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Football: Defensive Developmental Player Film Review

Reviewing footage of Oregon’s potential future playmakers on defense.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Liberty at Oregon Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You can find my review of the offense’s developmental players here.

Highly successful college football coaches aren’t only concerned with the players on their two-deep who regularly rotate in while the outcome of a game is in question. The best programs are always looking for opportunities to develop players who will be in the rotation at some point in the future.

In this article, I present my findings from reviewing the garbage time footage of Oregon’s defense this season that features developmental players. These players are usually in their first two years in the program and do not see regular playing time while the outcome of games is still in question.

There were a number of freshmen on defense who saw significant meaningful playing time during this last season. Specifically, outside linebackers #10 Mateo Uiagalelei, #32 Emar’rion Winston, #17 Blake Purchase, #44 Teitum Tuioti, and inside linebacker #26 Devon Jackson all rotated in during games before garbage time. Purchase and Jackson are included here because they are freshmen who still have room to grow as college players, and were still on the field during garbage time snaps.

Readers should note that, even with the number of garbage time snaps Oregon’s defense played this season, the plays I charted for this project are not a representative sample of competitive play. By the time developmental players are on the field the outcome of the game is decided and play calling has been adjusted by both teams to reflect this.

As such, though I graded each player’s performance on every play I charted, I do not have the kind of information I would need to make a prediction about how these players would perform as starters. Rather, this footage is useful to gauge a player’s potential should they develop fully, as well as to inform off season roster management decisions made by the coaching staff.

There were four developmental players at the Ducks three defensive line positions who saw enough snaps to be worthy of commentary: #91 Johnny Bowens III, #52 Ben Roberts, #58 A’Mauri Washington, and #99 Terrance Green. A fifth player, #93 My’Keil Gardner, did see the field briefly but only recorded a single assisted tackle; I did not find any useful clips that were illustrative of his abilities, so will reserve comment on him.

Roberts, Washington, and Green generally lined up at one of the defensive tackle positions while Roberts lined up at end. Indeed, Roberts sometimes played out of a two point stance. Oregon lost three interior defensive linemen along with longtime stalwart Brandon Dorlus at defensive end to graduation and the NFL. Incoming Houston transfer Ja’Maree Caldwell has the build of an interior player, so I suspect Washington and Roberts will rotate with him and returning starter Keyon Ware-Hudson at the tackle positions while Green continues to develop as a reserve. This would leave playing time in the rotation for Bowers behind returning starter Jordan Burch at end.

Washington was the player who jumped out the most on film and I expect to see him in the rotation this fall.

Reminder: you can right click the video the alter the playback speed:

  1. (0:00) - Roberts is in a 3-technique position toward the top of the screen. He is driven backwards and allows one of the two linemen blocking him to release to the middle LB. If the Cardinal QB follows his lead blocker he gets the first down and then some. As it is he runs directly into a wall of bodies and barely makes the line to gain.
  2. (0:10) - This play encapsulates the mint front philosophy of spill and kill to defend the run. Roberts is again lined as a 3-technique to the bottom of the screen. He and the three defensive linemen hold their ground and occupy interior gaps. Linebackers #22 Soelle and #26 Jackson read the blockers and make sure there is nowhere to run between the tackles. This “spills” the back to the outside where #7 Stephens comes down from his safety position to “kill” the play with a solid tackle.
  3. (0:23) - It is Washington’s turn at the 3-technique spot to the bottom of the screen while Roberts is playing nose tackle between the center and guard. Washington does an impressive job to shed his blocker and get to the ball carrier, but he doesn’t wrap up and the play results in an explosive run.
  4. (0:35) - Washington start’s at nose tackle to the right of the center with Roberts as a 3-tech to the offense’s left, but before the snap Roberts shifts so there are now big bodies in each of the A-gaps. Roberts holds his ground against a double team and Washington sheds his single blocker to make the stop.
  1. (0:00) - Green didn’t have any negative grades on my tally sheet, but he was also the least frequently seen interior lineman. His sparse use probably says more about him than the limited game film available. He showed flashes of potential though, such as on this play where he is lined up as a 4i to the top of the screen. He displays excellent two-gap fundamentals to shed his blocker and make the tackle.
  2. (0:11) - It is very late into another home blowout later in the season in this clip. Green is now in a 3-tech position to the bottom of the screen, the perfect place to be when the Cal linemen in front of him pull to the opposite side of the field. The center probably wouldn’t reach him even if he didn’t have to worry about #22 Soelle blitzing through the A-gap, so Green can pursue down the line of scrimmage to find the running back.
  3. (0:18) - Bowens is in a two point stance to the top of the screen here. He stuffs the run after the hand off, but I still put this play down in the minus column on my tally sheet. He turns his hips and crashes on the running back despite being the end man on his side of the line of scrimmage. This leaves an alley wide open for the QB had he kept the ball, as the Viking himself indicates at the end of the play. The proper thing to do is slow play the mesh to muddy the quarterback’s read and let his team mates deal with the hand off.
  4. (0:27) - A couple of weeks later Bowens shows much greater situational awareness on this play where he lines up as a defensive tackle to the bottom of the screen. He keeps his head up and sheds his blocker when he sees the shovel pass develop.

