Two weeks into the season, the excitement –– and, suddenly, the expectations –– surrounding Oregon football couldn’t be higher.
The Ducks welcomed fans back with an exhilarating week one win, followed by a down-to-the-wire victory against the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes. The pair of wins put Oregon back in the national spotlight.
But it’s been anything but a smooth ride for the Ducks.
Injuries have plagued the Ducks drastically before a single Pac-12 game has even been played. And no positional group has been impacted more than the Oregon linebacking core.
Before the season began, Jackson LaDuke was placed on the injury report list. A few weeks later, in their first game against Fresno State, Dru Mathis left the game early with a significant lower-body injury, and Justin Flowe sustained a foot injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season.
Against Ohio State, true freshman Keith Brown started at weakside linebacker and recorded two tackles. Strongside linebacker Mase Funa also remained on the field for the bulk of the defensive snaps.
But, by the end of the game, both players were sidelined with injuries.
Cristobal addressed the media earlier in the week, claiming that both Brown and Funa are expected to play against Stony Brook. Senior Nate Heaukulani, sophomore Adrian Jackson and converted safety Jeffrey Bassa could also see snaps.
None of them could have predicted that their role would be this prominent in just week three. Thankfully for them, their toughest opponent on the schedule, the Buckeyes, are in the rearview mirror.
Now, the opportunity for these young linebackers is wide open. They have a chance to prove why Cristobal and other coaches see Oregon as one of the deepest schools in the country.
“I’m lucky,” linebacker coach Ken Wilson said. “I got guys. I got a lot of guys on the depth chart that I trust, and we’re going to use them. It’s a long season.”
Wilson isn’t wrong. Brown came into the season fourth on the depth chart at weakside linebacker, even though he was the top recruit out of Oregon in the 2021 class. Jackson, Bassa and Funa are all former four-star recruits as well.
These linebackers all did a sufficient job against Ohio State. Going into the game, Oregon’s linebackers struggled mightily against Fresno State in the passing game. But, against the Buckeyes, they kept the receivers away from the middle of the field for the most part, while stuffing the run well.
If they can limit one of the nation’s most explosive receiving cores from getting open field, then they should be able to compete with any Pac-12 offense.
The players are embracing the challenge with confidence.
“For me to become an every-down player then I need to get more physical on the edge,” Jackson said. “I’m trying to bring juice, I’m trying to bring physicality and I’m trying to bring speed to that position.”
The loss of Flowe is irreplaceable for the Ducks. He recorded 14 tackles and forced a fumble in his only game action. Fellow linebackers Mathis and LaDuke are set to return at some point in the season. And, when they are added back into the mix and combined with the young linebackers who will see increased time in their absence, the group should become significantly better as a whole.
“We are all trying to lead the group together,” Flowe said when asked about who leads the linebacking crew. “Our ability to learn from coach Wilson is one of our biggest collective strengths.”
Without Flowe, freshman Noah Sewell will be asked to step up. The former five-star recruit has already been everywhere for the Ducks defense in the first two games, but he’ll be asked to do this and possibly more once Pac-12 play starts.
Wilson feels Sewell is more than up to the task.
“He is way ahead of his age,” Wilson said before the season. “He’s still got a way to go, and he knows that, but his aptitude and his intellect for football is very strong.”
If Sewell had “a way to go” during the preseason, then the ceiling is only higher now, with more reps and more room to have breakout games.
The plethora of injuries at linebacker will hurt the Ducks without a doubt, but they’re in the past now.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, this could be a perfect opportunity for the Ducks to prove themselves as a recruiting powerhouse while also letting some of their inexperienced young players get valuable snaps for future games.
Now that the Ducks are the fourth-ranked team in the country, their every move will be surveyed. If they can keep up their early season success with a linebacker group as inexperienced and battered as theirs, the rest of the country will have to be on the lookout for the Ducks.