Rex Manu

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 7 - NT Gary Baker

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 7 - NT Gary Baker

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

Updated: Information added regarding Rex Manu being done for the season.

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No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

The middle of UO's defense needs to be completely remade if Oregon is to improve at all on that side of the ball and while freshman Jordon Scott has a chance to contribute the Ducks must receive increased production from Gary Baker. 

The 6-foot-4, 306-pound Baker was set to compete with junior Rex Manu and others for the starting job. Now Baker appears to be the frontrunner to start after Manu was ruled out for the season with an injury he suffered during a car accident in April.

Baker was thrust into action earlier than expected last year after the middle of the 4-3 defense fell to pieces for a variety of reasons. Baker started four games and had a career-high five tackles at USC. He finished the season with 14 tackles in seven games.

The development of Baker would make life a lot easier for the Ducks' defense. Scott won't be ready to carry a heavy workload as a freshman. Clemson transfer Scott Pagano would be best served playing at defensive end opposite senior Henry Mondeaux. But, if needed, Pagano could play inside and likely will on obvious passing downs, as he did for the Tigers. 

Getting production from Baker inside could allow the rest of the defensive line dominos to fall into place. 

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 3 - NT Jordon Scott

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 3 - NT Jordon Scott

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

Updated: Information added regarding Rex Manu being done for the season.

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No. 3: Freshman nose tackle Jordon Scott

The legend of Jordon Scott is starting to take root and will surely explode the first time the 335-pound nose tackle rips past an offensive linemen to make a for loss or a sack at Autzen Stadium. 

Scott should receive plenty of opportunities to do so after making it clear during spring drills that his combination of bulk, strength, speed and low pad level could combine to make him a force. 

Scott, out of Largo, Fla., has had to shed some weight since his arrival last winter. 

"Iʼm really proud of him," Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said. "He came in about 358 lbs. and is down to about 330 pounds, in that area. Heʼs always been strong. Heʼs a very explosive guy and he has great character and he has great demeanor. And he has great confidence and knows what he wants. He knows what he wants to do in life, and those qualities are very, very important."

What's important for the Ducks is that they find someone, anyone, to hold up the middle of the defensive in Leavitt's 3-4 scheme. 

Junior Rex Manu is out for the season leaing redshirt sophomore Gary Baker as the primarty candidate to start with Scott as the backup. Graduate transfer Scott Pagano, from Clemson, could also play the nose position. 

But it's Scott who is the most intriguing. With his natural physical gifts, he has a chance to work his way into becoming an impact player - down the line. 

Don't expect Scott to take the Pac-12 by storm next season. He likely won't be in physical condition enough to be the guy inside for most of a game. However, do expect Scott to be in the rotation, making plays, learning and working his way toward potentially becoming a special player down the line. 

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DL - Immediate help might be needed, or not

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DL - Immediate help might be needed, or not

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backs, Wide receivers/tight ends, Offensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs.

Today: Defensive line.

New Ducks: Austin Faoliu (6-3, 285, Mater Dei H.S., Santa Ana, Calif.), Rutger Reitmaier (6-3, 279, Lipscomb Academy, Nashville, Tenn.) and Jordan Scott (6-1, 350, Pinellas Park Senior H.S., Largo, Fla.). 

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), 

The situation: Oregon's defensive line was used and abused in 2016 so shifting from the 4-3 to the 3-4 could be addition by subtraction for the Ducks. 

That said, there is some young talent onboard, such as Carlberg, Manu, Jelks and Baker, who should improve after being thrown into the fire last season. 

So where do the freshmen fit in?

One might assume that help is needed right away given that UO allowed 246.6 rushing yards per game last season. Not so fast. Out of the three recruits only Reitmaier comes with much hype. Rivals.com rated the four-star recruit as the No. 21 defensive tackle prospect in the country. Scott will need of some serious conditioning and training to shed some of his 350 pounds in order to make an impact at the Pac-12 level. Fauliu is not rated national but certainly has some size and talent. 

