Mario Cristobal’s expertise is the line of scrimmage.
Oregon’s head coach, who still has a hands-on role in developing the offensive line, is excited about what is happening on the other side of the ball entering the 2018 football season.
“We learned that our front seven can be as effective as any front seven in the Pac-12,” Cristobal said when asked about what stood out during spring practice.
That’s an amazing statement considering it was only two years ago that Oregon's defensive line was pushed around by almost every opponent on the schedule.
In 2016, the Ducks allowed 41.4 points and 518.4 yards per game running Brady Hoke’s undermanned 4-3 scheme.
Oregon gave up 29.0 points and 369.2 yards per game last season. Cristobal is counting on more significant progress being made in Jim Leavitt’s second year implementing his 3-4 base defense.
During Leavitt’s second season at Colorado in 2016, the Buffaloes — who had one of the nation’s worst defenses in 2014 — finished seventh nationally in yards allowed per play (4.69), 17th in total defense (328.3 ypg) and 18th in scoring defense (20.5 ppg) en route to a South Division title and an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game.
“I feel like we’ve got a really good D-line,” safety Brady Breeze said. “That’s where our defense starts, it’s up front that counts. We’ve got some good guys coming back from last year.”
The defensive line’s improvement begins in the middle, where Jordon Scott established himself as one of the conference’s best nose tackles. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1, 336-pound Scott played in all 13 games (11 starts), finishing with 34 tackles (4.5 for loss) and two sacks.
“Guys like that, if they can get themselves in elite shape, now they’re really dangerous,” Cristobal said of Scott. “Now instead of being just a pure nose tackle, he has the flexibility to jump into a shade, jump in as a three technique (lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard instead of the center). To me the biggest step he took in the spring was the use of his hands and being able to flip his hips to become a better pass rusher.
“We knew he could knock back the A (center-guard) gaps and create issues for opponents in the run game, but he’s a guy that we feel now can cause issues in the pass game as well.”
Left guard Shane Lemieux, one of the strongest players on the team and one of best offensive linemen in the Pac-12, can attest to how difficult it is to violently dance with Scott in the middle of the field.
“Jordon killed Pac-12 offensive lines,” Lemieux said. “Him working against us, our interior guys, really elevated our games. This spring we’ve gotten better just because Jordon is always taking that next jump in the offseason.”
Oregon also returns a star defensive end in Jalen Jelks, a fifth-year senior who led the team with 15.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
As the Ducks found out last year, the key to football is protecting your quarterback and getting after the other team’s quarterback. Jelks should make Autzen Stadium a nightmare for Justin Herbert’s counterparts this season.
“We’ve got some good defensive players, and Jalen certainly stands out as one of the best ones in the country, in our opinion,” Cristobal said. “We expect him to have an awesome year.”
Jelks, who is listed at 246 pounds, is trying to add some more weight to his sleek 6-6 frame with an eye on an NFL career after this season.
“We’ve shown him tapes of Homer Simpson at the dinner table,” Cristobal said with a laugh. “We want him to understand what it’s like to guzzle food because his metabolism is like that of a cheetah. He just burns through it all the time.”
Austin Faoliu, who played in 12 games as a true freshman, will move into the stating lineup at the other defensive end spot with the graduation of Henry Mondeaux.
Last season the versatile 6-3, 282-pound Faoliu had 22 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and a sack.
“It surprised me because I didn’t think I was going to get that much playing time,” Faoliu said. “As time went on, me and Jordon just got together and went through the plays and said, ‘Man, we have to do good because people are counting on us.’”
A third member of the 2017 recruiting class, Popo Aumavae, will rotate at nose guard with Scott after taking a redshirt year to heal a shoulder injury.
“I think we’re really going to take over,” Aumavae said. “We’ve got a lot of returners, only a few key players left, but it doesn’t hurt with the recruiting they’re doing now. …
“Coach Leavitt talks about that all the time. We are a program known for offense, but now we’re going to be known for both offense and defense.”
Mondeaux had 45 tackles and five sacks as a senior. The defensive line also loses reserve Elijah George and Clemson transfer Scott Pagano, who had little impact during his one-and-done season with the Ducks.
Gary Baker will be an important rotation player this season. The 6-3, 312-pound junior has experience at nose guard but was Faoliu’s backup during spring practice.
“We also learned that we have to develop more depth,” Cristobal said. “Gary Baker was probably the most improved player in the spring. His body developed and you could see it happening during the Fourth Quarter program. I go, ‘Man, this guy was kind of big last year but you could see the mobility wasn’t there.’
“Now he’s coming out of his hips and knocking people back. A guy like that could really make a tremendous difference in the defense.”
Spring rewind: Senior Malik Young (6-2, 294) was allowed to practice with the Ducks with his status for the fall uncertain. He has petitioned the NCAA for another season of eligibility. Young and junior Gus Cumberlander (6-7, 246) took the snaps behind Jelks at the other defensive end position.
Fall outlook: Oregon’s starters should be a formidable group, and junior college transfer Sione Vea Kava, who chose the Ducks over Georgia and Oklahoma, will add some much-needed depth. Andrew Faoliu, the younger brother of Austin, also will be arriving on campus this summer to compete for a spot in the rotation. “I’m excited to have my brother coming,” Austin said. “That was another big blessing that happened. I just can’t wait for him to get down here and get to work.”
Projected depth chart: DE — Austin Faoliu, Gary Baker, Andrew Faoliu; NG — Jordon Scott, Popo Aumavae, Sione Vea Kava; DE — Jalen Jelks, Gus Cumberlander, Malik Young or Drayton Carlberg
Friday’s position review: Linebackers