Courtney: Is the Linebacking Corp Oregon’s Deepest Group?

The seventh in a series of the prevailing storylines at each position group for the Ducks

Posted on April 15, 2021

Chris Courtney
  By Chris Courtney of WFOD for SportsPac12

Iith spring practices underway at Oregon, WFOD is taking the time to examine the prevailing storylines at each position group, while exploring how these questions could impact the Ducks entering the fall.

Today, our Spring Storylines series continues with a look at the linebackers.

Oregon LB Isaac Slade-Matautia | 247Sports

Though optimism was high given the tremendous influx of top-shelf freshman talent that entered the program prior to the 2020 season, questions abounded as to how the Ducks would replace the veteran leadership—if not production—that was lost with the graduation of Troy DyeLa’Mar Winston, and Bryson Young following the 2019 season.

Those questions proved prescient, as it took several weeks for the Oregon defense to come close to even modestly resembling the 2019’s stellar defensive unit.

Funa

Sure, the Ducks welcomed back starting inside linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia who quietly emerged as a linchpin for the Oregon defense during their run to the Rose Bowl two seasons ago. But the calming presence of Young, Winston, and most of all, Dye, simply could not be replicated by their talented, yet inexperienced, replacements in Mase FunaAdrian Jackson, and five-star freshman Noah Sewell.

The 2020 season was particularly up and down for the trio of Slade-Matautia, Funa, and Jackson.

Despite playing significant roles on defense in 2019, the performance of Slade-Matautia and Funa somewhat plateaued in 2020, as neither player appeared ready to step forward and take up the mantle left by their graduated senior counterparts.

Though both players finished in the top six on the team in tackles (Slade-Matautia tied for first, Funa sixth) and in the top three in tackles for loss (both players tied for third in this category), both similarly appeared to be a step slow in the second year under then-defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.

Jackson

Meanwhile, Jackson, a player expected to have a potential breakout season in 2020 coming off a season-ending injury before the 2019 season began, never really got going, appearing in just four games before another injury curtailed his comeback bid.

In fact, of last year’s starters at linebacker, it was Sewell who revealed himself to be the most productive member of this unit.

The highly-touted true freshman tied for the team lead in tackles (45), tied for second in sacks (2.0), and finished second in tackles for loss (6.5) en route to being named the Pac-12 Conference Freshman of the Year by the league’s coaches while earning placement on multiple Freshman All-American teams.

Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell | 247Sports

All four players return in 2021 to give Ducks first-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter an uber-talented starting group of linebackers to work with, in addition to Kayvon Thibodeaux, who’s virtually peerless pass-rushing skills figure to be put to use from a variety of different positions this coming fall.

With an offseason that we presume will include a full allotment of spring practices to go along with a complete offseason strength and conditioning program, the expectation is for marked improvement from this group come the start of the season in September.

However, should anyone from this projected starting group falter, DeRuyter and the Ducks have some intriguing options to fall back on.

Flowe

Chief among those options is freshman Justin Flowe.

Ranked as the second highest-rated recruit in program history behind Thibodeaux, Flowe’s debut season at Oregon practically ended before it even started, as a knee injury suffered following the season-opener vs. Stanford shelved the former five-star prospect for the remainder of the year.

Still, his looming presence on the depth chart despite having missed a chunk of the spring to rehab his injured knee is not to be overlooked.

When healthy, Flowe has the potential to be one of the most dynamic and intimidating forces on defense for the Ducks, teaming with Sewell to give Oregon arguably the best young pair of inside linebackers in college football, full stop.

Alongside Flowe amongst the reserves at inside linebacker is senior Dru Mathis, a player with starting experience who has appeared in 13 games over the course of his Oregon career and provides leadership for a group that has still been lightly battle-tested, relatively speaking.

Ma’ae

He is joined by Treven Ma’aeJackson LaDukeJaden Navarrette, and former walk-on Nate Heaukulani who look to expand their roles this fall. Of that foursome, keep an eye on LaDuke, who battled injury last season but has earned constant praise from Cristobal since his arrival on campus last year.

If that weren’t enough, the Ducks’ linebacking unit also welcomes five incoming freshmen to their ranks in 2021. Former four-star recruit and no. 1 prospect in the state of Oregon Keith Brown is on hand this spring, while Brandon BucknerTerrell TilmonJabril McNeill, and Jonathan Flowe (younger brother of Justin) will arrive in Eugene later this summer.

This story also appears at wholeflockofducks.com and is syndicated with permission. Follow WFOD on Twitter @_WFOD and Chris Courtney @csquared02.



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