The Ducks use a “Jack” outside linebacker in their defensive structure under Dan Lanning that operates primarily as a pass rush specialist. In 2023, the staff gambled that true freshman #10 Matayo Uiagalelei and redshirt freshman #32 Emar’rion Winston could provide an effective starting rotation at this spot. The gamble paid off with noticeably more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than the year before. Behind these two #17 freshman Blake Purchase rotated in relief of the starters occasionally and saw extensive work in garbage time. Also seeing the field during garbage time was true freshman #29 Ashton Porter. Purchase has work to do in the weight room and refining his game, but I would expect to see him rotated in with the starters more frequently this fall. Porter can provide an emergency reserve as he continues to develop.

  1. (0:00) - Purchase is unblocked off the line toward the bottom of the screen here. As Hawai`i’s H-back comes around he ducks underneath rather than engaging the blocker’s inside shoulder. This leaves the H-back free to outflank #21 Martin and the QB gets to the edge.
  2. (0:11) - Now to the top of the screen, Purchase is once again the defender being read to determine whether the QB hands off or keeps the ball. This time he stays wide as the running back moves laterally, so the QB takes it himself. The athleticism needed to recover and tackle the quarterback from this position is extremely impressive, especially as there is a hole in the middle of the defense that could be exploited if Purchase cannot make this play.
  3. (0:22) - It is third and long so Oregon has its pass rush personnel in. Porter has his hand in the turf toward the top of the screen as a defensive tackle. He shows great strength to shed a block and make the tackle when Cal runs the ball to burn away the last of the clock.
  4. (0:41) - I didn’t have any errors for Porter on my tally sheet, but once again that is mostly due to a very small sample size. He is lined up as a strongside outside linebacker this time at the bottom of the screen. His strength is once again in evidence, and he uses good hand placement to shed his blocker and track this play to the outside.

The strongside linebacker in the mint front structure used by the Ducks is most commonly on the field against the offense’s heavy personnel, such as two tight end sets. The position appeared more frequently than might have been anticipated last year with some additional substitution packages used by the defense. Starter Jake Shipley transferred to North Texas, but freshman Tatum Tuioti rotated in frequently and looks to be the starter. Behind them, and only seeing garbage time snaps, was true freshman #56 Jaeden Moore. With the graduation of Mase Funa, It will be interesting to see if Moore becomes the primary rotational player behind Tuioti. Porter also saw some snaps on the strong side and given the depth at the “Jack” position could see some time at strong side backer as well.

  1. (0:00) - Moore is the end man on the line to the top of the screen. Perhaps the oldest adage in football is “low man wins,” and the Vikings’ tight end gets underneath him and drives him backwards. Fortunately the rest of the Ducks’ front is immovable and there is no gap for the running back to exploit.
  2. (0:09) - This time Moore plays with proper leverage and hand placement. He is able to shed his blocker and pursue the ball from the backside to stop this run cold with a little help from his friends.

The Ducks generally rotated three starters in their two inside linebacker positions, with junior baseball player Bryce Boettcher and junior transfer Connor Soelle serving as backups when injuries kept the starters off the field. Jamal Hill has graduated, leaving one of the rotational spots up for grabs. A redshirt freshman this past season, #26 Devon Jackson showcased elite athleticism during garbage time this fall. He still needs to polish his game, but I think he will be a part of the starting rotation this coming season. Boettcher and Soelle should continue to provide experienced reserves. I suspect true freshman #54 Jerry Mixon continues to see only garbage time snaps.

  1. (0:00) - Mixon only came in very late in games long after all the offense’s starters were on the bench. This meant he had a very limited sample size, and this clip is the only negative play I have for him on my tally sheet. He is in a tough position isolated against the lead blocker, but his hesitation means the collision occurs further downfield than it had to and costs the defense a couple of yards.
  2. (0:09) - Inside linebackers are primary pass defenders in the mint defense. Mixon shows good coverage skills here against a slot receiver, sticking to his man and tackling the catch for a short gain.
  3. (0:20) - Jackson actually had the highest error rate of any defender I studied for this project. Based on the film though, I don’t ascribe this to any lack of ability. Rather he was usually one of the first defenders subbed in on defense. This meant he had more chances to make errors than most other players I was tracking. He was also often up against the offense’s starters rather than backups. On this play he is the inside linebacker to the top of the screen. He shows his elite pursuit speed, but needs to attack the blocker’s inside shoulder to spill this run so Stephens has the shortest possible route to come down from his safety position to meet the ball carrier. As it is, the Cardinal running back has a cut back lane he takes advantage of for a decent gain.
  4. (0:30) - This a perfect example of the kind of talent Jackson brings to the team. Liberty’s QB has an open escape lane and nothing but green grass in front of him. Jackson chases down the former 4-star recruit and Tennessee Volunteer in the open field to force a throw away.