One never truly knows who will surprise in fall camp (see Troy Dye and Justin Herbert in 2016), and new coach Willie Taggart has made it clear that all freshmen will have a chance to earn instant playing time.  

“They are going to have every opportunity to go out and compete and try to take somebody’s job,” Taggart said. “I told our players that’s what we’re going to do, recruit guys to take their jobs and it’s on them to keep their jobs.”

The verdict: Oregon already has good defensive line recruits on the roster. They simply struggled playing as freshmen and sophomores. So why believe that new freshmen are going to revolutionize the defensive line? Development is always the key, so expect to see the now experienced Oregon defensive linemen improve while the freshmen, except for maybe Reitmaier, redshirt next season. 

Next up: Linebackers. 

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.

Oregon's battered defense ripe for OSU's Ryan Nall

Oregon's battered defense ripe for OSU's Ryan Nall

Just when it appeared that Oregon's defense had made the shift from horrible to average the Ducks have been dealt yet another blow.

Sophomore defensive tackle Rex Manu has been lost for the season with a leg injury. It's another in a long list of problematic developments for a battered and young defensive line that actually played solid football during a 30-28 win at then-No. 11 Utah on Saturday. 

"Another gut punch inside there," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of his battered group of defensive tackles that has already lost redshirt freshman Drayton Carlberg (leg) and junior Austin Maloata (dismissed from team)

Oregon's bad news is good news for Oregon State, the Ducks' next opponent in the 120th Civil War, which kicks off at 1 p.m., Saturday at Reser Stadium. 

The Beavers (3-8, 2-6 Pac-12) last week snapped a five-game losing streak with a 42-10 win over hapless Arizona (2-9, 0-8) thanks in part to the hard-charging performance of sophomore running back Ryan Nall operating behind a solid offensive line.

Nall, when healthy, is one of the best backs in the Pac-12.  The 6-foot-2, 234-pounder out of Portland's Central Catholic High School is averaging 6.9 yards per carry, and is coming off of a 124-yard performance against the Wildcats.

Oregon (4-7, 2-6) need only look at video from last year's Civil War to remind itself of how good Nall can be. He gouged the Ducks for 174 yards rushing and 54 receiving during a 52-42 UO victory. 

"He's a load," Helfrich said. "He's very difficult to tackle."

Helfrich said Oregon must be mindful of the variety of ways Oregon uses Nall, who gets the ball on misdirection plays, fly sweep, out of the backfield and on straight ahead running plays. 

OSU's creativity, Helfrich said, usually leads to Nall, who earlier this season went for 131 rushing yards against Washington State and for 221 on California, out in space against a linebacker or a defensive back forced to make an arm tackle.

"Him versus an arm is usually a bad matchup for the arm," Helfrich said. "We need to get multiple bodies to him."

Oregon did a solid job of doing just that against Utah's Joe Williams. He did rush for a healthy 149 yards but had a long of just 28, which for UO's porous defense is an accomplishment. Oregon ranks 11th in the Pac-12 against the run (240.7 yards per game) and has allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the conference (34). 

Helfrich said Oregon's defenders have been somewhat slow in adjusting to the 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke, but did commit the least amount of mental errors and missed tackles against the Utes then the group had all season.

Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said he sees similarities between OSU's offense and Utah's. Beavers coach Gary Andersen worked under Utah coach Kyle Whittingham at Utah from 2004 through 2008. Both were assistants there prior to Whittingham becoming the head coach in 2004. 

Familiar offenses aside, Neal said the Ducks must play with the same intensity they displayed at Utah in order to defeat an OSU team hungry for its first Civil War victory since 2007.

"It will be interesting to see how hard we go out there and play because they are going to play hard," Neal said.

If Oregon fails to show up mentally and physically, Nall will run wild. Neal is a fan of OSU's engine, but doesn't want to see him grind the Ducks into the turf. 

"I love 34," Neal said. "I think he is one of the best players in or league. I don't think the kid has any weaknesses."

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

It's tough to believe, and difficult to sell, but there is a strong chance Oregon's defense will improve greatly over the next two seasons.  

