By Rob Moseley
When the Fiesta Bowl had ended, and Oregon was celebrating its win over Kansas State, two young linebackers suddenly encountered each other amid the postgame confusion.
Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick, who were backups to starting inside linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso that January day, shared a handshake and a hug. The two former high school teammates from Colton, Calif., also exchanged knowing looks, and words of encouragement about the future.
“We all knew what was coming -- that we had two really good guys leaving, and we knew who was coming back,” Hardrick recalled recently. “It was open for everybody, and we looked at each other like, ‘This is for us. Let’s do this.’”
Despite injuries that sidelined each through the spring and into the summer, Malone and Hardrick have indeed earned the chance to replace Clay and Alonso, according to the depth chart finalized by UO coaches over the weekend. Hardrick is listed as Oregon’s starting middle linebacker for Saturday’s 2013 opener against Nicholls in Autzen Stadium at 1:05 p.m., and Malone will replace Clay at the weak-side position.
“All of our hard work is finally going to pay off, and we can show what we can do,” Malone said recently, echoing his thoughts from that moment on the field with Hardrick after the Fiesta Bowl. “All the years we learned from (Spencer Paysinger, Casey Matthews, Josh Kaddu) and Mike and Kiko, we can finally show what we learned. It’s finally our time.”
Though Malone and Hardrick will start at the two inside linebacker positions, the Ducks figure to rotate heavily there. Rahim Cassell and Joe Walker are listed as the primary backups, with Tyson Coleman potentially in the mix behind Malone and Walker at the “Will” position.
Coleman is also listed as the backup at outside linebacker in another “or” situation, with true freshman Torrodney Prevot. The other true freshmen on the depth chart are Cameron Hunt as the backup right tackle, Johnny Mundt as the backup tight end, Tyrell Robinson as the No. 3 “Mike” linebacker and Matt Wogan as the kickoff specialist. (UO coach Mark Helfrich has said that running back Thomas Tyner also is likely to play this season.)
Wogan or Alejandro Maldonado will handle placekicks. Also to be determined is the identity of Oregon’s backup quarterback, either Jeff Lockie or Jake Rodrigues, though Lockie may have a slight edge at the moment after a strong scrimmage to close out fall camp.
At two positions where the Ducks have two viable starters, De’Anthony Thomas is listed ahead of Byron Marshall at running back, and Arik Armstead will start in front of Ricky Havili-Heimuli at defensive tackle.
Armstead will thus be one of the big bodies occupying offensive linemen so that Malone and Hardrick can try to pile up tackles the way Clay and Alonso did before them. Hardrick has 13 appearances with 19 tackles in his career, while Malone made one start last season and has 56 career tackles in 26 appearances.
All that experience made Hardrick and Malone seem the most likely choices to start this season. That changed in the spring, when Malone’s shoulder and Hardrick’s back kept each from practicing.
Faith in Oregon’s athletic training staff helped Malone maintain confidence he’d return good as new, he said. And the two gained a new understanding of the Ducks’ schemes from the sidelines in April.
“We thought we knew the defense already, but that took us to a whole different level,” Malone said.
That said, Malone and Hardrick felt a particular sense of urgency when preseason camp started in August, and each was back to feeling 100 percent.
“We were watching other guys get better (throughout the offseason), so we knew we had to hit the ground running,” Hardrick said.
With the release of Oregon’s depth chart this week, that effort proved to pay off in a big way.