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With growing trend to forgo bowl games, Oregon Ducks’ Jalen Jelks chooses to play: ‘I’d come back a year if I could’

EUGENE — With the trend increasingly becoming for top, draft-eligible players to skip less significant bowl games, few would’ve blamed Jalen Jelks had he skipped the Redbox Bowl, especially since he’s coming off a hamstring injury.

The Oregon senior defensive end, who was a first-team All-Pac-12 honoree by the league’s coaches and leads defensive linemen in the conference with 54 tackles, has little to gain by playing Michigan State. But Jelks doesn’t only want to play in the Dec. 31 bowl game, he’d come back for 2019 if it was an option.

“I want to play more games,” Jelks said Monday after Oregon’s fourth bowl practice. “If I had an opportunity to come back another year I would because you want to be around the team. We kind of set ourselves short and didn’t come up as big as we wanted to. The Redbox Bowl is fun and everything, but I wanted to get out of here with a national championship. I always have that in the back of my mind and that’s always why I want to push myself to be better.”

Projected as a second-round pick by, Jelks, who has 7.5 tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks this season, is taking some risk in playing before training for the NFL Draft, but he truly doesn’t see it that way. Count him among those who has bought in to the vision Mario Cristobal and his staff have for the future.

“I haven’t been around a program like this in a while,” Jelks said, “just the way the coaches are and everything like that and this culture is great. Of course I’d come back a year if I could.”

Cristobal said Jelks and other Oregon seniors deciding to play in the bowl game “means they’re made of the right stuff,” and also getting another opportunity to play well on film.

“To me, I’m more of an old school mentality; I believe that you contributed to a program and you never want to leave it undone and you want to make sure that you finish what you started,” defensive line coach Joe Salavae’a said. “That’s a tribute to Jalen. Jalen has done a lot of things over the years for this program it shows his character. Those guys have tremendous futures ahead of them.

“It’s about having value in something and if these guys didn’t feel wholeheartedly about what we started with coach Cristobal and his staff here, it would be easy to say, ‘well I’m going to pack my bags and carry on,’ but that hasn’t been the case. For that, it says a lot about his leadership and care factor.”

Jelks accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl next month, but after missing the Civil War due to the hamstring injury he suffered against Arizona State, the Redbox Bowl is his primary focus for the next two weeks.

“It kind of sucked watching. It kind of sucked not playing against them; It’s Oregon State, you never get a chance to play against the Beavers again,” Jelks said. “But hopefully I get to take out some frustration against Michigan State.”

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