By Rob Moseley
A year ago, they were the new guys. Now, they’re hardened veterans on the 2014 Oregon defense.
Linebackers Tony Washington, Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone Jr. had a tough act to follow last season. In replacing Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay, the new trio had to spell, respectively, the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, an eventual Rookie of the Year candidate, and the Ducks’ 2012 leading tackler.
As first-year starters, Washington, Hardrick and Malone were solid. Washington led the Ducks with 12 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, playing outside linebacker. Malone led the UO defense in 2013 with 105 tackles, and Hardrick had 65, third behind Malone and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu among returning players this fall.
Still, by certain metrics it was apparent the UO defense slipped a bit last season. The Ducks had 70 tackles for loss, after 83 the year before – 34.5 of those by Jordan, Clay and Alonso. Oregon’s 29 turnovers forced in 2013 were 11 fewer than in 2012, and opponents converted 40.09 percent of their third downs last season, up from 32.14 in 2012.
This preseason, with the defensive line and secondary looking to replace multiple starters, the linebackers are the veteran group. They’re doing their best to make sure that’s reflected in their play once the season begins.
“I feel like I got a lot of experience last year,” Hardrick said. “I got the tempo of the game, and now I’m paying more attention to detail, and how to improve the little things.”
Players often speak of the game “slowing down” thanks to more playing time, and while the trio of veteran linebackers doesn’t use that term exactly, they seem to be experiencing the phenomenon. All three spoke of being more detail-oriented in 2014, which can only come once the chaos of playing in a major college football game with tens of thousands of fans looking on has been experienced a few times.
“Attention to detail – that’s what it comes down to,” Malone said. “You’ve got to anticipate more, and react faster. Me personally, that’s what I’m really focused on, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Washington, Hardrick and Malone acknowledged some of the Ducks’ statistical drop-off last season, but they seem disinclined to overreact too much. You can’t hit a four-point shot in basketball, you can’t hit a two-run home run with the bases empty, and likewise, you can’t pile up sacks and turnovers by trying so hard that your fundamentals break down.
Washington said he was recently watching film with Malone and Hardrick of explosion plays the Ducks allowed last year; keep in mind, Oregon allowed 38 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013, and only four other teams in the nation allowed fewer. But it’s another area in which the linebackers want to help the defense improve in 2014 – by paying attention to the little things.
“It comes down to either missing tackles or guys doing the wrong thing,” Washington said. “That’s it. We could have people in the right spot, but not cause a TFL or turnover. We were just undisciplined last year, and that’s something we’re trying to fix right now.”
The experience the linebackers got last year has provided a solid foundation from which to improve, they say.
“We know what we need to work on, and how to fix it,” Washington said. “That’s a big thing.”
Malone said the linebackers have “great chemistry” under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, their position coach. The Ducks’ depth on the inside took a hit with some offseason attrition, but there’s confidence in Joe Walker, in his second year in the system, and in redshirt freshman Danny Mattingly. (Transfer Johnny Ragin III has been practicing inside this week, after playing outside linebacker in the spring, though it’s unclear if he’ll be eligible to play this year.)
In the spring, Pellum spoke of wanting to see his defense play with “swagger.” In their second year as starters, the veterans feel they’re ready to bring it.
“Swagger comes with confidence,” Malone said. “If we know what we’re doing, we’re able to have that swagger, that confidence that we all need to be a great defense. The entire defense is coming together as a cohesive unit, so we’re all getting that type of swagger.”
The confidence emanating throughout the defense starts with the guys in the middle, Washington said.
“I feel like the linebacker group in general is the core of a defense,” Washington said. “DP expects that group to be the most vocal, to communicate with everybody, to make sure everybody’s in the right spots and kind of just know everything. That’s something I’ve tried to develop with Derrick and Rodney.”
Whoever wins that job will have the luxury of playing with three veterans, including the cerebral duo of Malone and Hardrick in the middle.
“They know the entire defense,” Washington said. “They know where the D line’s supposed to be, they know where the secondary’s going to be. So I’m trying to pick their brains; as outside linebackers, we don’t have to know as much as those guys, but I’d like to.”
The chemistry and cohesion Oregon’s linebackers are building are intangible things so far. The goal is for them to result in improved production once the season begins, though the Ducks say they’re not focused too much on statistics.
“I wouldn’t say we’re worried about that specifically,” Hardrick said. “We’re paying more attention to detail each day, and if we do that, things will solve themselves.”