Because everyone uses “yards per game” as the main arbiter, the common perception is Oregon’s defense, which by that measure was the worst in the conference, cannot get any worse and has to get better. And taken with Oregon’s wealth of talent at the skill spots (ex Quarterback) that means Oregon will be better than last year. However, the reality is that Oregon’s defense wasn’t as bad as most think and therefore improvement is not necessarily automatic.
Let’s look at some stats and Oregon’s ranking within in the conference. The first is in all games, the second is only in conference games.
Yards per game: 12th & 11th
Yards per play: 9th & 7th
Rush D ypg: 6th & 6th
Rush D ypc: 8th & 8th
Pass D eff: 8th & 7th
Red Zone: 11th & 10th
Sacks: 2nd & 2nd
3rd down: 7th & 10th
Scoring D: 12th & 10th
What stands out, against consensus thought is Oregon’s D was actually 7th in conference play in yards per play and 2nd in sacks. Furthermore, if we remove overtime points and take out each team’s worst game of the season then Oregon’s scoring D was 8th in conference play.
Now the two best advanced metrics rate Oregon’s D 84th and 85th nationally. So let’s not act like the defense was merely below average. It sucked. It was 28th and 28th in 2014 and Bill Connelly notes that during six of the past nine seasons the defense was 15th to 33rd in his S&P+ metric.
Realistically it has some room to improve but it can also stay the same or even get worse.
Coaching can help but personnel helps a lot more. One underlooked reason for UW’s defensive improvement from 2011 to 2012 was personnel. Do these names mean anything to you. Shaq Thompson, Marcus Peters, Travis Feeney. These were newcomers to the 2012 D. Shaq was a consensus 5 star recruit while the other two guys redshirted in 2011. Oh and lest we forget Danny Shelton who played a little bit in 2011 (11 tackles) but had a breakout year in 2012. In 2012 he had 45 tackles, 4 tfl’s and was named honorable mention all pac-12.
This is only one example but I don’t see where and how Oregon’s front 7 personnel will improve. In fact, it may even get worse. DeForest Buckner was the #7 pick in the draft. He had 10.5 sacks and 17 tfl’s and likely had a large hand in the Ducks strong sack numbers. Including Buckner the Ducks lost 6 of 7 starters in the front 7. They lose their top 4 linebackers who combined for 29 tfl’s. Was that because they were good players or somewhat because of Buckner? The DL also loses Tui Talia and Alex Balducci who combined for 13.5 tfl’s.
Now the Ducks do return most of the secondary which was 51st last year in S&P+ passing and 7th in the pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. And Torrodney Prevot and Hendry Mondreaux are promising players on the DL. Same with RS FR Canton Kaumatele. But we’ve heard nothing about the replacements at linebacker.
The loss of Buckner could affect Oregon’s ability to pressure and sack the QB. That is the one area the defense was good and that also impacted the pass defense being average to below average instead of bad.
The other issue is Oregon’s recruiting has regressed in recent years (check other posts on this site) and the defense went from very good in Helfrich’s first season to decent in 2014 to bad last season. Brady Hoke has never been a DC. Maybe he will pull a rabbit out of his hat but given the loss of Buckner and huge questions at linebacker, I’d bet against it.
The defense may not end up being Oregon’s biggest problem. That could be the regression in QB play from the sensational Vernon Adams to Dakota Prukop or whoever. After his first few games Adams was about 95% of the QB Mariotta was (according to ESPN’s QBR). Without Adams Oregon really struggled.
Even with questions at QB Oregon has enough skill position talent to overwhelm maybe half of its schedule. And fortunately for them the Pac-12 doesn’t play much defense. But with serious questions on defense and at quarterback, the entire road schedule (Nebraska, WSU, Cal, USC, Utah, OSU) could prove difficult (two of the past three years they struggled with OSU) and that doesn’t include Stanford and Washington who go to Autism Stadium. And let’s not forget STD U lost to them in OT last year with Adams playing.
I could see Oregon going anywhere from 6-6 to 8-4. Factor in my Husky bias and we can call it 7-8 wins. Helfrich has done an admirable job managing Oregon’s regression from an elite program to a good program. There is a risk that regression spirals out of control this year (6-6) but I think for that 2017 is more likely.