Building Lanning’s Defense: The Linebackers

David Marsh Editorials

Dan Lanning’s defense this season did not live up to his standard, and it wasn’t even close. Oregon’s defense couldn’t get off the field on third downs and struggled to get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There were some bright spots, but on the whole, Lanning’s defense failed to get the job done.

But now we are in transfer portal season and we are already seeing some massive changes to Lanning’s defense — namely at the linebacker position where Oregon currently has six leaving through the transfer portal. Those currently in the transfer portal are: Jabril McNeil, Justin Flowe, Jackson LaDuke, Adrian Jackson, Terrell Tilmon (also listed as a tight end), and Brandon Buckner.

Lanning’s defense typically only runs two linebackers as a part of its base package. This past season those two starting linebackers were Noah Sewell and Jeffery Bassa, as Lanning’s defense often wants to get the most pressure on the quarterback with a four-man pass rush but also maintain coverage on the back end by using five defensive backs.

These players’ departure shows us that Lanning wants to fine tune his roster and open up space for more players in other positions. If his scheme doesn’t need more than two linebackers, then he doesn’t need this many linebackers on his roster and we are seeing those cuts being made. Additionally, some of the players listed above fall under the category of “tweeners” where they are really too big to be linebackers but are too small to be effective linemen. These players also don’t fit the current scheme and roster, so Lanning and the rest of the coaching staff have probably played a role in nudging them into the transfer portal.

Jeffery Bassa returns an interception into the Oregon State red zone.

When Lanning was hired, his priority was to maintain the roster and determine the quality of the talent he had. This year Lanning is pursuing the talent he knows he needs to get into his system to make it work. This year’s defense felt like it was a compromise between the players he had and the defense he wanted to run, and it simply didn’t work.

What are linebackers supposed to do in Lanning’s defense?

Linebackers must be versatile in Lanning’s defense. Sometimes they are involved in the pass rush, but most often their job is to contain the run game from running backs and quarterbacks alike. And then they have coverage duties, which is not something uncommon for linebackers, but Lanning’s defense is designed to have linebackers shift seamlessly from run defense, to containment, to coverage, to pass-rush so that that they can simulate pressures coming from all over the defense.

In short, the linebackers have to do everything and that is a lot for one position to handle. It is no surprise that the linebackers struggled throughout the season, especially in coverage.

The linebacker position is critical to making Lanning’s defense operate, but at the same time there are so few of them on the field. It requires a level of discipline that not all on the roster have. Perhaps the best example of this is Flowe, who was a five-star recruit out of high school and an amazing athlete. However, he often looked lost on the field and was burned by the opposing offense — whether that was a busted coverage assignment or not being aligned properly in run defense. That made Flowe a liability on the field for the defense and is probably a major reason why he only saw the field in a back-up capacity this year. It could also be why he is transferring out.

New Transfers

This last weekend Oregon saw its first transfer into the program in former Iowa linebacker Jestin Jacobs. This gives us a great insight into what Lanning is looking for in his linebackers. Jacobs is 6-4 and 235 pounds, which means he is big enough to stop the run and tall enough to really cause tightends a problem in those short routes where he would be charged with covering them.

Jestin Jacobs will be a critical piece of creating the defense Lanning wants for his Oregon Ducks.

Beyond just his build, he has recorded one interception across his 14 games played. Now, this might not sound like much, but it is proof he has some coverage skills and those are a critical part to what Lanning demands of his linebackers. Both inside linebackers Sewell and Bassa recorded at least one interception a piece this season. Coverage is key to successful linebacker play, especially in Lanning’s defense.

As for outside linebackers, also sometimes referred to as edge players, they typically have rushing the passer duties and setting the edge for the defense. But sometimes they are also required to cover potential receivers. These players were often exposed in passing situations last year, so it will be interesting to see who stays and who is brought into these roles as well.

Transfer season is not over yet and there are still quite a few linebackers on Oregon’s roster. Keep an eye out for those who may be transferring in and how our new recruits fare when the Spring Game comes around.

David Marsh 
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By Craig Strobeck


Natalie Liebhaber, the Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the medical technology industry in SLC, Utah.

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