The Oregon Ducks’ spring football camp began last week and the most notable shake-up comes with Tim DeRuyter replacing Andy Avalos as the defensive coordinator. DeRuyter used a 3-4-4 scheme at Cal for the past three seasons but intends to retool his scheme, tailoring it to Oregon’s personnel, while using a similar formation.
“We’re going to try to figure out who our best 11 football players are,” DeRuyter said. “We’re going to put them in a simple system where they can execute as fast as they can.”
His formation features four linebacker spots with a strong-side linebacker, a weak side linebacker, and two interior linebackers. To adapt to this new scheme, players will have to make adjustments, but the Ducks’ linebackers have the talent to do so.
Junior Isaac Slade-Matautia was a Butkus Award finalist in 2020 after recording 38 tackles through six regular-season games— a figure that places him second on the team in the category. The veteran is looking to add another year of highlight plays and wins to his resume before heading to the NFL. Slade-Matautia will line up on the inside next to freshman Noah Sewell in DeRuyter’s scheme.
Sophomore Mase Funa enters 2021 in a completely different position under DeRuyter. After being featured in Avalos’ Stud position, Funa showed his versatility as both a coverage linebacker and pass rusher. He’s also showing signs of a budding leader, according to head coach Mario Cristobal.
In his outside linebacker role, Funa will be asked to perform similar duties in a different position. Funa will line up as an outside linebacker opposite of Justin Flowe or Adrian Jackson rather than as a pseudo-defensive lineman as he did for numerous snaps in 2020.
Freshman Noah Sewell is coming off an impressive 2020 campaign as the leading tackler for the Oregon defense (45). Sewell was also named the 2020 Coaches Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
“The Linebackers have really stepped up,” Cristobal said. “Isaac and Noah are starting to become leaders.”
In DeRuyter’s scheme, he will fit into the inside linebacker role alongside Slade-Matautia. Sewell will be the anchor of Oregon’s front seven, once again, as he slides into that middle linebacker role.
Freshman Justin Flowe suffered a meniscus injury in Oregon’s first game in 2020 and missed the entire season.
“Flowe is on the cusp of returning to play,” Cristobal said.
The outside linebacker will try to put an unfortunate initial season behind him as he enters his second year in Eugene. The Freshman from Upland, California may struggle to secure a starting spot across from Funa on the outside due to the abundance of new faces in the linebacker room.
DeRuyter has decided to use sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux in a hybrid-linebacker role. DeRuyter specializes in coaching the outside linebackers and he coached the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller at Texas A&M and sees similar qualities in Thibodeaux.
“I’m starting to transition to an outside linebacker rather than a d-end,” Thibodeaux said. “I’m going to be standing rather than in a three-point stance… I’m learning the coverages and more pass-rush techniques.”
Therefore, he intends to use the sophomore in the joker linebacker role, which is what Miller played. The joker linebacker is the most prolific pass-rusher on the defensive line but also has coverage ability.
The linebacker core is rounded out with quality backups that have received recognition from head coach Mario Cristobal. Jackson Laduke and Adrian Jackson will have the opportunity to spell the main starters and prove to the coaching staff that they deserve a greater role.
In DeRuyter’s scheme, the four linebackers will have a huge responsibility. They are expected to support in coverage, rush the passer and stuff the run. The Oregon Ducks have the firepower in the middle of their defense to propel them to a successful 2021 season.