The Ducks' defense is very young and banged up. While those facts might sound like convenient excuses the reality is that nothing derails a unit more than youth and injuries. On the flip side, nothing repairs those problems like experience and healing. 

Oregon (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12) has been forced to go with youth and inexperience on defense this season because of failures in recruiting during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 cycles that left the unit void of any adequate amount of impact seniors and juniors to lead the way. 

Picking up the slack are numerous players from the 2015 and 2016 classes that are nowhere near ready to carry the load without the leadership and savvy of upperclassmen guiding the team. 

On the positive side, those younger players are gaining valuable experience that should pay off down the line, assuming they continue to develop and learn from their mistakes. The Ducks are set to return 10 starters on defense next season along with a host of others who have made spot starts or have seen extensive playing time.  

It seemed almost inconceivable that Oregon's 2016 defense could be worse than the 115th-ranked mess the Ducks put on the field in 2015. 

Yet, here they are, ranked 127th while allowing a mind-blowing 43.5 points per game.

To put that into perspective, Washington and Stanford are each allowing 17.9 points per game. Oregon's 2014 team that reached the national championship game allowed 23.6 points per game.  

Last year, a young secondary let down a solid front seven. This season, a somewhat improved secondary has played behind an inexperienced front seven that generates little pass rush while also offering weak resistance to opposing running games. 

Next year? Well, the entire secondary returns and six of the regular front-seven starters. For the first time in three years the Ducks will have enough experience up and down the defense to expect improvement. 

How much improvement? Well, let's not get carried away. We're not talking about a run to the top 20 in the nation here. But even a defense ranked in the top 80 while allowing south of 30 points per game would give the Ducks a chance to turn things around in a hurry because the offense, ranked 22nd in the country with a freshman quarterback and four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen, will certainly be stacked. 

Experience leads to better play in most situations, and Oregon's defense should be no different. 

What do the Ducks have to work with moving forward? Let's take a look:

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This group hasn't been as bad as it might seem. A lack of a consistent pass rush in a league loaded with good passing teams has put the secondary in bad spots. Plus, the lack of a run defense has resulted in a relatively low number of strong down-and-distance situations for the secondary to operate under.

That all said, this group certainly has plenty to work on.  

The good news is that everyone playing will return next season other than redshirt senior safety Reggie Daniels, who fell out of favor this season to primarily become a backup.  

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Cornerback: Ugo Amadi, Jr., Tyree Robinson, RSr., Arrion Springs, Sr. and Malik Lovette, RSoph., Mattrell McGraw, RJr., Ty Griffin, Sr. 

Safety: Brendan Schooler, Soph., Khalil Oliver, RJr., Juwaan Williams, RJr., Fotu Leiato II, Jr., and Brady Breeze, RFrosh., Jihree Stewart, RSoph.

Position analysis: Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal has juggled his lineup in order to create depth and now has so much that he now has loads of budding talent to work with moving forward. UO will return seven defensive backs that saw extensive playing time this season.  On top of that, six of the top eight from 2016 will still be around in 2018.

The Ducks desperately need Amadi, a former four-star recruit, to finally reach his potential. Springs has loads of talent but can't seem to get out of his own way and stop making silly mistakes in coverage. Same goes for Robinson. If they can't get it together they could lose playing time to Lovette, and up-and-comer. 

At safety, Schooler appears to be a potential impact player. Oliver and Williams have been up and down during their careers, which could open the door for Breeze, a four-star recruit redshirting this season. 

LINEBACKERS

This position is a bit trickier than defensive back because the linebackers have been mediocre all season long, save for freshman Troy Dye. 

Oregon signed six linebackers in 2016 and will need many to rise up in order for this group to take the next step in 2017. Otherwise, it will be more of the same mediocrity next season. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Will OLB: Jonah Moi, RSr., Keith Simms, Soph., Kaulana Apelu, Jr., Eric Briscoe Jr., RFrosh. 

Mike MLB: Jimmie Swain, Sr., A.J. Hotchkins, Sr., Danny Mattingly, RSr.  

