Posted on November 25, 2020
Perhaps more than most of us realized or attributed proper credit to, the graduation of linebackers Troy Dye, Bryson Young, and La’Mar Winston, combined with the COVID opt-outs of defensive backs Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham, and Brady Breeze, has left the Oregon defense with gaping voids for which there appears to be no immediate solutions.
Unlike 2019, shoddy tackling, disorganized play in the intermediate and deep portions of the middle of the field, and a stunning lack of penetration and pass rush from the Ducks’ front seven has come to define this Oregon defense through the team’s first three games.
Add in injuries to Oregon’s pair of five-star freshmen in Justin Flowe (knee) and Noah Sewell (ankle), one of the few bright spots for the defense this season, and it’s hard not to wonder if the entire defensive unit is on the verge of coming apart at the seams.
Though Flowe’s long-term status this season appears grim, the Ducks did receive a bit of good news Monday when Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal revealed that Sewell was at practice and appears “normal” as he and the team begin preparations for Friday’s game at Oregon State.
That’s a 180-degree turn from the immediate sideline diagnosis of Sewell this past Saturday, as the freshman laid on the turf inside Autzen Stadium in obvious pain after being rolled up during a sequence in the third quarter against UCLA. Sewell was eventually helped to his feet by trainers and loaded onto a cart to undergo further evaluation.
Cristobal told members of the media after the game that it appeared as if Sewell avoided catastrophic injury, though offered little more in terms of a timeline for recovery.
The fact Sewell is back on the field and competing in practice less than 48 hours later feels remarkable, but in many ways, it also demonstrates the razor-thin tight rope the Oregon defense is walking with four more games expected to be played. From the jump, Sewell has been the phenom he was widely expected to be coming from Orem High School in Utah.
With just two starts to his name, Sewell is currently tied for fifth on the team in total tackles (13) – four off the lead – while ranking first in sacks (2.0) and tied for first in tackles for loss (3.0) with Kayvon Thibodeaux.
That, plus the fumble he forced that was recovered by Verone McKinley which helped set up an Oregon touchdown on the very next play, is considerable production to lose if Sewell is unavailable for any extended period of time.
Verone McKinley played keep away to recover the fumble!
What a heads up play 🤯 pic.twitter.com/QoN74PLPAL
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 21, 2020
Senior Dru Mathis and redshirt sophomore MJ Cunningham currently serve as the immediate backups to both Sewell and veteran Isaac Slade-Matautia, though it’s already evident that neither comes close to replicating not only the production, but the presence and versatility that a player of Sewell’s caliber brings to the field.
The latter two items alone change the complexion of Oregon’s defense, giving it teeth and a ferocious quality that can be difficult for opponents to contend with.
In fairness, even with Sewell in the lineup, the Duck defense has been much maligned. Yes, the flurry of turnovers they generated against the Bruins last Saturday were desperately welcomed and proved critical to Oregon pulling out a victory, though they were necessary in spite of the defense itself.
Similar to the on-field presence and importance of players like Thibodeaux, Slade-Matautia, Deommodore Lenoir, and Mykael Wright, it’s becoming more and more obvious with each passing week that Noah Sewell is emerging as a class of player that can only be described as a difference maker.
And like those players—and as far as the current iteration of this defense is concerned—Sewell is a singular talent that this unit simply cannot afford to do without.
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