How Does Oregon’s 2021 Defense Stack Up Against 2014’s?

David Marsh Editorials 19 Comments

Oregon’s 2021 football team has the hype and personnel to make a run at the College Football Playoff and maybe even a National Championship. Last week, I looked at how this year’s offense stacked up against the 2014 team, and today we turn to the defense to compare 2021’s team to the last Oregon team to reach the Playoff and National Championship Game.

The Defensive Line

The defensive line is full of unknowns in 2021, but this squad also possesses a great deal of potential. Players like Brandon Dorlus, Kristian Williams and Popo Aumavae have been impact players the past couple of seasons, and that trend will need to continue to have success in 2021. Kayvon Thibodeaux is by far the most disruptive piece of this defensive front. Thibodeaux was the highest-rated recruit in Oregon’s history and has been a terror to opposing offenses for the past two years. This defensive line showed great potential by creating pressure during the the Pac-12 Championship Game and, most recently, during the Spring Game. When the season starts this should be one of Oregon’s most consistent units.

But how do they stack up against the last Oregon team to reach the Playoff, the 2014 Ducks? The 2014 Ducks had two top ten NFL draft picks in Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner on the line. Both of these players have also gone on to highly successful NFL careers. During their time at Oregon, they stood as literal giants along the defensive line.

Craig Strobeck

DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead were massive parts of the 2014 Oregon defense.

In terms of talent, it would seem the 2014 Ducks are the more talented group, though the big difference between these groups will come down to the scheme. In 2014, Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum opted to rush three and drop eight into coverage on a regular basis. This usually resulted in the defensive linemen eating blockers and fighting off frequent double teams. The result was that if the defensive line was against a quality opponent, such as Ohio State, they couldn’t pressure the quarterback and relied almost solely on linebackers to truly defend against the run. This was ineffective.

Oregon’s current defensive coordinator, Tim DeRuyter, has a different scheme in which he likes to put more pressure on the quarterback with a variety of packages. As a result, we will see Oregon’s defensive line set up more opportunities for Oregon’s linebackers to make big plays. For the defensive line, in particular, scheme is going to potentially outweigh talent in 2021, even though this line has plenty of quality, if young, talent.

Player Skill Advantage — 2014 Ducks

Overall Advantage — 2021 Ducks

Linebackers

The 2014 linebackers had some big names for Oregon at the time: Tony Washington, Torrodney Prevot, Rodney Hardrick, Derrick Malone Jr and Joe Walker to name a few. The linebackers on this defense were central to its success and, at times, its failures. However, even with all those names on the roster, none of them have anywhere near the potential of Oregon’s current linebacker corps.

Tom Corno

Noah Sewell had a great start as a freshman and will continue to grow in 2021.

Noah Sewell, Justin Flowe, Isaac Slade-Matautia, Mase Funa, Adrian Jackson and Keith Brown all have more potential than the 2014 Duck linebackers. Sewell is already a household name, and Flowe is poised to become a breakout star this upcoming year (he was forced to sit out in 2020 due to injury). There is just more raw talent and physicality on the 2021 team.

Advantage — 2021 Ducks

The Secondary

The 2014 defense led the country in turnover margin and much of that was due to an incredible ball-hawking secondary. Erick Dargan led this secondary with seven interceptions. Combine that with lock-down corners Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, and this secondary was incredibly difficult for quarterbacks to pass against. There was some depth in the 2014 secondary, as it was full of future Oregon stars, but when Ekpre-Olomu was injured before the Rose Bowl game, he was replaced by Chris Seisay, who served admirably but lacked the ability of Ekpre-Olomu.

The 2021 secondary has star power in Mykael Wright, experience in DJ James and immense potential in Dontae Manning, but for the most part the cornerbacks may prove to be an initial weakness for this Oregon team. There isn’t a whole lot of experience in this group, though there is a plethora of talent. This is one of the youngest position groups on an already young team.

The 2021 Ducks look more secure at safety with Verone McKinley III and Jamal Hill both entering their second year as full-time starters. Both have shown some ball hawking ability and, if given the opportunity, will be around the ball on almost every snap. Bennett Williams and Jordan Happle will both see the field this year and at the very least provide some depth at the safety position. Though, like cornerback, the safety position has yet to truly prove itself and will need new faces to step up for this to unit to be truly special.

Advantage — 2014 Ducks

Kevin Cline

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is an Oregon legend at cornerback and was a nightmare for quarterbacks.

Conclusion

The 2014 defense was good, but not great. Its success was helped by the fact that the 2014 offense could score on demand, led by Marcus Mariota. The defense could allow some points because the offense was simply just going to score more. The 2021 defense does not have that luxury with a mostly unproven offense, though one with incredible potential.

The 2021 defense has more potential everywhere on the field, but they are a much, much younger team. While the 2014 defense consisted mostly of juniors and seniors, the 2021 defense is composed mostly of sophomores and freshmen (at least in terms of eligibility due to the strange COVID-19 season).