Sam OLB: Troy Dye, Soph., La'mar Winston Soph., Darrian Franklin, RFrosh. 

Position analysis: Simms and Winston, four-star recruits in 2016, have great potential. Dye, a three-star recruit, has played like a five-star recruit and future NFL draft pick. Franklin and Briscoe Jr., both former three-star recruits, are redshirting. Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, might grow after a year playing in the Pac-12. 

Most intriguing about Dye, Simms and Winston is that each is 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and either is already packing 230 pounds (Simms) or have the frame to bulk up past that weight. They could form the first trio of starting Oregon linebackers to all be in the 6-3, 235-pound range in recent memory. 

Swain, after a slow start to the season, has been among the team's leaders in tackles the past few weeks. However, total tackles can be overrated when many are made after big gains by the offense.  Moi, now playing defensive end, came to Oregon as a junior college transfer but hasn't always played like an experienced veteran. 

Dye is going to be special. Heck, he already is. But he needs help. Where this group must improve the most is with its awareness. Each week we hear from coaches how mental errors hurt the defense. 

A year or two getting destroyed might help all involve accelerates their learning curve. 

DEFENSIVE LINE

This is the area of greatest concern. The defensive line has been a mess. So much so that UO has been forced to dig deep into the depth chart to find bodies and the results haven't been pretty.

Oregon has played 11 defensive linemen this season that will return in 2017. Eight will be back in 2018. Six could still be around by 2019. That speaks to the youth of the group as well as the room that exists for growth. 

While there are obvious upgrades coming at linebacker, defensive line is far more unsettled. Oregon has needed somebody, anybody to rise up and become a force, but nobody has. Yet, that doesn't mean someone won't. 

Former Ducks, Alex Balducci, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, all in the NFL, were not dominant as freshmen in 2012. Taylor Hart redshirted in 2009 before playing minimally as a redshirt freshman and then blossoming as a redshirt sophomore. He is now in the NFL. 

Oregon needs a couple of young defensive linemen to improve the same way. They don't have to become future first-round picks like Armstead and Buckner, but the Ducks need a few players to emerge with some semblance of NFL potential in order to put up resistance against Pac-12 offenses that right now are running wild on UO. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Defensive end: Henry Mondeaux, Sr., Hunter Kampmoyer, RFrosh., Gus Cumberlander, RSoph. 

Defensive tackle: Rex Manu, Jr., Wayne Tei-Kirby, Soph., Gary Baker, RSoph.

Defensive tackle: Drayton Carlberg, RSoph., Elijah George, RSr. 

Defensive end: Jalen Jelks, RJr., Justin Hollins, RJr., Bryson Young, Soph.

Position analysis: Oregon should actually be set at defensive end next season. Mondeaux (one sack) hasn't had the impact year many expected, but that's partly because he has had little help upfront. Jelks has the ability to become an elite pass rusher, but injuries have slowed him down this season. Young, a former four-star recruit, and Hollins are athletic but woefully undersized at about 235 pounds to play defensive end. They need to add bulk. So does the 245-pound Kampmoyer, another promising talent. Cumberlander is 6-6, 260 with a frame to add more pounds. 

Defensive tackle is a huge problem and one of the reasons why teams run at will on Oregon. Manu is solid, but not very disruptive. He needs to get bigger, stronger and quicker this offseason. Carlberg is intriguing as a Taylor Hart-time at 6-5, 290 pounds. Carlberg became a starter early in the season but injuries have limited him to five games.  

Tei-Kirby, a former three-star recruit, has ideal defensive tackle size at 6-3, 315 pounds. Baker, at 6-4, 315, is another potentially good defensive tackle. The Ducks need at least one, if not both, to emerge as a consistent player next season.

Right now, the best thing about this group of defensive tackles is that they are all going to be around for two or three more seasons, which means there is plenty of time for them to improve.

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There is a possibility that all of these young players could fizzle out as did many of their predecessors from previous classes that didn't work out. But odds are against it. Oregon has received limited production from recruiting classes before but never in the past 20 years has it continued through a second set of juniors and seniors. 

