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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