The biggest difference between the two defensive units is the coordinator, and that advantage goes decidedly to 2021 with DeRuyter. DeRuyter should engineer a defense far more aggressive and physical than Pellum’s. At the same time, 2020 was a major step back defensively. How quickly will DeRuyter have this Oregon defense back to one of the top defensive units in the Pac-12 and in the country?

David Marsh 
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: Kevin Cline

Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.

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Oregon Wins First Regional Game!

The Ducks prevailed in a 13-10 win over Central Connecticut that featured the most homers (five) in the history of Oregon Baseball. My question going in was….I had confidence in only one starting pitcher (Robert Ahlstrom) and one reliever. The others were truly hit-and-miss on a given day.

Would the Ducks burn our best pitcher the first game when we have a big game, (assuming we win the first game) on Saturday against the winner of LSU-Gonzaga? Or would they use another starter and save Robbie for Saturday? I was told by a real baseball guy yesterday that “you always start your best and make sure you win that first game.”

Well Coach Waz did not follow conventional wisdom as he held out Ahlstrom for Saturday and put on the mound the usual Saturday starter in Cullen Kafka. (He and three other pitchers got beat up) Andy Mosiello and closer Colby Summers stopped the bleeding at the end and saved the game.

An interesting side note? Oregon’s game was online only; the Gonzaga-LSU game is on TV, on ESPNU. Wow.

Oregon plays the winner tomorrow night at 7:00 PM.

David, I love the amount of thought and writing you put into your articles, and I think it is good for the other readers to know that I am not a shill for FishDuck writers. When I disagree … as I did last week, and now this week–it is good for discussion and learning from each other.

I do not know why Mykael Wright and Noah Sewell are getting so much love going into this year … based on last year’s performance? Sewell over-ran plays badly and performed as a freshman would. Yes he has the tools and potential–but it yet to be seen unlike a Joe Walker in 2014 who is still in the NFL and has a Super Bowl ring.

I have no idea why Mykael Wright gave everyone a big cushion in the final two games; teams could get an easy first down throwing on him every time with the ten-yard cushion given. Yes, the physical tools are there….but I would take the 2014 IFO in a heartbeat.

I completely disagree with the assessment of the eight-man zone defense, as it was only used in third and long situations and the stats showed that it DID work the majority of the time. I had another name for it back-in-the-day of 3-Duck-Chuck, and this analysis explains the success of it.

It was an ideal defense to match with a rapid, high-scoring offense, thus why Chip liked it and approved of it.

The “take” that many here have of the loss to Ohio State for the 2014 NC is also one I disagree with; the two biggest components in that loss was an injury to a starting linebacker that forced a freshman to play–who did horribly in reserve. He personally was responsible for the explosion plays and touchdowns by the Buckeyes in the first half that would have been routine stops for a typical starter. You may read about it right here. (Our normal backup was injured as well)

The second component was a brilliant coaching move by Urban Meyer, that I simply have to tip my hat to. The running success by Ohio State in the second half was not just handing it off to “Ike,” as there was a ton more that that and you can learn about it right here.

Those last two analysis articles are among the biggest hit articles ever at FishDuck because Buckeye fans read them by the thousands as Ohio State sites such as Eleven Warriors wrote about my analysis articles and linked them.

Or we will just politely disagree and I’m fine with that!

DuckVegas

Charles, I’m surprised no one responded to your comment about 2014 Joe Walker vs 2021 Noah Sewell. What a great debate topic. I’ll take the bait if no one else will.

Bottom line: I’m taking 2021 Noah Sewell over 2014 Joe Walker.

First of all, I love Joe Walker. He was overshadowed by so many other stars during his time at Oregon, but all he did was play smart, play hard, and make plays. And I love his story: injured in high school kept him from being recruited, went to JC, got picked up by the Ducks as a low-star recruit, then became a tackling machine at Oregon, and eventually got drafted and stuck around in the NFL, including that Super Bowl ring you mentioned.

However, Joe was part of a front that included Armstead, Buckner, and Balducci. Those guys were beasts, drew double teams, and I have to believe those guys freed up Joe to run around and make plays. While Joe has defied the odds and stuck around the NFL this long, much of it has been on practice squads, injured reserve, or in a back-up role. And he got his Super Bowl ring the same way Kenjon Barner got his rings–right organization at the right time.

As for Noah, he’s a different species altogether. The guy is so passionate, powerful, and athletic. Noah is going to be extremely disruptive–even violent–when he takes the field this fall. He reminds me of Ray Mauluga (unanimous All-American, PAC-10 defensive player of the year, and 2nd round draft pick). Yes, freshman Noah flew around, was out of position, made mistakes, etc. And 2021 Noah hasn’t played a single snap yet. But I’m taking him based on potential alone.

Now, I’m with you on 2014 Ifo over 2021 Wright. This is where I take the known value over potential. If Wright’s ceiling is higher than Ifo’s, it’s not that much higher. But Noah’s ceiling vs. Joe’s? That’s a different story. Walker played his guts out at all levels and reached his ceiling as a journeyman NFL linebacker. Noah’s ceiling is Ray Mauluga…maybe even higher. I want that guy on my team!

