Photo by Scott Boldt
Oregon Football

Position Preview: Defensive Line

July 28, 2020

The Oregon defensive line has seen a huge influx of young talent over the past couple of seasons as Mario Cristobal made the trenches a recruiting focus. But what makes this unit potentially great is the blend of experience and youth offering a variety of skill sets and playing styles.

Having seven or eight guys who can factor into a game is vital if you aspire to be an elite defense. All the big-time schools keep guys fresh with deep rotations.

Oregon has been working on getting to that level. This might be a year they break through.

Kayvon Thibodeaux (5), Sophomore

After starting the year as a part-timer, the 6-5, 250-pound defensive end showed just how special he is in the second half of the season. Over the final six games, he racked up 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.

Sacks are great, but achieving them can be a bit fluky; some guys are great at cleaning up plays and being rewarded the sack. But what made Thibodeaux’s play so special was the ability to create the sacks himself.

Thibodeaux consistently beat tackles, especially to the outside, force countless quarterback pressures. He finished the Rose Bowl with 1 tackle and 0 sacks, but if you watching that game you'll see he affected many more plays that that.

The Oaks Christian High product possesses that rare blend of speed and strength, and he uses these talents to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. He has great bend and is able to leverage offensive linemen so quickly off the snap.

Thibodeaux garnered a lot of national attention over the off-season, and many experts peg him to be one of the nation's top defenders. Accounting for him has to be a huge part of any opponent's offensive game plan.

The former No. 1 recruit will find himself in even better position to succeed if other Ducks continue to improve and give Thibodeaux the chance to excel. Expectations are sky high for him, but based on the arc of his first season in Eugene, they could well be justified.

Jordan Scott (34), Senior

The 6-1, 325-pound nose tackle started in his freshman year and never looked back, racking up 95 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.

Nose tackles typically are underappreciated at all levels. They don’t generally make splashy plays, and many are unaware of the impact that they’re having on the game.

That's why it’s great that Oregon fans have embraced Scott and recognize his importance Without Scott, the front seven would have a much tougher job.

On passing plays, the Florida native is great at occupying multiple blockers to allow the edge pass rushers to thrive. But it's in the run game where Scott truly thrives, as he’s fantastic at filling gaps and clogging up the middle.

The most glaring example was the fourth-and-1 play in 2018 against Washington. A hard-charging Scott absolutely blows up the middle and almost single-handedly escorts Washington's offense off the field.

Scott may not be the best option in every situation, but Oregon has done a really great job of using his strengths to make the defense better. He’s sure to have a fourth-straight productive season anchoring the middle of the defensive front.

Austin Faoliu (99), Senior

The 6-3, 293-pounder is an unheralded hero who plays all along the defensive line. Last season, the Mater Dei grad had 39 tackles, 2 sacks and 5 tackles for loss.

Like Scott, Faoliu can get lost in the scrum during games. But he played at a relatively high level consistently all year, and he has the versatility to do quite a few different things.

Faoliu can help occupy the interior in a 4-3 alignment, or hold down the edge in a 3-4 set. He's greatly improved against the run, but he also was able to pressure the quarterback at times.

And it was critical that Faoliu stepped up last season, as there wasn’t much experienced depth behind him. The decision by he and Scott to return for their senior years could give the Ducks the top interior line combo in the Pac-12.

Popo Aumavae, (50) Junior

The 6-3, 302-pounder should be a part of the rotation in 2020. The Stockton native played in nine games last year and had just 15 total tackles, yet he still managed 3.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss.

The departure of seniors Siona Kava and Drayton Carlberg should open the way for Aumavae to earn more playing time. He can spell either Scott or Faoliu, so it’s possible he will contribute in various positions and situations.

After battling injuries early in his Oregon career, Aumavae's sophomore performance was a pleasant surprise to many. He will need to continue to be productive if the Oregon defense is to improve once again.

Brandon Dorlus (97), Sophomore

The 6-3, 295-pound defensive tackle had just 5 tackles last year, but he made them count with 1 sack and 2 tackles for loss. Like Aumavae, the Florida native should see a large increase in snaps for 2020.

I thought Dorlus was pretty talented before he arrived at Oregon, but he really showcased his abilities during practices. Even though he’s close to 300 pounds, he moves around like a big cat.

