By Rob Moseley
To the layman, the tell was all but imperceptible.
Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone had barely settled in for one of his first film sessions on Tennessee last Monday when he noticed it. One of the Volunteers’ H-backs turned his head ever so slightly before the snap, giving away the direction he’d take once the play began.
A reporter sitting in on the session didn’t notice until Malone pointed it out. But to a student of football like Malone, the head tilt was akin to a poker player being dealt aces and immediately developing a nervous twitch.
Five days later, the game between the Ducks and Volunteers was just minutes old when Tennessee faced a second-and-three from its own 23-yard line. An H-back motioned into position off left tackle, then peeked to his right; Malone recognized the “key” from his film study, and when the potential receiver broke that direction at the snap, Malone had him blanketed.
Irony of ironies, Tennessee’s quarterback checked back to the other side of the field for the Vols’ biggest play of the day, a 51-yard gain to set up their only touchdown in the first three quarters. But it was an early example of the fruits of Malone’s film review early in the week, a major reason the first-year starter leads the Ducks in tackles three games into the season.
“He’s a really good student,” UO linebackers coach Don Pellum said. “That part of the game comes easy to some guys – and some guys it doesn’t – but Derrick, he’s a good book-study guy.”
Malone, a redshirt junior from Colton, Calif., was one of the Ducks’ biggest question marks entering 2013. He had just one career start prior to this season, and missed all of spring practice with a shoulder injury. And he was replacing departed WILL linebacker Michael Clay, Oregon’s leading tackler last season.
Three weeks into the season, there are no more lingering questions. Malone led the Ducks with 11 tackles against Nicholls to open the year, and with 12 at Virginia. After another four against Tennessee, Malone has a team-high 27 tackles, the most by a UO defender through three games since Casey Matthews had 31 in 2009.
Malone has 11 solo tackles, more than the total tackles of all but six teammates. The converted safety brings a healthy dose of athleticism to the WILL linebacker spot, but gives up size to other players at the position around the country, at about 215 pounds. His secrets: preparation and attitude.
“I don’t think size matters,” Malone said. “Football is a game of technique and fundamentals. I’ve seen the smallest guys, like (UO safety) Avery Patterson, knock big dudes around.”
Malone’s preparation began early last week, before Pellum had even assigned the specific film cut-ups on the Volunteers that he wanted his linebackers to watch. Last Monday afternoon, Malone sat alone in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex’s inside linebackers meeting room, and called up Tennessee’s game against Western Kentucky; the Hilltoppers don’t play a defense similar to Oregon’s, so Malone didn’t pay much attention to the Vols’ schemes in that game, focusing on their personnel.
“You just try to look for anything that’s going to give you a heads up,” he said, cycling through each snap four or five times, and making notations in a spiral bound notebook.
Each day, Oregon’s linebackers watch film with Pellum. Malone likes to watch another hour or two on his team-issued iPad; in the past, players would be at Oregon’s facilities at all hours, but the iPads allow them to study at home.
“It’s not like a chore; I love to do it,” Malone said. “I’ll be like, OK, one more play, five more minutes – and I look up and it’s been 35 minutes. It’s just something I love to do; I love the game of football and everything about it.”
And then there’s 30 minutes or so in the afternoon with teammates; Malone wasn’t by himself for long that Monday afternoon, as Rahim Cassell, Rodney Hardrick and Danny Mattingly soon trickled into the meeting room.
“This has been going on here forever,” Malone said of those bonus film sessions for the linebackers.
Malone said he learned to be so studious from watching predecessors like Clay, Kiko Alonso and Spencer Paysinger. It also seems to come naturally; off the field, he’s a two-time Pac-12 all-academic selection.
Like Clay and Paysinger before him, Malone benefits from the production afforded an Oregon WILL linebacker willing to put in the work to take advantage.
“You’re there to clean up everything, make sure nothing gets to the secondary,” Clay said while visiting Oregon’s practice Friday. “You’re basically the garbage man. You’re cleaning up things, and when you get the opportunity, go take your shot and you’re going to make tackles.”
But Malone isn't just the product of a system, Clay said.
“He’s very quick-twitch,” Clay said. “He knows where the play’s going, and he makes secure tackles. Derrick won’t make the big hits, but he’ll make secure tackles that will get you off the field on third down.”
One of the rare exceptions was a missed tackle by Malone at Virginia that set up an early touchdown. Plays like that, and not the 27 tackles he has made, dominate Malone’s self-evaluation, he said.
“That stuff really, really bothers me,” he said.
Malone’s early film review of the Volunteers revealed a few other nuggets, such as which gap a running back might pick up on pass protection, and how an H-back’s depth off the line might indicate whether a run or pass is coming. He noted the size of Tennessee’s offensive line and how he needed to focus on hand fighting in practice that week, to keep blockers from locking him up.
Then, he expected to see Oregon’s scout-team offense replicate those looks in practice the next day. Once the chaos of the game begins, the film review and reps against the scouts blend in a Matrix-like way so that Malone can anticipate what’s coming. Take Tennessee’s second play Saturday – the Vols didn’t do much to betray their intentions prior to the snap, but Malone so quickly processed the ensuing run play that he was there to hold up the back and allow Taylor Hart a chance to force a fumble.
After that turnover on Tennessee’s second play of the first half, Malone nearly had another on the second play after halftime. He drifted into coverage against a slot receiver, and nearly intercepted an underthrown pass. He couldn’t reach it due to the strap securing his right arm to his torso, guarding against a repeat of the shoulder problem Malone had last season.
Malone had seen that potential interception coming, too.
When Hardrick walked into the meeting room Monday, the two began trading rapid-fire notes on what they’d seen of the Volunteers so far. The two former high school teammates, now Oregon’s starting inside linebackers, were so locked in together that they finished each other’s sentences.
“I’ve got to get a pick this week, bro,” Malone said, based on what he expected from the Vols. Five days later, the shoulder strap might have been the only thing that kept him from getting one.
“I was so mad, so mad,” Malone laughed after the game. “I read the route, I knew what was coming, I knew the play and I was right there.”
He’s been there over and over this season, and has the tackle totals to prove it. Not to mention the hours watching film that help make it all possible.