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Duck Vegas….we may disagree on some points, but wow–you support your position superbly. Noah’s ceiling IS higher, but I gotta see it first…

And please….post your thoughts in the comments often! People like you who have great points to make, write them well, (and use paragraphs!) are so welcome here and so rare in other places. WELCOME!

Drake

I believe we have more depth on this defense. If an injury occurs we can fill the position with a quality player. DeRuyter has a lot of tools in his toolbox.

Mudslide

Perhaps one other observation regarding the comparison of 2014 and 2021 teams…as a whole, the PAC-12 was quite down that year. The North Division was particularly atrocious…other than the Ducks, of course. (That atrociousness includes the semi-final combatant, Florida State. Quitters.) UO had a relatively easy path to the National Championship game.

UtahDuck

“The 2021 secondary has star power in Mykael Wright, experience in DJ James and immense potential in Dontae Manning, but for the most part the cornerbacks may prove to be an initial weakness for this Oregon team.”

I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment here. Last year almost every big throw was against the safeties(in particular pickett). I think oregon now has some good safeties but i wouldn’t call any of the great. Oregon has lost 4 year player pickett, elite in zone coverage Holland, at 2019 closeout star breeze.

I would likely predict that stephens is likely the weakest position in the DB core. This could be rectified by moving Williams over to strong safety and either transitioning a freshman safety of addison to back up Hill.

Duck Phan Phil

I have some hopes for Addisson at centerfield. He’s got massive range (check out his HS tape), but what really impressed me was his aggression coming up to make tackles in the spring game. 10# of Coach Feld gains would certainly help him.

ptdduck

Fun read but not sure why you chose the 2014 defense, they weren’t that great. The 2019 defense was much better. We’ll need to more like the 2019 defense this year to win the PAC12 because we don’t have the 2014 offense.

ptdduck

That makes sense. I’m not nearly as confident in the 2021 team as the 2014 team. I think a better comparison for this team is the 2019 team.

smith72

Nice points on the defense comparison. I agree with you on everything, especially the line.

” Don Pellum opted to rush three and drop eight into coverage on a regular basis. ” It seems that this strategy often called “Prevent” does nothing but prevent a win.

How many times have average or journeyman quarterbacks throw for career record passing days against “rush 3 and drop 8” ? I am really looking forward to see DeRuyter improve the Oregon defense!

P.S. My negative opinion of Neuheisal changed when he started praising “IFO EKPRE-OLOMU” on game analysis! I enjoyed Rick and especially IFO!

I’m excited about the defense but like many wonder about stopping the run and if unable, forcing the corners to play a lot of man without help to support the run D

The LB crew is not only as talented as Oregon has ever had but faster and with more size. I think they will be a key position group in deciding the prowess of the defense.

Coach D will bring a lot of pressure from the edges and the speed of the LB group will contribute to that and also provide coverage ability previously not seen when corners are blitzing.

The size of the LB corps adds another element not seen previously on Oregon defenses. Stopping the run is only partially based on line play. This years LB crew will be faster to the hole, take on guards with more force and play behind the line of scrimmage more often. Having size and speed changes things. Physics matters in football and in years past our undersized or slower LBs have not held up. This years group has size and speed at every spot.

Disruptive aggressive and violent is what I expect combined with defensive calls that force the opposing QB and O line to not only know their reads perfectly but be able to execute under pressure.

I’ve got to believe coach D is excited at the talent he has and is expecting big things but what do I know, I live in a van down by the river?🤷‍♂️

Logger29

Nice article David, thanks.

In my opinion the talents of Armstead and Buckner were horribly restrained by the scheme under which they labored. The guest ion as to whether Herbert’s talents were not fully developed and utilized during his college career can also be asked about Armstead and Buckner. Water under bridge I suppose but interesting point to ponder.

Aside from the obvious athletic talent the current defense possesses, what makes me cautiously optimistic regarding the upcoming season is the presence of coach DeRuyter.

In the two previous runs at the National Championship it seemed to me it was the defense which came up short, especially in 2014. The “read and react” style the Duck coaches seemed to prefer was steamrolled by Ohio St. in the second half – it was not hard to “read” what the Buckeyes were going to do they were giving Elliot ball and coming right at you.

I’m hopeful DeRuyter will install a penetrating, disruptive style, intent on applying pressure and forcing plays to breakdown, maybe even creating turnovers. I think your appraisal of the down lineman is correct David. If they can be more than just “stout” the Duck defense could be exceptional in 2021.

Notalot

David you provided us with a comparative analysis making salient observations. The potential favors 2021 over 2014. The roster is deeper. The players are bigger, stronger and faster overall.

I wonder about the pride and will of the 2021 unit. Will it match or exceed the “football players” the Ducks fielded in 2014? Those guys were a special unit.

Will the special teams help the defense over the coming season? The pace of the offense with greater ball control empirically should benefit this year’s D.

We fans have a lot to be excited about with the defense, coach, schemes and development of a national powerhouse.

The top recruits arriving on campus these next weeks need to realize what’s happening with Oregon Football and jump on the rocket. Do they want to join a perennial power, or become part of the future of CFB?