Fresh off of an incredible showing by his defense in the National Championship Game, Dan Lanning’s newest challenge is building a similarly dominant unit at Oregon.
Elite defenses aren’t built overnight, and it will take months — or maybe even years — of expert-level coaching and top-tier recruiting for the Ducks to have a defense of Georgia’s caliber. But now is the time for Lanning to lay the foundation, and that starts with the most important position group in his 3-4 scheme: the defensive line.
The linebackers will get plenty of fanfare, but in Lanning’s scheme, everything starts up front. Oregon will have to recruit and develop linemen at an elite level if it hopes to become the new Georgia. The only problem is, such a strategy is much easier said than done.
The Unsung Heroes
The most notable players on Kirby Smart and Nick Saban’s defenses (the same defensive scheme that Lanning is bringing to Oregon) are generally the linebackers. Rolando McClain, CJ Mosely, Roquan Smith and Nakobe Dean are just a few former, current or future NFL linebackers who gained notoriety for their success in the middle of Georgia and Alabama’s defenses. None of these players, however, would be nearly as celebrated if it weren’t for their ultra-talented, strong, athletic teammates on the defensive line eating up double teams and getting penetration.
The primary goal of Lanning’s defensive scheme will be to stop the run. That’s what Georgia did best in 2021, finishing at No. 2 in the nation, giving up less than 80 yards per game on the ground. As important as fast, instinctive, aggressive linebackers are in defending the run, they’re ineffective without a defensive line that gives them clear lanes to fill each gap.
Georgia’s starting defensive linemen in 2021, Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Jalen Carter, were the best trio of linemen in college football. They each earned a PFF run-defense grade above 79, all finishing as top-10 run defenders among interior defensive linemen.
These three defenders were so technically refined and physically imposing that was nearly impossible for opposing offenses to block them one-on-one. With each defensive lineman attracting a double team or some form of help more often than not, the opposing offenses didn’t have enough blockers to send to the second level to take care of the linebackers.
And with uncovered linebackers free to make plays in the running game, Georgia didn’t have to bring an extra safety down to the box to defend the run. With two-high safeties, the Bulldogs were able to allocate more bodies to dedicate to take away the deep passing game without sacrificing effective run defense.
Davis, Wyatt and Carter enabled Georgia’s defense to be sound at every level. Oregon will need similar building blocks on the defensive interior to complement its back-seven defenders.
The Recruiting Challenge
Having an elite defensive line is a necessity in Lanning’s scheme, but there’s a reason so many teams have trouble putting one together, especially in the Pac-12. NFL-caliber defensive linemen are some of the scarcest prospects available in recruiting, and they’re practically nonexistent in the West.
In the 2022 recruiting class, for example, only one of the 14 top-100 interior defensive line prospects is located west of Texas. Georgia was able to develop such a dominant and disruptive defensive front partially because of coaching, but it largely did so because the Southeast is the only region of the country where elite defensive line prospects are plentiful. Davis was famously a (high) three-star prospect, but both Wyatt and Carter were blue-chip players from Georgia and Florida, respectively.
To create a Georgia-esque defense at Oregon, Lanning will either have to do an incredible job of evaluating and developing under-the-radar interior defensive line talent in the West, or more likely, he will have to take a trip across the country to pull some linemen out of SEC territory. If he is able to accomplish this feat, it would be a first. For all of Mario Cristobal’s recruiting accomplishments, this is something that even he wasn’t able to do successfully on a consistent basis.
For Oregon to become “Georgia West,” it needs to recruit like Georgia, specifically at the most important position group in Lanning’s defensive scheme. If Lanning is somehow able to pull elite linemen out of the Southeast, then it’s very possible that the Ducks will soon have a defense that is capable of winning a championship.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck
Joshua is an adopted Duck fanatic, originally hailing from southwestern Pennsylvania. His love for the University of Oregon began as a young child when he became mesmerized by the flashy uniforms and explosive offenses of the Chip Kelly era, and now, he follows the team religiously. His fondest memory of the team is seeing De’Anthony Thomas race past Wisconsin defenders back in the 2012 Rose Bowl. A true football enthusiast, Joshua loves studying the intricacies of the game, and he aspires to become a professional sports journalist. Joshua now resides in Morgantown, West Virginia where he works in customer service. When he’s not watching Oregon replays, Joshua loves reading, writing, and spending time with his family. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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