Lanning Can’t Accept Defensive Mediocrity in 2023

Joshua Whitted Editorials

When people talk about Oregon Ducks football, very seldom is the defense mentioned. And if it is, it’s not in a positive way.

For as much as Oregon’s offense exploded in Dan Lanning’s inaugural season with the Ducks, its defense failed to deliver far too often, ultimately costing the Ducks a shot at the conference title and a potential Playoff berth.

It’s totally understandable why Oregon’s defense wasn’t up to par in 2022. The coaching staff had undergone a complete overhaul, after all. Despite having plenty of NFL talent, it takes time and reps to master a scheme.

But that excuse is only good for so long. Now, with a full year in Lanning’s system, Oregon’s defense has the talent and experience to shine. Anything less than significant improvement should be cause for concern.

Defensive Improvement Is Oregon’s Key for Success

Back in 2019, Oregon put together one if its best defenses in recent memory, and that unit fueled the Ducks to a Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl victory. That defense featured a number of NFL Draft picks, and even current NFL starters, such as Jevon Holland and Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Since then, however, things have gone downhill. Mario Cristobal’s teams got progressively worse defensively, bottoming out in 2021, with the nation’s 71st-ranked defense.

Thibodeaux once led a dominant Oregon defense.

With Cristobal out, Lanning was hired, largely due to his defensive background and integral role in helping develop one of the best defenses of all time at Georgia. The Bulldogs had a ferocious defense in 2021; they were absolutely impossible to run the ball on, and their pass rush and talented secondary made it quite the chore for opposing quarterbacks to throw against them.

Lanning undoubtedly had better talent to work with at Georgia than he did at Oregon in 2022, but nonetheless, most at least expected moderate improvement from the Ducks’ paltry defensive ranking in 2021. Ironically, Oregon’s defense neither improved, nor regressed under Lanning. It ranked exactly the same at 71st in the nation in 2022.

It wasn’t like the Ducks were completely bereft of talent, either. Noah Sewell entered the season as one of the top draft-eligible linebackers in America, Christian Gonzalez will likely be a first-round NFL Draft pick, and Brandon Dorlus has NFL potential, as well.

Most are willing to give Lanning a pass, primarily because it genuinely does take time to install a new system and reap the benefits from it. And the offense was so shockingly dominant that it made the defensive mediocrity easier to ignore.

But the defense can only stay out of the spotlight for so long. Defensive collapses are the biggest reason the Ducks suffered both of their conference losses last season. The defense — not Bo Nix’s injury — was the biggest reason why Oregon wasn’t able to play for more than the Holiday Bowl this postseason.

Oregon has lost a lot of proven talent on defense, but improvement is necessary and expected, regardless. Both Lanning and Cristobal have recruited at historic levels by Oregon’s standard, and the players they have brought in are just as — if not more — talented than many of the players departing.

Oregon has plenty of talent on its defensive roster.

Additionally, the Transfer Portal has allowed Lanning to fill many of the gaps that will be left by departing stars. Jestin Jacobs was a stalwart at linebacker for Iowa in 2021. An injury cut his 2022 season short, but now, fully healthy, he has all of the tools necessary to be the next great linebacker in Lanning’s system.

Khyree Jackson is a long, lengthy cornerback, who was a former blue-chip prospect. Things didn’t work out for him at Alabama, but physically, he is every bit as capable as Gonzalez.

And edge rusher Jordan Burch — the crown jewel of Oregon’s Transfer Portal signees — was a former five-star prospect, who is the most talented pass rusher to set foot in Eugene since Thibodeaux.

Both in the form of Portal acquisitions and returning role players who will now be pushed into the starting lineup, there’s no question the Ducks have talent galore defensively. By now, the majority of the roster has had plenty of time to absorb the playbook.

It might take a few more years of even better recruiting to expect the Ducks to have a defense as dominant as Georgia’s, but it sure shouldn’t take even one more year to see some improvement.

Oregon can’t have a middling defense in 2023, and Lanning knows it. The rest of the program has come too far to let the defense squander another season.

Joshua Whitted 
Grove City, Ohio
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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