Posted on April 15, 2021
Today, our Spring Storylines series continues with a look at the linebackers.
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 Dye, La’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.
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 Funa, Adrian 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.
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.
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.
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.
He is joined by Treven Ma’ae, Jackson LaDuke, Jaden 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 Buckner, Terrell Tilmon, Jabril McNeill, and Jonathan Flowe (younger brother of Justin) will arrive in Eugene later this summer.
—Previously in this Spring Storylines Series—
• Who gains the inside track at starting quarterback for Oregon?
• How concerning is Oregon’s lack of health at running back?
• What impact will Oregon’s highly-touted newcomers have at WR?
• Does a leader emerge at tight end for Oregon?
• How much growth will we see from Oregon’s offensive line in 2021?
• How well-equipped are Oregon’s young defensive linemen to take over?
—Recent Chris Courtney Stories—
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon Spring Game
- Courtney: Are People Sleeping on the UO Secondary in 2021?
- Courtney: Are the Young Duck DL Ready to Take Over?
- Courtney: How Much Will Oregon’s OL Grow in 2021?
- Courtney: Does a leader emerge at tight end for Oregon?
- Courtney: How Much Impact Will New Duck Receivers have?
- Courtney: How concerning is Oregon’s health at RB?
- Courtney: Who gains inside track at starting QB for Ducks?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Stephon Johnson?
- Courtney: What are Ducks getting in Trejon Williams?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Tanner Bailey?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Percy Lewis?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Landon Hullaby?
- Courtney: Tyler Shough transfer adds QB intrigue for Ducks
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Avante Dickerson?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Byron Cardwell?
- Courtney: Ducks follow Familiar Theme with DeRuyter Hire
- Courtney: Postmortem Takeaways from Oregon’s Loss to Iowa State
- Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Fiesta Bowl vs. Iowa State
- Courtney: The Case for (and against) Tyler Shough as Oregon’s Starting QB
- Courtney: Post Mortem Takeaways from Oregon’s Championship Win over USC
- Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Pac-12 Championship vs. USC
- Courtney: Oregon Football Early Signing Day Postmortem
- Courtney: Major Storylines Converge for a Wild week at Oregon
- Courtney: What Christian Burkhalter’s Flip to UCLA Means for Oregon
- Courtney: Postmortem Takeaways from Oregon’s Loss to Cal
- Courtney: How does Jadarrius Perkins’ Decommitment Impact 2021 Duck Class?
- Courtney: Burning Week 5 Questions for Oregon at Cal
- Courtney: How Kyron Ware-Hudson’s Decommitment Impacts Oregon’s 2021 Class
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon’s Loss to OSU
- Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Week 4 at Oregon State
- Courtney: Improvement for Ducks on Defense Hinges on Health of Noah Sewell
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon’s Win over UCLA
- Courtney: Burning Week 3 Questions for Oregon vs. UCLA
- Courtney: Analyzing Unexpected Preseason Role Reversal of UO Offense, Defense
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon’s Win over Washington State
- Courtney: Burning Questions for Oregon Entering Week 2 at Washington State
- Tyler Shough’s rate of development critical to Oregon’s success in 2020
- Courtney: Postgame Post Mortem—Takeaways from Oregon’s Win over Stanford
- Courtney: Burning Questions for Oregon Entering Week 1 vs. Stanford
Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon Spring GameA trio of freshmen quarterbacks are vying to push Anthony Brown for potential starting reps - May 1, 2021
Courtney: Are People Sleeping on the UO Secondary in 2021?The eighth in a series of the prevailing storylines at each position group for the Ducks - April 17, 2021
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 - April 15, 2021