Oregon’s Mystery Men Linebacking Corps Will “Sink to the level of its preparation” – and that’s a good thing

Here’s what we know about the 2013 version of Oregon’s defensive line (Hart, Keliikipi, Heimuli, Armstead, Buckner):  the group is likely top-ten nationally.

Here’s what we know about the 2013 version of Oregon’s defensive backfield (Ifo, Patterson, Mitchell, Hill, Jackson, Dargan):  the group is likely top-five nationally.

Here’s what we know about the 2013 version of Oregon’s  middle linebacking group (Coleman, Bafaro, Cassell, Hardrick, Malone, Walker):  the group…….has linebackers in it.

As is abundantly obvious to we Duck fans, we are not very familiar with the new crop of “mystery men” at the linebacker position.  All we know is that Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso are gone, we’ve got this crew of young guys waiting to take over, and we don’t know very much about them.  In true college fandom fashion, when we don’t know much about something, the rule is to FREAK. OUT.

But please, don’t be like this guy.  Let’s look at our linebacker depth chart with some perspective and logic. (And remember that we also all FREAKED OUT when both Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger graduated after 2010.  Clay, Alonso, and Dewitt Stuckey performed as well or better than that duo in 2011.)

Perhaps my favorite Chip Kelly quote during his time at Oregon was the following: “You don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your preparation.”  Pursuant to that advice, the message I hope to Duck fans is this:  we don’t have to hope that our linebackers will “rise to the occasion;” we just have to trust that they’ll do what they’ve already done on the field (albeit in small doses), i.e. that they’ll “sink” to what they’ve already been prepared to do over the past several seasons.

Now, in full disclosure – we haven’t seen redshirt freshman Brett Bafaro or junior college-transfer Joe Walker play in a Duck uniform, but the quality of play already demonstrated by Tyson Coleman, Rodney Hardrick, Rahim Cassell, and Derrick Malone should comfort Duck fans.  They’ll continue to do what they’ve already done.  Let’s look closer —

Above, we see then-redshirt freshman Tyson Coleman playing vs. Cal last season from his SAM spot (though reports have come out of Eugene this spring that he may play middle linebacker in the fall).  We see Cal run a handoff-sweep away from Coleman, and he holds his position, aka “stays at home”, in case of a change of direction.

Above, we see the reverse pitch.  So does Coleman.  We see his body already making the transition to attack upfield at the reverse ballcarrier.  This is patient, smart stuff from a young linebacker.  Now all the reverse ballcarrier needs is ANY semblance of a block on Coleman from his quarterback, Allan Bridgford, and the Bears may get a big gain.

We see above how quickly Coleman gets upfield to respond to the reverse.  We also see him cut underneath and obviate the quarterback’s attempt to block him.  Coleman’s quick reaction time and ability to out-race the “blocker” creates potential for a BIG defensive play.  (I put “blocker” in quotes because: if Allan Bridgford blocks no one in some empty woods, was he really a blocker?)

Bridgford’s eyes are locked on Coleman, who beat him and every other offensive player upfield on a trick play that could have at least given Cal some momentum.  Coleman completely blows up the play for an 11-yard loss.

Let’s shift our attention to Rodney Hardrick, above, vs. USC in 2012.  At the snap, Hardrick recognizes the basic ISO running play coming straight at him.  My favorite part about this frame?  Look at Hardrick’s body lean! Right at the snap, he’s going full-speed straight at the ISO play: no doubt, no delay.

The yellow arrow above points to Hardrick, who’s already at the line of scrimmage, holding off an offensive lineman’s block and eyeing the the USC ballcarrier.

Look above at our young inside linebacker, playing big minutes in a huge game in the second half at USC, laying a big hit on the USC running back three yards deep on an ISO play.  That’s beautiful stuff.

Our third subject is Rahim Cassell, in the yellow circle above, against Washington in 2012.  He sees the zone read coming at him, and knows that the RB has the option of choosing his direction based on the blocking available.

