Oregon takes on Nicholls State just two days from now, so it’s a perfect time to preview the game. I will discuss some key matchups and . . . Oregon scores two touchdowns in 34 seconds!
Wait a second, the game isn’t until Satu . . . Nicholls State – down 91-0 – tries to take a knee but fumbles (minutes after a butt fumble), giving up another TD!!
OK, I’m not going to do a preview. These two teams are about as evenly matched as a group of tanks battling foot soldiers. But that doesn’t mean the game will be meaningless. While players such as Marcus Mariota and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu don’t have much prove against the Colonels, there are some new starters Duck fans want to get to know. Inside linebackers Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick belong in that category, and they have some tank-sized shoes to fill this upcoming season.
The decision to name Malone (redshirt junior) and Hardrick (true junior) starting linebackers was one of the biggest stories from Monday’s release of Oregon’s first depth chart. It wasn’t that surprising to see them earn starting jobs, but considering they’re replacing Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay, people have been focusing on these linebacker spots more than just about any other position. Alonso and Clay made the Pac-12’s Second-Team Defense last season and are currently in NFL training camps (Alonso with Buffalo, Clay just released from Miami). They’re the types of players who spoil fans, causing people to expect similar performances out of their replacements. Inside linebacker is also one of the few positions where the starters aren’t returning to Eugene this season. But other than that, Malone and Hardrick won’t feel any pressure!
So what can we expect from these two? This is a tough question, because new starters (even the Mariotas and De’Anthony Thomases of the world) come wrapped in uncertainty – like presents from someone who doesn’t always give the best gifts.
That said, there is information from the recent and semi-distant past that can inform us about these two junior linebackers.
Both Malone and Hardrick were three-star recruits according to Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN. Three stars in recruiting circles is equivalent to three stars on a five-star movie rating scale – good, not great. But look through the annals of Oregon’s recruiting history and you’ll find dozens of three-star recruits who became starters, sometimes even stars. Alonso and Clay both received that rating, along with Mariota, Kenjon Barner and Casey Matthews. It’s nearly impossible to know which three-star recruits will become successful, but a significant number of them have turned out okay.
Coming out of high school (both went Colton HS), Malone and Hardrick looked like they could become yet another set of stud Oregon linebackers.
Here’s Chip Kelly in 2010 talking about Malone after he committed to Oregon:
“He’s one of those kids that could be like a Spencer Paysinger, that could really blow up and be a 220-pound kid. But when you watch his highlight tape and see him, he’s a real physical presence. I was really surprised at how good of a running back he was. Really a physical presence.”
Malone was a running back and a safety at the time, but Kelly can apparently predict the future, envisioning Malone as a potential inside linebacker who would gain a bunch of weight (Malone has added nearly 20 pounds since 2010). Now that he’s a starter, Malone has a great chance to become an elite “physical presence” this year, which would make Kelly’s optimistic forecasts even more eerily accurate than they already had been.
In this 2011 piece about Hardrick, author Dale Newton compares him to another Oregon linebacker: “You comb through his defensive stats and highlight video,” Newton writes, “and you start to think this kid could be a young Bo Lokombo.”
Oregon coaches obviously feel similarly about these two linebackers or else the pair wouldn’t be starting. However, nobody should feel completely comfortable about Malone and Hardrick’s job security. Not fans, not coaches, not Hardrick or Malone.
Hardrick, especially, has been battling injuries his entire Oregon career. He remained healthy last season, but injuries in 2011 limited him to four games. This spring, both he and Malone missed several practices because they were hurt. They got healthy just in time, and the injuries obviously didn’t cost them too much. It’s never a good sign when starters show even the slightest signs of an injury history, but with expanded roles this season, the odds either player gets hurt will only increase.
Plus, it looks like their backups will be plugged in at a fairly high rate. So even if Malone and Hardrick start, they might not see much more playing time than the guys behind them (Tyson Coleman, Rahim Cassell, Joe Walker, and Tyrell Robinson). Judging by what linebackers coach Don Pellum said recently about the battles at that position, Malone and Hardrick might not even be the starters after Saturday’s game.
“The war is still waging,’’ Pellum said. “I’m excited, because starting on Saturday, it’s going to be a competition starting all over. Guys are still trying to push to get that position.’’
The Nicholls State game might not determine whether Malone and Hardrick can replace Alonso and Clay; it might decide whether or not they can start at all.
Malone and Hardrick might lose their jobs on Saturday – but they can also distance themselves from the pack, like Oregon track stars racing 12-year-olds. The fact that they won hotly-contested starting jobs after battling injuries speaks Spinal Tap-ian volumes. Based on this, and the thousands of glowing words written about Malone and Hardrick, replacing Clay and Alonso might not even be the ceiling for this pair. We’ll have a better sense of their abilities after Saturday’s demolition derby at Autzen.
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