Again, this season has been a disaster on defense. So was last year, save for a few games late in the season. But the byproduct is that plenty of young, talented players have received extensive playing time that will accelerate their development. 

That all could payoff as soon as 2017. 

 

 

Ducks blame alignment issues for poor showing vs. run

Ducks blame alignment issues for poor showing vs. run

EUGENE - The Xs and Os of football can bite a team in the backside. 

In Oregon's case, they led to the Ducks getting gashed up the middle by Virginia's running game on Saturday night. 

Virginia rushed for 193 yards during a 44-26 loss at Autzen Stadium, but the Cavaliers managed to expose a weakness in Oregon's defense.

Or did they?

Virginia rushed for 193 yards on 40 attempts. However, after eliminating negative yardage accumulated by six sacks, Cavaliers running backs ran for 220 yards on 31 carries (7.1 per carry). That doesn't bode well for Oregon, which next plays at run-heavy Nebraska (2-0) this Saturday. 

So what happened?

"The splits caused a problem for us," Oregon defensive tackles coach Ron Aiken said about Virginia's offensive line. "It kind of caught us off guard a little."

Virginia (0-2) had its linemen widen their splits to force the No. 22 Ducks (2-0) defensive linemen to widen theirs. That gave Virginia's offensive line easier angles for blocks and created larger gaps to run through. 

UO defensive tackle Rex Manu said the wide alignment caught Oregon off guard because the Cavaliers didn't show such alignments on the game video from their 37-20 loss to Richmond. In that game, Virginia, which runs a spread-offense, rushed for just 38 yards. 

Aiken and Manu said the Ducks adjusted to Virginia's strategy and had better success later in the game stopping the run. However, the statistics don't support their statements. 

Virginia's running backs ran for 79 yards on 10 carries in the first quarter with senior Albert Reid gaining 66 on seven carries. Oregon limited the Cavaliers' running backs to 26 yards on five carries in the second quarter. But in the third quarter Virginia's running backs rattled off 67 yards on 11 carries. The fourth quarter netted 48 yards on five carries. 

That's 115 yards rushing on 16 carries by Virginia running backs in the second half after Oregon made its adjustments, which included sliding linemen further inside despite Virginia's wide splits. 

"They did a nice job of trying to leverage the defense a little bit but I also know we didn't fit the defense well enough either," Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said. 

Oregon had better figure out a way to minimize the impact of Xs and Os against its defense or the Ducks could be in for a long afternoon against former Oregon State coach Mike Riley and his Cornhuskers. 

Nebraska isn't exactly blowing the doors off of defenses with its running game. The Cornhuskers have gained 430 yards rushing on 4.6 yards per carry against the likes of Fresno State and Wyoming. Nevertheless, they certainly appear more formidable than Virginia and Oregon's first opponent, UC Davis, which ran for four touchdowns during the Ducks' 53-28 victory at Autzen. 

Manu said he doesn't expect Nebraska to widen its splits because, unlike Virginia, the Cornhuskers likes to pound the ball while the Cavaliers lean more on the pass in a no-huddle attack. 

"I feel like they like to run the ball a bit more so they will keep it tight," Manu said. 

One element Nebraska will emulate is attacking Oregon up the middle. 

"They are a big running team and they are a play-action team," Aiken said. 

Nebraska's quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a dual-threat machine. On Saturday he set the program's career touchdown pass record with 57.

Compounding problems for Oregon's defense are injuries at linebacker. Middle linebacker A.J. Hotchkins could be seen in a walking boot on Monday. Oregon linebackers coach Don Pellum said the depth must come through this week against a Nebraska offense he described as a blend of Riley's pro-style attack at Oregon State and a dual-threat friendly scheme to take advantage of Armstrong's versatility. 

But most of all, what could doom Oregon is an inability to stand up against the run up the middle. Although, Aiken said the Ducks will be better prepared the next time a team tries to spread them out, that strategy wasn't exactly the only reason Virginia ran all over the Ducks. 

"If that happens again we have adjustments already planned," Aikan said. 

But will it be enough?