Boom!  Look above at Cassell stepping up to seal the edge against a Husky offensive lineman.  This ensures that the RB can’t sneak inside of Cassell, but can’t get outside of Cassell either.

And would you look at that!  Cassell stuffs the Husky lineman so far inside that he closes the hole down, and makes the tackle on the running back after minimal gain.  A textbook play by the young linebacker.

Finally, we’ve got Derrick Malone, above, as a freshman in the opening minutes of the game against the Huskies in 2011.  Malone sees Keith Price running away from him, but also sees the UW offensive linemen releasing the pass rushers and setting up a screen.  See how Malone is already shifting his weight back away from the direction the play is going?  That takes discipline and smarts.

Above, we see Price spinning around to make the screen throw to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, UW’s all-everything tight end.  Bad news for ASJ – Malone’s already got a bead on him.

We see above that the ball is almost in ASJ’s hands, but Malone is within three yards with a not-so-agile Husky chasing him.  Price’s misdirection setting up the screen didn’t exactly yield a great result for the Huskies.

BLAM.  Malone makes contact six yards deep on the screen play, a huge defensive play early in the game, and a testament to Malone’s instincts, discipline, and speed very early in his career.  (If you want to see video of this highlight, go here.)

As I said at the outset, Ducks fans needn’t worry if the new crop of linebackers will “rise to the occasion.”  Even if they only “sink to the level of their preparation,” they’ve already made big plays in an Oregon uniform, even in the limited snaps they got playing behind Clay and Alonso.  I can’t wait for the fall and to see what these linebackers can really do now that they’ll get a bulk of the defensive snaps.

Oh, how we love to learn about our Beloved Ducks!  Until next time, a big “Go Ducks” to each of you!

Sean Goodbody
Oregon Football Analyst for FishDuck.com
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo from Video

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Sean Goodbody

Sean Goodbody

With a high school defensive-coordinator-turned-offensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach as a father, Sean Goodbody has always had an interest in the X's and O's of football. He played two years with FCS University of Pennsylvania as a fullback, but having grown up in a football family Sean has spent much of his life studying the game--reviewing game film, designing offensive and defensive schemes, and game-planning upcoming opponents. Sean has coached running backs, option quarterbacks, linebackers, defensive linemen, and safeties for his dad's high school program. He has been a rabid Duck fan since meeting his significant other Maeve (an Oregon grad). Residing in Grand Junction, CO, Sean and Maeve both work as attorneys while cheering on their beloved Ducks from the Rockies.

  • Excellent info on our beloved DUCK’s, and they will be amazing this year under Coach Helfrich, Barring injury this Team should and could beat any Team from the SEC in a Championship Game this year. I believe we are all in for a RECORD Championship Year we will all remember for the rest of our lives. GO DUCKS WTFN!

  • good report on the backers so far, but for all the good plays Ty Coleman made last year, he made some very questionable ones too. A couple of where he flat out whiffed on tackles with his head down, and one glaring play (I forget who it was against) where he quit on a play that he easily could have made, and should have made, and yet the RB went right by him for a score as TC just jogged out of bounds.

    There is no question TC has the talent to play inside or outside. The question is whether he can be consistent, and not take plays off. As other players have said (Dion Jordan, Washington, Buckner, etc.) the coaching staff wants effort. They don’t mind so much if players make mistakes going flat out at 100% all the time. They mind a lot if you make mistakes and you are taking plays off, or not giving 100% all the time.

    • Bill

      Clay and Kiko whiffed on some tackles too, especially Clay in the Stanford game. While he had 20 tackles, the 3 or 4 he missed were killers that would have stopped drives or given the Cardinal 3rd and long situations. LB’s are going to miss a tackle form time to time, especially with the amount of skill position talent in the Pac 12.

      • oregon111

        Matthews whiffed on a sh!p load of tackles, but he got much better at tackling as a senior

        new LBs just need to know how to read and react…

        until they play a powerhouse team, then I have some questions about size

    • SeanG

      Dirk, thanks for your comment. I agree these players have a ways to go, but as Bill stated, even vets whiff. I remember a play in particular in the 2012 Rose Bowl when Kiko shot through the hole, met Montee Ball about 5 yards deep, and tried to just obliterate him without wrapping up. Ball bounced off him and got like 7-8 yards. Players are going to make mistakes!

