The Oregon Ducks head into the 2018 season with high expectations after a defensive turnaround in defensive coordinator’s Jim Leavitt‘s first season. However, personnel is the first reason for fans to get excited, on the Ducks, there are breakout players on both offense and defense who look to have a big 2018 and lead Oregon to the top of the Pac-12.
Justin Herbert, QB – 6’6, 225 lbs
An efficient offense begins with an elite starting quarterback, and Oregon might have found theirs in junior Justin Herbert. With a healthy Herbert at the helm, the Ducks rolled to a 6-1 record and averaged over 52 points and 550 yards per game a season ago. Granted, this includes three non-conference games, but when healthy, Herbert has shown a big arm to go with elusiveness in the pocket.
For Oregon to continue their upward momentum and build on a seven-win bowl season a year ago, Herbert will have to stay healthy and shoulder more of the offensive load with Royce Freeman taking snaps in an NFL backfield. He will have the challenge of working with a third offensive coordinator in as many years, but certainly has the arm, pocket presence, and weapons for a big 2018 season.
Penei Sewell, OG – 6′-5, 349 lbs
If the 4-star commit and top prospect out of Utah, Penei Sewell, is able to land a starting job in the fall, the offensive line could be anchored for years to come. Oregon loses three offensive linemen from a year ago, including fifth-round pick Tyrell Crosby, so there are openings on the offensive line, and Sewell could see significant playing time right away. Sewell is rated as the number two guard in the 2018 class and has the potential to open big lanes for the backfield and keep Herbert upright all season long.
Tony Brooks-James, RB – 5’9, 185 lbs
Often overlooked behind four-year starter and bell-cow Royce Freeman, Tony Brooks-James brings a level of speed and elusiveness to the backfield that should not go unnoticed for long. While splitting carries with Kani Benoit as a backfield-by-committee approach behind Freeman, Brooks-James average an impressive 5.6 yards-per-carry, and is the key for shouldering the offensive load with QB Justin Herbert. Brooks-James has to show he can be the every-down back the Ducks are looking for but has the speed and quickness for a monster 2018 season if the chips fall in his favor.
Jordon Scott, DT – 6’1, 335 lbs
Much of the credit for turning around Oregon’s defense (41.4 ppg allowed in 2016, 29 ppg in 2017) and the excitement for the Ducks defense in 2018 falls on the re-signing of defensive coordinator Jim Levitt. The old adage goes, the game is won in the trenches, and sophomore DT Jordan Scott is ready to build off a breakout 2017 season that included a spot on the Freshman All-American team.
Scott finished the 2017 season with 34 tackles, including multiple in each of the last 10 games while clogging up running lanes and freeing up his teammates to make plays around him. With a year of experience under his belt, the sky’s the limit, and Scott has the potential to lead an Oregon defense that is poised to be one of the better ones in the PAC-12.
Jalen Jelks, OLB, DE – 6’6, 252 lbs
Oregon won big when defensive lineman and edge rusher Jalen Jelks turned down the NFL Draft to return to Eugene for his senior year. Projected as a possible second-day pick a year ago, Jelks had a monster 2017 season with 59 tackles, finishing with a team-high 6.5 sacks. Jelks also stood out across the conference, adding a third-best 15 tackles-for-loss as he terrorized opposing backfields from the edge. Jelks was recently named to the All-PAC-12 Second Team following the 2017 season and should boost his draft stock going into the 2019 draft with a huge senior year.
Troy Dye, LB – 6’4, 225
In his third season with the Ducks, defensive anchor Troy Dye could be primed for a big season ahead. The Oregon defense made major strides from where it was two seasons ago to where it is now, and Dye is a big reason why.
The third-year linebacker comes off a sophomore campaign that came with a spot on the All-PAC-12 Second Team and has led the Ducks in tackles each of the last two seasons including 107 tackles last season, good for third best in the PAC-12. According to Pro Football Focus, Dye is the top overall rated linebacker in the PAC-12 with a grade of 87.7 percent, and last season Dye was one of only three FBS players with at least 100 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Dye is a versatile player, can play all over the field, and could have a huge 2018 season as one of the unquestioned leaders of the Oregon defense.