Dorlus has demonstrated that he can succeed using speed and strength, which is always a winning combination.

Keyon Ware-Hudson (95), Redshirt Freshman

The super-intriguing 6-3, 295-pounder could become an important piece of the puzzle in 2020. Ware-Hudson exhibits great pass-rushing ability for his size.

When he beat guys at St. John Bosco and at Oregon practices, he exploded through the line of scrimmage. Having a guy at his size who can rush the passer is special. Solid run defenders are well and good, but getting production from your interior guys on passing downs can make a good defensive line truly great.

Sua’ava Poti (94), Redshirt Freshman

The 6-2, 275-pound defensive tackle played in just one game last year but could be in line for a bigger role this season.

Poti spent last year working on his body and continuing to build his strength, as he came in on the lighter side for for an interior lineman. He isn’t likely to fill Scott's shoes, but he fits into the same niche as Austin Faoliu.

Poti could be a situational player or one who sees more snaps if there are injuries.

Kristian Williams (91), Redshirt Freshman

The 6-3, 290-pound defensive tackle out of Memphis played in just one game last year, but that may not be such a bad thing. Williams really needed to fill out his frame and gain the strength to play the type of hybrid nose tackle/defensive tackle that Austin Faoliu does.

Williams' athleticism isn’t off the charts, but he uses his power to win regularly at the line of scrimmage. Now, can he translate his recent gains to success on the field?

After a full off-season, Williams definitely seems to have acquired the physical tools – but so have a bunch of other guys we've talked about.

Bradyn Swinson (44), Freshman

The 6-4, 262-pound end certainly looks the part, as he already has a great frame and impressive prep credentials. For Swinson, the key to early playing time could be gaining strength and improving his mastery of multiple pass-rushing moves.

It’s never easy for a freshman to come in and make a big impression. Even Thibodeaux needed some seasoning and an injury to Gus Cumberlander before he could show his stuff.

Swinson is on the larger size for rookie, but he needs to use that weight to push offensive tackles around. Like Thibodeaux, he may not rack up a bunch of sacks early, but if he’s making a push he should earn some rotational snaps.

Jake Shipley (90), Freshman

The 6-4, 284-pounder also is on the bigger side for an end. He has a great frame and could become a contributor after a year or two in the strength and conditioning program.

All five true freshmen on this list are at a particular disadvantage because they weren't able to make an impression in the limited spring drills. Shipley is a bit of a developmental project, but every team needs guys like that.

Remember, it took Aumavae, Carlberg and Bryson Young a few years to fully develop as well.

Jayson Jones, Freshman

While not officially on the Oregon roster, 247Sports lists Jones at 6-6 and 340 pounds. Oregon doesn't land many players the size of this defensive tackle from Alabama.

Jones posted numerous images of him working out and trying to shed weight, and he's clearly made progress since the end of his senior season. As such, there’s certainly a chance he is a big-time contributor right out of the gate.

However, fans should probably temper those expectations. Not many freshmen can pull off what Mykael Wright and Thibodeaux did in 2019.

I’ll be watching Jones closely during practice to see just how much progress he’s made.

Jaylen Smith, Freshman

Another guy who’s not yet on the roster, Smith is listed by 247Sports at 6-4, 280 pounds.

People always say that 3-star prospects out from back east are as good as West Coast 4-stars, and in Smith's case that might be true. He may be a bit small for an interior defensive lineman, but his athleticism just pops off the screen.

At his North Carolina high school, Smith dominated with strength, speed and power – all promising attributes for an interior player. Still, it's likely to take a season or two for him to refine those skills and assume a major role.

Maceal Afaese, Freshman

The 6-5, 260-pound strong side defensive end has room for him to grow and add weight, yet he won’t necessarily end up as a defensive tackle. The Hawaii native projects more as a defensive end, where he can make better use of his long arms and power.

In high school, Afaese would essentially bull-rush everyone and then finish with his strength. In college, that can be a recipe for success as well – if you continue to get bigger and stronger.

Afaese is unlikely to see meaningful game reps in 2020, but practicing against elite offensive line talent should help all these young linemen develop.

Tags: Football, Oregon
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