      But I agree with you: we’ve got to have consistent effort. Reason I have faith in that? Look at the leaders on that defense: Hart, BoLo, Ifo, B. Jackson: guys who have gotten it done from start to finish in their careers. The LBs will follow the guys who’ve been there before. And the LBs were the understudies of Clay, Kiko, and Stuckey. Who better to follow?

      Thanks again, and GODUCKS.

      • the whiffing wasn’t the point, all players miss tackles. Neither is making mistakes, or talent, It’s the giving 100% effort, 100% of the time when on the field that is the question.

  • hoboduck

    Great read Sean. You have reinforced my opinion that we should be just fine this year at LB. Our young crew has been given enough game minutes last year to bring it on this year. BTY, don’t you just hate it when fans, from the stands or the comfort of their living rooms, say someone was not giving 100% effort. How can you tell??? There could be many factors why a play did not go as planned. However, at this level of football, I do not think that a player who is not giving 100% would not be in the game. They would be riding the pine for quite sometime. CK knew how to take care of business.

    Again great read.

    Go Ducks WTD

    • Hobo…well from the perspective of a person that coached the game for a couple decades, and watches video’s, you can easily tell. how do you think that the Oregon coaches see problems? Watching films/video’s. How do you think fish and his staff see issues, or discover new wrinkles, films/video’s.
      you are incredibly naïve if you don’t think some players take plays off.

  • GratefulD_420

    Good Stuff Sean, this is where the rotation and playing so MANY plays in games (+ so many reps in practice) really begins to pay off!!!! Our bench is highly experienced and ready to step in.

    @ Dirk Richards…… really?? You specifically remember Ty Coleman taking a play off.. yet can’t remember the time, moment or even game? I watched all the games and watched most several times…. I don’t remember really ever seeing OREGON players taking plays off.

    Bottom line is if it’s true.. any player not putting in 100% will see reduced to ZERO playing time. So no worries. Next man up.

    • SeanG

      I’ll agree with Dirk Richards here that “taking plays off” is a big worry, and that players DO play with suboptimal effort at ALL levels.

      However, I’d prefer to refer to the problem not as “taking plays off,” but instead “not finishing plays.” As a former (small-time) college player, I’ll tell you that every college player will make the good play that’s easy to make: i.e. you block your guy for 2-3 seconds, you make the easy tackle, you cover the easy receiver route. The dividing line between starter college players and star college players is going BEYOND the basic responsibilities of your position. That includes running to the ball to the whistle (on both defense and offense), finishing a block (20 yards downfield or into the ground for linemen, out of bounds for perimeter players), carrying out the fake, running the full pass route every time.

      From what I see, “finishing” is firmly imbedded in Ducks’ culture. The proof? Taylor Hart taking a pursuit route and making tackles 25 yards downfield. Jake Fisher chasing DAT and scoring a TD against Tenn Tech (and linemen generally always being there to pick up a RB in the end zone – ever notice that?). Josh Huff REPEATEDLY pushing CBs all the way out of bounds. Young receivers running their routes 25 yards downfield as a diversion even though the running play is only a short gain.

      But “finishing plays” is not automatic; players must constantly focus on it and make the effort. That’s why the “Next Man In” system is so great: bust your butt and don’t worry about getting tired. That’s why we have 14 more players behind you: so you can rest.

      Now, talking about it and doing it is another question for our new LBs. But I’m a big logician, so here goes my logic: I know our D-Line group gets it. I know our secondary gets it. I know our quasi D-end group (BoLo, T. Washington) gets it. I know our LBs last year got it. To think that our new LBs won’t “finish plays,” we’d have to assume that this new crop of LBs wasn’t paying attention to the effort back then, and won’t follow the leaders at other positions now. I like the odds on the other side.

      Keep commenting and keep the discussion going! I love the philosophical discussions of football: that’s why I write for this site.