exploit.
Avalos’s scheme thrives on chaos. He’s willing to give up some shots by being ultra aggressive in order to generate intense pressure and some turnovers. Last season, the Broncos ranked 15th in the country in sacks per game while also recovering the most fumbles in college football. It’s quite the first challenge for Auburn true freshman QB Bo Nix.
From a personnel standpoint, Avalos’s system and Kevin Steele’s are somewhat similar. Both use three true defensive lineman with a hybrid OLB/DE pass rusher known as the “STUD” in Avalos’s vernacular. Both typically have 5 DBs on the field as well and ask their corners to play a lot of man coverage. That will be a change for the Ducks in 2019 as they relied more on a zone scheme behind their stout front 7.
Most of the time the Ducks will be using three down lineman in odd fronts and look more like a 3-3-5 defense but where Avalos likes to get creative is his use of the Stud and Nickel. Often the Stud is a 4th lineman who is rushing the passer or setting the edge but he will also have him drop back in coverage, even matchup with a man and ask him to cover downfield. Don’t be surprised if the Ducks try to steal a possession by dropping the Stud into zone to the short side of the field on an obvious passing down to confuse Nix.
Avalos isn’t afraid to bring pressure, especially on 3rd down. He will use a myriad of blitz schemes and stunts to try to heat the pocket up for the quarterback. Given Nix’s youth and Oregon in search of a new pass rusher (last year’s sack leader Justin Hollins graduated), I fully expect the Ducks to bring the heat early and often Saturday night.
Given the trajectory of Oregon’s recruiting on the defensive side of the ball, I think Avalos has a chance to have a ton of success in Eugene. The question is how fast can this Oregon defense adapt to his new system. For years, Oregon has been a pretty standard 3-4 defense that relies on space eaters up front. Now, the Ducks need more multiple lineman who can slide to a 3 tech one play and then slide face up on the tackle the next.
It’s hard for me to have a ton of confidence in Auburn’s offense clicking out the gate considering the offensive line struggles of last season and a true freshman at QB. I think there will be some hiccups along the way, especially early and it wouldn’t stun me if Nix threw a pick thanks to a cleverly disguised coverage by Avalos. The key will be Auburn finding a way to get movement at the point of attack to get this rushing game going. If Boobee and company can get 3-4 yards a pop, that will do wonders for this offense and not put so much pressure on Nix in game 1. Fail to establish a consistent attack on the ground and there will be A LOT of heat on Nix to make plays.
I think heading into tomorrow night both defenses have the advantage and will win far more exchanges than they lose against the opposing offense. The key will be which one limits the explosive plays and which one can steal a possession or two for their offense. Let’s hope its the Tigers defense who come up big Saturday night.