Of all the position previews I do, this is the easiest, but it is also the hardest. It's easy because this is a unit that is loaded with talent, experience and depth. But it is tough, because what is there to say that hasn't been written about this group?
I guess the question I would have is, can this unit live up to the hype it has built for itself over the last couple of years? The strength up the middle will be tested on an off the field. Alonso needs to keep his nose clean and play like the Alonso we all thought he could be in the Rose Bowl. Clay was a stud, when he wasn't injured, but what if injuries cause him to miss more time than he did last year? Lokombo would have been tied for third in scoring on the Beavers last year, but is that something he can replicate this year? What about the depth behind these guys? Hardrick is returning from injury and Wallace saw some playing time last year, but not in meaningful minutes. Coleman was a spark in Spring practice, but will that translate to the field during the season?
All in all, I think there is just as much known about this unit as there is unknown. The linebacker corp may end up being the best Oregon has ever seen, but it could just as easily end up being the Achilles' Heel that causes everyone to question whether or not this defense lives up to the hype it received in the first place.
The Reason for The Hype:
There is great reason to be excited about this defense. As a matter of fact, in my defensive line preview, I showed why after 3 years of building the type of defense that Aliotti and Azzinaro dreamed of, they finally have the pieces to make that a reality. But that will all depend on how the linebackers play.
This defense is built on creating gaps for the linebackers to exploit. The nose tackle will play a 1-gap or 2-gap technique depending on what the linebacker sees in the offense. That takes experience and talent from the linebacker to get it right. The defensive end will stunt or rush based on what the linebackers communicate what he is seeing in the offense. There is a ton of communication that goes on between the first and second line of defense that determines the outcome of the play, and the last 3 years, Oregon has had Stuckey, Kaddu, Paysinger, Matthews and Littlejohn manning that post (3 of which are playing in the NFL right now).
On the depth chart behind them the last couple of years were Clay, Alonso and Lokombo. That gives people reason to think that these guys will be just as good leading that charge as their predecessors. But that's not always the case. Injuries and leadership troubles have a way of dismantling the greatest of units. For example, if Alonso were to struggle like he did early last year, that would thrust, true sophomore, Anthony Wallace into a leading role on this entire defense. If Clay gets injured again, Rodney Hardrick or Derrick Malone are going to have to be able to man the weakside, neither of which have played meaningful minutes in the last couple of years.
If Clay, Alonso and Lokombo all stay healthy and play to their potential, you'll see the best defense Oregon has ever seen. That isn't hyperbole, this linebacker unit has the potential to make this defense the best Oregon fans have ever seen. I have no reservations saying, with those 3 guys, this team can win games based on defense and field position alone. They have the potential to shut teams down and cause so much disruption in the backfield, that it won't matter if Oregon only scores 17 points in a Rose Bowl. They'll end up being the winner.
You know what happens when you combine a high powered offense with a lock down defense? If the linebackers live up to their hype? You're about to find out.
The Reason for Concern:
I know Michael Clay missed 3 games last year and still ended up being second on the team in tackles. I don't know if Hardrick and Malone are up for that type of production if he were to go down for more games this year. As a matter of fact, The linebacker unit has seen the least amount of injuries of any of the units the last 3 years. I can't name a game Matthews, Paysinger or Kaddu missed in the National Championship season. That gave Pellum and the defense a lot of flexibility to rotate in guys like Clay and Lokombo and get them experience. Many fans questioned why Wallace gave up his redshirt last year in the Colorado game, but looking at the depth chart now, it is clear the coaches needed to build depth behind this linebacker unit.
Of all the linebackers that are starting Boseko Lokombo worries me the most. He had an above average 2011 season, and he was playing behind 5th round draft pick Josh Kaddu. Kaddu had a stature and strength we've yet to see out of Lokombo. Kaddu could take on pulling linemen or fullbacks out of the backfield and still make plays. Lokombo is lighter and more nimble of foot, which may play well in the more offense driven Pac 12, but will struggle against the power rush and 1-back formations of Stanford and Southern Cal.
Lastly, lets not forget about Alonso's problems off the field. By all accounts the kid has changed his ways and is using his third opportunity to make the most of it. But that doesn't change the fact that, arguably, he shouldn't be on the team now. The relative quiet of the Oregon offseason has held a lot of fans with bated breath, and Alonso is a prime candidate for creating a giant hole in the Oregon defense.
It's easy to look at this linebacker corp and think, Clay has tons of experience and is a beast on the weakside. Alonso showed brilliance in the middle in the Rose Bowl and that should easily carry into the nest season and Lokombo was a master thief on the strongside playing alongside Jordan and that tandem is going to continue to wreak havoc on the the Pac 12 in 2012. But at the same time this unit is one injury, one drunken mishap and one fall to reality away from being the bane of Duck fan's existence.
This defense is built on having talented linebackers. You start to tinker with that unit and the house of cards it is built on will crumble around it. If the secondary can't rely on the linebackers to fill their gaps, they give away big plays. If the D-line isn't given the right calls and reads at the line, they miss assignments and the offense gets leverage and mismatches. Oregon's linebackers have ability to make this the most excellent defense Oregon has ever seen, but is also a few missteps away from making it the most disappointing.