SAN FRANCISCO — Jalen Jelks didn’t have to return for his senior season at Oregon, let alone end it by playing in the Redbox Bowl.
The Ducks defensive end would’ve undoubtedly been drafted, likely in the first two rounds, had he chosen to enter last year’s NFL Draft after racking up 58 tackles with 15 for loss including 6.5 sacks. But Jelks returned, intent on improving and also trying to help Oregon return to being a top program.
“I really wanted to get a better opportunity to showcase my talents and my versatility,” he said. “Having an opportunity to work with (outside linebackers) coach (Cort) Dennison and (defensive line) coach Joe (Salave’a), I mean they click so well together. We’ll be in the middle of practice and they’ll tell me hop in inside or outside, so it doesn’t really matter. Tried to showcase my talents and help my team as best as I can.”
Looking back at Jelks’ decision from a year ago and assessing whether he benefited, in terms of his future, looking only at his production could lead to misguided conclusions. Statistics can only reveal so much in football and without the proper context, numbers can easily be misinterpreted.
A first-team All-Pac-12 honoree by the league’s coaches, Jelks enters Monday’s bowl game with 54 tackles, most among Pac-12 defensive linemen, with 7.5 for loss including 3.5 sacks.
A sharp drop in tackles for loss isn’t optimal, but Jelks wasn’t always being asked to pin his ears back and rush the passer. In fact, it was usually quite the opposite.
The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Jelks, Oregon’s lightest defensive lineman, played his senior season out of his natural position, mostly as a 4i technique defensive end. Jelks was lined up directly over or to the inside shoulder against offensive tackles, who usually outweighed him by at least 50 pounds, and was responsible for the gap between them and the guard.
In the NFL, players who fill that role in 3-4 defenses usually tip the scales at over 290 pounds if not well over 300.
“At times I think those guys, once they go to the next level they’re going to be asked to do a couple of different things. I recognize that,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “4i you see at the next level are in the 320 range or whatnot, 6-foot-6, 6-7. He’s just so strong and he’s so versatile and he’s so athletic that he’s been effective everywhere we’ve put him. We’ve put him as a shade; we stood him as a nose in pass rush sometimes on third down. We’ve done a lot of things with him.
“We just think he’s that kind of player that regardless of whether he fits the mold of that position or not that we have to get him on the field and play him sometimes even if it doesn’t quite fit the specs of the position. But he’s been really effective and we’ve been extremely pleased with everything he’s done.”
Leading up to this year’s draft, where WalterFootball.com currently has Jelks as a second-round pick, don’t be surprised when evaluators project Jelks at his true position, a 6 technique 4-3 defensive end or perhaps a wide 9 as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, which would allow him to use him speed more around the edge.
There’s a big difference in the trenches between playing the inside of a tackle and filling the B gap when they can get help from a guard and going one-on-one to the outside edge or in the C gap between the tackle and tight end.
That’s where Jelks will make his living. He knew that a year ago. but he came back and was willing to play out of position anyway.
“My natural position is defensive end, somebody on the edge,” Jelks siad. “I can still play inside I can still play outside at the same time. I would call myself a defensive end. I can play nose, I can play tackle, I can pay end. But I’ve been getting comfortable with outside backer right now working with coach Dennison and making sure I read my keys because that contributes a lot to my plays, reading keys. If you read the wrong thing you might as well mess up and not even be involved in the play. Then when I move inside, when I’m playing D-line, watching their stance, watching their hand gestures, calls, little stuff like that, try to better my game inside because I know those guys are a little bit bigger than I am.”