The senior defensive end has high hopes for the unit with the return of coordinator Jim Leavitt
Jim Leavitt’s future at Oregon was in doubt last December.
Willie Taggart bolted for Florida State after only one season, and the Ducks signed a petition for Mario Cristobal to be the permanent replacement and delivered it to the desk of athletic director Rob Mullens.
That left Leavitt, who built the South Florida program from scratch and aspires to be a head coach again, with a decision to make — either follow Taggart to Tallahassee or stay on as Cristobal’s defensive coordinator.
Jalen Jelks said the players knew Leavitt wasn’t planning to pack his bags during the team’s preparations for the Las Vegas Bowl.
“I wasn’t worried about coach Leavitt, nobody really was,” said Jelks, who represented Oregon’s defense at the Pac-12 media day event in Los Angeles. “We knew where his heart was and what he had his mind on and what he was set on.
“They tell you what they’re feeling. There was no beating around the bush or anything. They’re up front with us.”
Shortly after the turbulent season concluded with a disappointing loss to Boise State, Oregon signed Leavitt to a new deal that pays him an average of $1.7 million per season.
The return of Leavitt for a second season raises the expectations for Oregon in Cristobal’s first season as head coach.
Jelks leads what is expected to be the program’s best defense since 2014 when the Ducks won the Pac-12 championship, dominated Florida State in the Rose Bowl and played Ohio State in the national title game.
The 6-foot-6, 245 pound fifth-year senior started all 13 games last season, finishing with a team-high 15.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
“I feel like all the positive buzz is coming straight from the coaches. They’re a very positive group,” Jelks said. “Even the first day coach Cristobal stepped down and said, ‘Hey, I’m probably about to be the head coach,’ I felt the energy in the room, honestly. I felt it was kind of a player-oriented thing.
“We nominated him to become the coach, and I feel like once you do that you feel like you’ve got the team behind your back.”
Jelks said Leavitt was also a candidate to fill the vacancy and didn’t show any resentment after the players decided to rally behind Cristobal for the job.
“Not at all,” Jelks said. “He’s still here, so we still love him.”
Oregon’s defense is hoping to help propel the team on a championship run, just as Leavitt’s Colorado defense did in 2016.
The Buffaloes, who had one of the nation’s worst defenses before Leavitt took over in 2015, won the South Division in his second season, finishing seventh nationally in yards allowed per play (4.69), 17th in total defense (328.3 ypg) and 18th in scoring defense (20.5 ppg).
After the Ducks allowed 41.4 points and 518.4 yards per game during Brady Hoke’s lone season as defensive coordinator in 2016, Oregon gave up 29.0 points and 369.2 yards per game last season under Leavitt.
“I feel like we’re for sure going to be better than last season and I think we should be number one in the Pac,” nose tackle Jordon Scott said during spring practice. “That’s my plans and hopes, and that’s what Leavitt wants us to do, too. We have high expectations, and that’s how it’s always going to be.”
Leavitt’s 3-4 scheme returns three defensive linemen — Jelks, Scott and defensive end Austin Faoliu — who started at times last year, as well as star inside linebacker Troy Dye and hawkish outside linebackers Justin Hollins and La’Mar Winston.
Jelks said he expects junior Bryson Young to have an impact at both defensive end and outside linebacker and for redshirt juniors Gary Baker and Gus Cumberlander to have breakout seasons.
“It’s really about trust. If coach Leavitt trusts you, he’ll play anybody, it doesn’t matter,” Jelks said. “As long as you know your defense and schemes, understand what you’re doing out there and are making plays.”
Jelks redshirted in 2014 when the DeForest Buckner-led defense played well enough in the shadow of Marcus Mariota and the offense to reach the College Football Playoff.
The 2018 team, which features another potential Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Justin Herbert, has enough experience and talent on both sides of the ball to contend in the North Division.
The Ducks are picked third behind Pac-12 favorite Washington and defending division champion Stanford. Oregon hosts both teams at Autzen Stadium this season.
“I’m just making sure we’re on the same page, making sure we’re still brothers at the end of the day,” Jelks said. “We’re willing to work and get that main objective.”