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:
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.
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.
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.
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.