The greatest intrigue going into next season for the defense is in the secondary. However, much like the developmental receivers, it was a struggle to find illustrative clips of the corners and safeties. It is very difficult to track the entire secondary from typical broadcast angles, meaning the best players in the secondary are usually the ones who are never in the shot. Added to this, Oregon kept a very shallow rotation in the secondary until deep into garbage time.

The Ducks have two rotational starters returning at outside corner and one at nickel. The staff was clearly not satisfied with their options at the cornerback spots and brought in three corners via the transfer portal. That is enough for an entire two-deep, so I do not expect any of the developmental players who saw time at corner to see significant reps next season. Of the developmental players I have on film, true freshmen #15 Solomon Davis and #16 Rodrick Pleasant lined up exclusively at outside corner while sophomore #14 Khamari Terrell was primarily at nickel (who did not see the field after the first few games of the season, possibly due to injury but I have no confirmation of this) and true freshman #27 Daylen Austin had reps both on the outside and at nickel. Of this group, Pleasant was the player who flashed the most upside.

  1. (0:00) - Davis is isolated at the very bottom of the screen in a challenging position against a taller receiver. His best hope is to get his head turned quickly so he can time his jump to get his arms between the receiver’s hands when the ball arrives. As it is, he is boxed out and gets burned for Hawai`i’s only touchdown of the game.
  2. (0:14) - Davis is at the very top of the screen, man-to-man against his receiver. He affects the route before the ball is released and gets his hands away just in time. Though it certainly looks from the clip that the official has called pass interference, the only penalty announced by the referee was a late hit on the quarterback.
  3. (0:25) - The only eligible receiver to Pleasant’s side of the field toward the bottom of the screen is a tight end, so he is in an unusual position for an outside corner. He takes a step too far to the inside and leaves the cutback lane open, though he does show impressive recovery speed to help make the tackle.
  4. (0:35) - This was the most exciting play I studied throughout this entire project because it shows two of the Ducks’ developmental defenders succeeding against the Trojans’ starters. Pleasant is in man coverage against USC’s most productive receiver in terms of touchdowns at the very top of the screen on this 2-point conversion attempt. Purchase is lined up in a two point stance on the interior of the line of scrimmage. Once the ball is snapped, Purchase loops around #1 Jordan Burch and flushes Caleb Williams to the short side of the field. Williams pulls off one of his trademark improvisations, and though his receiver makes the difficult catch he can’t get into the end zone with Pleasant stuck to him like jasmine on, well, you know…
  1. (0:00) - Austin is playing over the slot receiver at the top of the screen on this play. He is giving up too much cushion here, especially with Soelle blitzing so there is no inside help. The slant route is wide open and leads to an easy completion.
  2. (0:10) - Though Austin did see some snaps at nickel later in the year, this play where he is on the outside is his best of the season. He stays in phase with the receiver down the sideline and turns his head in time to make a play on the ball.
  3. (0:25) - Terrell had more garbage time snaps at nickel than any other defender. Here he is defending the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen. There is no reason to be backing away from the line to gain on third and long when the safety is moving to the deep middle of the field. Worse, he slips when the receiver makes his cut and the Vikings get an easy conversion.
  4. (0:34) - At nickel again, this time to the top of the screen, Terrell diagnoses this screen pass immediately. He reacts quickly, keeps outside leverage against the blocker, and is even able to assist with the tackle.

Oregon was very thin at safety last season and have lost no less than 5 players from the 2023 roster. Bryan Addison stepped away from the team after the first few weeks of the season, so his transfer (to UCLA) was expected. True freshman Daymon David only got a handful of garbage time snaps and he entered the portal as well. The Ducks also knew two of the three rotational starters they used last season would graduate, hence bringing in two experienced safeties via transfer.

What seems to have been an unexpected development was the departure of freshman Cole Martin to Arizona State. Martin was the first developmental defensive back to come off the bench in all the games I charted. It would have made sense for him, returning starter Tysheem Johnson, and the two transfers to be the planned four player rotation for 2024 while other young players continued to develop. While there were three young safeties listed on the 2023 depth chart in true freshmen #31 Kodi DeCambra, #20 Colin Gill, and #19 Tyler Turner, Turner is the only one of the three I have any footage of. I expect the coaches will look to add at least one, and probably two, experienced safeties from the transfer portal in the spring window. Austin was moved around more than any other young defensive back, so it might also be an option to have him take reps at safety for depth.

  1. (0:00) - Turner is over the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen. While an errant throw results in an incompletion, Turner is in position to tackle the catch and stop the receiver short of the line to gain. This is the only outstanding clip, for good or ill, I have for Turner given how few snaps he was on the field for.

You can find my review of the offense’s developmental players here.