When Jim Leavitt took over as defensive coordinator for Oregon last year, he knew he was inheriting a unit that was among the worst in the nation. One of the rays of sunshine peeking through the darkness was Troy Dye, a slightly undersized linebacker coming off a freshman all-American season.
After a year under Leavitt’s tutelage, the Ducks took massive steps forward — going from 126nd to 46th in the nation in total defense and giving up 12.4 less points per game. They did all of this despite the revolving door of players seeing the field.
Now armed with plenty of options, including two incoming freshmen who could be stars in their own right, this could be the year Leavitt and the Ducks take the next step forward.
The first name worth mentioning when talking about the linebackers is junior Troy Dye, the heart and soul of Oregon’s defense. He’s been a revelation since stepping on campus three years ago, earning freshman all-American status and receiving preseason all-American nods entering this year.
A rangy and uber-athletic linebacker, Dye was the only player in the Pac-12 to rank in the top-5 of total tackles and tackles for loss. His ability to diagnose defenses and play laterally is why he’s considered one of the top inside linebacker prospects in the upcoming draft.
Playing on the outside for Oregon is senior Justin Hollins and junior Lamar Winston Jr., two players with starting experience.
Hollins was a surprise last year, using his 6-foot-5, 242-pound frame to live in the opponents’ backfield. His 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three QB hits all ranked in the top-5 for the Ducks.
Winston was a part of the revolving door at the other outside linebacker position, but his aggressive and athletic play eventually earned him the start in five of the final six games.
Pushing Winston for reps will be redshirt sophomore Keith Simms, a player who missed last year due to injury but was the star of spring and summer workouts. Junior Bryson Young is another player who gives the Ducks added depth. Physically, Young looks the part at 6-foot-5, 244-pounds but proving those physical tools on the field is the next step.
Kaulana Apelu is the veteran of the group, a senior whose diminutive size (5-foot-10, 204-poiunds) hasn’t stopped him from being a productive backup the past three years. He’s gotten the beginning of the first team reps at the spot opposite Dye but will have to hold off a multitude of players, including rising redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia and sophomore Sampson Niu.
Slade-Matautia, like Simms, emerged over the spring and summer, drawing raves from Leavitt as someone who could make a big difference for the Ducks.
The newcomers are highlighted by true freshmen Adrian Jackson and MJ Cunningham, two players who are having a great fall camp and more than look the part.
Jackson has arguably been the most talked about player since camp began. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 218-pounds, he looks like a grown man. Jackson has been playing with the speed and tenacity Leavitt covets at the inside linebacker position.
"The dude is what he is," Dye said Jackson. "Coming out of high school looking like that is crazy… he’s a phenomenal beast.”
Cunningham is a little bigger than Jackson, weighing 229 pounds yet not as physically imposing as him. Cunningham has proven to be a very instinctual player who should see the field this season.
This unit has experience and physicality, but do they have depth? That’s the biggest question they will face with only three regulars having seen legitimate game time. The good news is that Leavitt has plenty of options to choose from — either go with seniority and the players who have seen the field or go with youth and hope for the best?
I think before it’s all said and done, Jackson will be starting alongside Dye for his athletic ability alone. I also believe that Leavitt is going to go with youth over experience so if they appear ready, they’re getting tossed in.
With the first three games of the year against inferior opponents, it’ll give the young guys plenty of chances to settle in and contribute. It’s a big risk but a greater reward and the Ducks are wanting to win now.
Projected Starters: Senior OLB, Justin Hollins — Junior ILB, Troy Dye — Freshman ILB, Adrian Jackson — Junior OLB, Lamar Winston, Jr
Projected Backups: Junior OLB, Bryson Young — Senior ILB, Kaulana Apelu/Freshman ILB, MJ Cunningham — Redshirt Freshman ILB, Isaac Slade-Matautia — Redshirt Sophomore OLB, Keith Simms