Jonah Moi

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DL: The area most in need of improvement

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DL: The area most in need of improvement

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsTight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

Today: Defensive line.

Key losses: Defensive end T.J. Daniel.   

Projected starters: Defensive ends Henry Mondeaux, Sr., (6-5, 280) and Drayton Carlberg, RSo., (6-5, 290), and nose guard Rex Manu, Jr., (6-3, 300).

Key backups: Defensive ends - Jalen Jelks, RJr., (6-6, 260), Elijah George, RSr., (6-5, 290), Gus Cumberlander, RSo., (6-6, 260), Hunter Kampmoyer, RFr., (6-4, 245), and Bryson Young, So.,  (6-5, 245).  Nose guard - Gary Baker, RSo., (6-4, 305), 

What we know: Oregon played 15 defensive lineman last year out of necessity because of injuries and poor play. The results were ugly. The defensive line contributed greatly to the Ducks allowing 246.6 rushing yards per game.

Mondeaux, expected to be a rising star, did little all season, finishing with just one sack and four tackles for loss in UO's 4-3 defense. He might be better suited for the 3-4 defense, to be brought back under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, where he can eat up space and make plays when they present themselves rather than be asked to force the issue in a one-gap scheme.

Manu proved to be solid during his first year as a starter but he and the rest of the interior linemen failed to make much of an impact as pass rushers or against the run. The experience he gained, however, should pay off in 2017.

What we don't know: Plenty. After Mondeaux the Ducks have a lot of mysteries at defensive end. Carlberg won a starting job early in the season before being lost for the year. Cumberlander saw some time. So did George. Jelks looked like a strong pass rusher in the 4-3, but will need to add bulk in order to function as a two-gap end in the 3-4.

At nose guard, Baker has promise and is the front-runner to backup Manu. But the loss of Wayne Tei-Kirby, who transferred to BYU, hurts what was already a thin group.

The team's move to a 3-4 defense will likely mean that redshirt sophomore Justin Hollins moves from defensive end, where he was woefully undersized at 235 pounds, to outside linebacker where he could become a heck of a pass rusher in the mold of former Ducks, Christian French, Tony Washington and Dion Jordan. Hollins had 9 1/2 tackles for loss, including 3 1/2 sacks in 2016.

The scheme shift could also force senior Jonah Moi (245 pounds) to return to linebacker where he could compete for a starting job as an inside linebacker.

Final word:  Had the defensive line just played average football last season the Ducks would likely have won games at Nebraska, at home against Colorado, at California and at Oregon State. That said, too much was asked of such a young and inexperienced group that also faced more than its share of injuries. A year of getting their teeth kicked in should pay dividends.

Position grade: D. This group could easily reach 'C' status, or better, with growth. New defensive line coach Joe Salave'a will have his work cut out for him, that's for sure.

Next up: Linebackers.