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Development of Oregon’s linebackers crucial for 2014 success

USATSI_7538544_168380293_lowresMaybe this is the year Oregon becomes Linebacker U.

In Kiko Alonso, Dion Jordan and Michael Clay, the Ducks had a great group of linebackers that led an opportunistic defense. Casey Matthews and  Spencer Paysinger before them did as well. Four of these guys made it to the NFL (Clay is a quality control coach with Chip Kelly and the Eagles, while the other four made rosters.) Alonso, out with a knee injury this season, was 2013 NFL defensive rookie of the year.

Guardians of the goal line: The Ducks have to flip the script on Stanford if they want to win the PAC-12 North this season, a challenge that starts with Derrick Malone and the Oregon linebackers (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports).

These guys spearheaded defenses that earned four BCS bowl trips. They led the nation in interceptions in 2012 and had 83 tackles for loss.

Last season the Oregon linebacker group struggled in their absence. TFLs slipped to 70, and the front seven faltered against the run, particularly late in the year as Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State and Texas racked up first downs on the ground.

It was a season of  on-the-job learning  for Rodney Hardrick, Derrick Malone, and Joe Walker, while Danny Mattingly redshirted. Rob Mosely at goducks.com and Andrew Greif of the Oregonian both have features today on the linebackers, with Greif posting up a terrific profile on Mattingly, who says he loves to hit people. The 6-5, 235-lb. redshirt freshman wears Clay’s old number, 46, and he figures to be a key reserve and special teams guy for Don Pellum’s defense this season. Another young player, Torrodney Prevot, gained 24 pounds in the off season, reporting at 230, muscled and quick.

Hardrick and Malone anchored the middle, and did a credible job. Malone paced the team with 105 tackles. Hardrick chipped in 65 while starting all 13 games. They did well, but they have to make more knock-’em-back plays in 2014.

Mattingly could be a break-through star for the Ducks. Greif reported that he trained with a taekwondo  master in high school, to improve his flexibility, focus and quickness. The Oregon coaches stuck to a decision to redshirt last year, to give him the opportunity to grow stronger and learn the defense. He has good size, a lot of athletic ability, and a terrific linebacker attitude.

Christian French is another young player to watch, now a redshirt junior, 6-5, 245. He’s the fastest of Oregon’s linebackers, having appeared in 20 games over the last two seasons. Moseley reported that junior college transfer Eddie Heard had an interception yesterday in practice, and there’s still a chance Johnny Ragin III, who transferred from Cal, will get a hardship waiver from the NCAA, allowing him to play this  year. The Ducks could use the depth after losing four scholarship linebackers to attrition this off season.

Oregon has to be tougher and more physical this season to beat Michigan State, UCLA and Stanford, a challenge that falls squarely on the shoulders of the linebackers and defensive line. The rest of the PAC-12 will take their shots at the Ducks as well. Having this unit gel, improving their recognition, tackling and consistency, is the key piece in the team becoming a complete team, a squad that can withstand the long grind of the season and win big games. If the Ducks want to make good on those national championship aspirations, it starts with the linebackers. The potential is there to have an outstanding group, provided they keep working and stay healthy.

Dale Newton

About Dale Newton

The Ducks Stops Here is a site for opinions, commentary and analysis on Duck football. I've written it since 2010. Reader contributions are welcome and can be submitted at duckstopshere@yahoo.com

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