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Handicapping Oregon's LB Competitons

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Oregon Head coach Mark Helfrich and his defensive coaching staff will be looking to fill three big holes in the Ducks linebacker corps. Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images.
Oregon Head coach Mark Helfrich and his defensive coaching staff will be looking to fill three big holes in the Ducks linebacker corps. Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images.

While the Oregon Ducks are still a few days away from full pads and contact, the question of tackling and making plays at full speed is already being asked within the Oregon program — and by Duck Nation: Who is ready to get physical and make plays for the defense at three open linebacker spots?

It's a key issue for an Oregon defense that returns its secondary intact and boasts a nice blend of experienced big bodies up front.

Oregon bid farewell to Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan from a pretty good 2012 defense. Who will take their place alongside returning strongside linebacker Boseko Lokombo? The candidates are many, partly because of playing time a year ago and partly because injuries in the spring offered opportunity to new faces — some of whom took advantage and opened some eyes.

The biggest question for the linebackers is who replaces quarterback terror Dion Jordan in the hybrid DE-OLB position? Most people have junior Tony Washington penciled into Jordan's old spot. At 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, Washington has better strength than you think and is cat quick. He lettered a year ago and started for Jordan once, so he's not a complete unknown. Washington won't get the job by default, though. Sophomore Christian French had a good spring and with a little more consistency could legitimately push Washington for the spot. At this point, Cody Carriger, a redshirt freshman who has shown flashes, backs them up.

The Ducks got a lot of production from Jordan for two years and would like production from the position again. Jordan saved the Ducks' bacon with big plays on more than a few occasions. Finding that kind of player would help this defense tremendously. All eyes will be on Washington and French as fall camp proceeds.

On the weak side, Derrick Malone seems to be the consensus front-runner heading into spring, but an injury curtailed any plans that were in place. So, the vast majority of his reps went elsewhere (junior college transfer Joe Walker and redshirt freshman Brett Bafaro). Walker, in particular, opened a lot of eyes with his play at the spot. Bafaro, now comfortable with the system, also showed signs that playing time won't be foreign to him as his career progresses at Oregon. Again, the spot is far from settled with Walker certainly ready to push Malone for reps and, ultimately, the starting job.

The middle linebacker spot was supposed to be Rodney Hardrick heading into spring workouts, but he got hurt and that opened the door for Tyson Coleman to take the reps. He looked good while doing it, but then suffered a broken foot and watched Rahim Cassell step in and get a ton of experience the rest of spring workouts. Coleman probably is the frontrunner heading into fall camp, but there's little doubt that Hardrick has plenty of expectations following him around and that Cassell took advantage of his opportunities this spring. This could very well be a three-headed monster through the first half of camp.

With the departure of Clay, Alonso and Jordan, Oregon is missing a ton of production, leadership and emotion. Fortunately, they've got a nice little fountain of linebacker depth they can dip into and find the kind of replacements they seek. And that's not even counting what several true freshmen might bring to the party: Torrodney Prevot, Danny Mattingly and Tyrell Robinson.

Oregon needs to answer its questions at linebacker not with more questions, but with solid and productive answers from the opening whistle of the season. With four starters confidently in place, the depth-building will only help once injuries start to occur. The Ducks defense has the makings of another stellar group. If the linebackers make the jump to the same level as the secondary and defensive front, it could be a special group.