Can Oregon Find Superman a Sidekick?

Joshua Whitted Editorials

There’s not much that Oregon’s pass-rushing extraordinaire Kayvon Thibodeaux can’t do. The uber-talented defender still has somehow exceeded expectations, instantly establishing himself as one of the most feared edge rushers in the country. He’ll likely be a top-five NFL Draft pick in 2022, and is even a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate this season.

But even the great Kayvon Thibodeaux can be neutralized without a running mate.

For Oregon to progress from a “good” defense to one of the country’s best, the Ducks can’t rely on Thibodeaux’s talents alone to generate a consistent pass rush. Every opponent on Oregon’s schedule will make slowing down No. 5 its top priority. Who on the Ducks’ roster can make opposing offenses pay for sliding protection Thibodeaux’s way?

Mase Funa

The top candidate to emerge as a complementary pass rusher is Mase Funa. Funa was one of Oregon’s highest-rated signees in the same 2019 recruiting class that included Thibodeaux. Fans hoped the two would form one of the top pass-rushing duos in the country for at least a few seasons, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

Funa is a breakout candidate in 2021.

Funa showed promise in his freshman season, finishing second on the team in sacks and third in tackles-for-loss. But he didn’t generate pressure consistently enough to be considered a top-tier pass rusher; he often disappeared for large stretches.

This past season was more disappointing for the former blue-chip recruit. Funa failed to tally a single sack, and he hardly resembled the disruptive force that he was as a high school prospect not too long ago.

But it’s far too early to write him off. With plenty of size, athleticism and talent, Funa is a prime candidate to emerge as a superstar pass rusher in 2021. Not every player is able to instantly make an impact like Thibodeaux. It takes some players a few years to adjust to the speed and physicality of the college game.

With a few seasons under his belt now, expect bigger things from Funa in 2021. He has the makeup of a premier edge rusher, and if he’s able to tap into his potential, this will be the year that he joins Thibodeaux as one of the best quarterback-terrorizers in college football.

Adrian Jackson

Adrian Jackson’s career has gotten off to a rough start. The athletic linebacker has missed all or large portions of the past two seasons with injuries. It seems like a lifetime ago that he took the field as a true freshman back in 2018.

Adrian Jackson saw limited action in 2020.

With a clean bill of health and a full offseason to get back on track, 2021 might finally be the year that Jackson gets to show the country what once made him the top recruit in the state of Colorado. Jackson wasn’t a prototypical edge rusher in high school; his strength lies in his versatility. But his elite burst and explosiveness make him an intriguing option to rush the passer from the outside.

Mario Cristobal talked about Jackson’s progression in an interview with the media recently, saying, “Adrian Jackson has shown a tremendous amount of improvement. The big part is that he’s healthy. He’s really focused on taking that next step as a player. He’s had his bumps along the way, but it’s the time now to do it.”

Jackson might get moved around a bit defensively, but as a situational pass rusher, he has the tools to be a gamechanger opposite Thibodeaux.

The Newcomers

Funa and Jackson are a couple of veterans who are looking to make a bigger impact this season, but behind them are a handful of younger players who are just as hungry for an opportunity to show what they can do.

When talking about what impressed him the most this offseason, Cristobal listed off a few new names who have made an impact this spring, “One thing that jumps out, these guys on the edge, both Bradyn Swinson and Jake Shipley, Treven [Ma’ae] … these guys have really popped. They’ve popped. They’ve shown a level of power setting edges and rushing the passer. They’ve been really impressive, in my opinion.”

Swinson as a high school prospect

Swinson, Shipley and Ma’ae are each edge rushers in a more traditional sense. They were each classified as defensive ends through recruitment, which means they have been specializing in rushing the passer since their high school days, unlike Funa and Jackson who have more off-ball experience.

None of them were blue-chip prospects in high school, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be contributors. The Ducks are well accustomed to taking three-star players and turning them into All-American candidates by the time they leave school. Swinson, Shipley or Ma’ae could be next in line. If one of these three, young standouts is able to build upon a strong spring and crack the starting rotation in the fall, that might give the Oregon pass rush the boost it has desperately needed.

Whether one or a combination of these players help to complement Thibodeaux, the Ducks need someone up front to step up his game in 2021. Thibodeaux’s greatness isn’t enough on its own to carry an entire unit. Oregon needs multiple players in the front seven who can pressure the passer at an elite level.

Finding a sidekick for Thibodeaux has to be a priority for the Ducks this spring. Doing so will take the Oregon defense to the next level.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by University of Oregon Athletics

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