 

DTs Manu and Maloata, huge keys to Ducks' defensive revolution

DTs Manu and Maloata, huge keys to Ducks' defensive revolution

EUGENE - At the center of Oregon's move to the 4-3 defense will be two huge pieces that must operate at a high level in multiple capacities in order for the Ducks to find success. 

Sophomore Rex Manu and redshirt junior Austin Maloata must be disruptive, routinely set up camp in the backfield and anchor the run defense. If not, the Ducks (9-4 last season) won't improve much on their national defensive ranking of 116th a season ago. 

Doubling the degree of difficulty is their limited experience. Both combined for just 12 tackles last season as backups. 

“I’ve got some young guys on the inside that I’ve got to get to play better,” UO defensive tackles coach Ron Aiken said.

In many ways, the success of the defense will hinge on the play of Manu and Maloata, as well as others rotating in behind them. 

New defensive coordinator Brady Hoke's scheme has created some buzz. It's more aggressive than the previous hybrid 3-4 scheme. The Ducks will be the predator, not the prey, as the team saying goes. 

Gone are the days where defensive linemen read and react, and absorb blockers to free up linebackers to make plays. Now, the linemen will attack, attack, attack. And attack some more. 

Both new starting defensive tackles are excited about the opportunity. Manu lines up as the 1-technique (between the center and a guard) and Maloata is at the 3-technique (outside shade of a guard). 

That's all well and good, but last year's defense ranked tied for ninth in the nation with 38 sacks, and finished 27th in tackles for loss with 91. Not too shabby. Maybe more importantly, the Ducks want to improve their ability to produce turnovers. Oregon opponents coughed up 22 last year, tied for 58th in the nation. 

“It’s all about turnovers and big plays,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said about looking to change the attitude of the defense by hiring Hoke.

So how will big plays in defense come about?

The Ducks hope that being disruptive and getting in the backfield will force more mistakes by offenses. But let's be clear. It's not as if the 4-3 scheme is something even remotely innovative. What will make the defense work is talent being dominant. And we simply have no idea what Oregon is working with in that department. 

To help with the development of the entire defensive line - junior defensive end Henry Mondeaux is the only returning starter within the front seven - Hoke is coaching the ends while Aiken, the lone defensive line coach the previous three seasons, handles the interior linemen.

“Those guys have got to be the heart of our defense in those A and B gaps," Aiken said of the defensive tackles. "They are going to pass rush and they’ve got to push the pocket."

They also must stop the run. Oregon ranked 73rd in rushing defense last season, allowing 178.8 yards per game on a healthy 4.73 yards per carry. That all came with current NFL players and defensive linemen, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci, and inside linebacker Joe Walker, operating in Oregon's front seven.

If opposing teams sense a weakness up the middle, they will simply gash the Ducks' underbelly, keep the ball away from UO's offense and burn clock. 

“That’s why you‘ve got two big bodies in those gaps right now, to stop the run," Aiken said. "Slow the run down to get us off the field.”

Behind Manu and Maloata is a potential gem still in the making. Former four-star recruit, Canton Kaumatule, was limited by injuries last season as a freshman. Now the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Kaumatule appears ready to make an impact. 

“He has taken some steps in camp," Aiken said. "And that’s big for us right there.”

But right now, the main men in the middle are Manu and Maloata, and they couldn't be more excited about the defensive switch, even though they came to Oregon expecting to play in a 3-4. 

“For the front-seven guys it’s a lot more downhill, it’s a lot faster…” Manu said. “I think that it will allow for guys to play faster and make a lot of explosive plays.”

During spring drills, the linemen had to get used to attacking rather than "mirror stepping," which is more passive and reactionary. Once everyone got the hang of the new scheme, they began working on ways to get past offensive linemen with quickness.

“It allows me, a short, twitchy-like dude to pretty much get up the field create havoc in the backfield,” the 6-foot-1 Maloata said.

According to Maloata, he spent he offseason working on pass rush moves he can't wait to unleash. 

“I’m excited to showcase my talent,” he said.

Manu said the front four of himself, Maloata and defensive ends, Mondeaux and potential starter Jalen Jelks, are creating chemistry in fall camp.

“With us four up front, we’re looking for a lot of speed and a lot of aggression, and just disrupting the backfield as much as possible,” Manu said.

Depth isn't expected to be an issue with as many as 10 linemen vying for playing time. 

“All the way down to the fourth person [at each position], there’s a lot of talent and a lot of skill,” Manu said.

New middle linebacker A.J. Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, said he likes what he’s seen so far from the big boys in front of him.

“I think they are attacking,” he said. “We’re an attacking 4-3 defense, so they’re doing a lot of different stunts, which helps us out a lot.”

Confidence, as expected, is high. Whether production matches the excitment won't be known for weeks. Maybe months. But there is a plan. There is talent. Most of all, there is excitement about a new direction, one the Ducks hope leads to a lot of plays in the backfield. 

 “As long as we’re rushing and doing our job, putting pressure on the quarterback," Maloata said, "then we should be fine."

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 5 - Defensive line must be strong up middle

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 5 - Defensive line must be strong up middle

College football is back! The Ducks begin fall camp on Monday so we're breaking down each position to determine if the Ducks, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, and their fans will be smelling roses as Pac-12 champs during a trip to the Rose Bowl, or placing bets at a roulette table prior to watching a sixth-place UO team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Each position is graded using the poker hand scale.  

Today: Defensive line. 

Projected starters: Junior defensive end Henry Mondeaux (6-5, 280), junior defensive tackle Austin Maloata (6-1, 305), sophomore defensive tackle Canton Kaumatule (6-7, 295), senior defensive end Torrodney Prevot (6-3, 225).

Key backups: Sophomore defensive tackle Rex Manu (6-3, 315), redshirt senior defensive end T.J. Daniel (6-6, 275), redshirt sophomore defensive end Jalen Jelks (6-6, 268), redshirt freshman Drayton Carlberg (6-5, 290), redshirt freshman defensive end Gus Cumberlander (6-6, 260), redshirt sophomore defensive end Justin Hollins (6-6, 230), redshirt freshman defensive tackle Gary Baker (6-4, 298) and junior transfer defensive tackle Ratu Mafileo (6-3, 300).

Smelling like roses: Oregon has a ton of bodies in position to contribute along the defensive line.

The problem is that just one, Mondeaux (22 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks last season), has ever done anything at Oregon worth mentioning.

That doesn't mean we won't see several fresh faces blossom once given more opportunities. It only means that we simply don't know what to expect.

First and foremost the Ducks must be strong up the middle at defensive tackle and middle linebacker. Otherwise, teams are going to steamroll UO inside and eat game clock, the best recipe for defeating Oregon.

For the Ducks to have a chance at winning the conference it must get major production out of Maloata, Manu, Kaumatule and any other defensive tackle they toss in there. 

I list Kaumatule as a starter only because he has the greatest potential within the group. If the former four-star recruit meets that potential, the Ducks could be in business. If not, it would be a great disappointment to the program, and make succeeding inside more difficult. Not impossible, just more difficult. 

A wild card is Mafileo, a three-star junior college transfer who backed out of a commitment to Texas A&M to attend Oregon. He could be a missing piece in the middle for the Ducks. 

Place your bets: UO signed five defensive linemen last year and three in 2014. The group needs experience and might not be ready to play at a championship level until 2017. Manu and Maloata combined for just 12 tackles last season. Are they really capable of anchoring the interior of the defensive line at a championship level in 2016? Remember, DeForrest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci were far from ready to dominate as freshman in 2012, or as sophomores in 2013. 

Odds are: We will see flashes of greatness here and there, but the group will be inconsistent playing in a new scheme, and doing so with only one proven impact player. It's doubtful any team in the Pac-12 is fearful of Oregon's front four now that Buckner and Balducci are gone.   

Poker hand: Pair of kings with a queen, and the river yet to come. Has potential to be a good hand, but it's dicey.   

Next up: Linebackers.  

Other posts: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers/Tight ends; Offensive lineLinebackers; Defensive backs.