There is star power at linebacker for Oregon this year.
On the inside, Troy Dye is a potential Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and on the outside, Justin Hollins and La’Mar Winston have emerged as disruptive pass rushers.
Redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia, sophomore Keith Simms and junior Bryson Young also stood out during spring practice.
“We’ve got some really good players,” football coach Mario Cristobal said. “And don’t forget about Lana now.”
Justin Herbert certainly won’t forget about the dazzling defensive highlight Kaulana Apelu made during the spring game when the scrappy senior intercepted the Ducks’ starting quarterback and returned the turnover for a 100-yard touchdown.
Apelu went from walk-on to starter to crutches last season. After returning from a fractured ankle in the spring, he gives defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt some experience behind the rising talents vying to start at the inside linebacker spot opposite Dye.
“I’m not worrying about that as of now,” Apelu said after leading the team with nine tackles in the spring game. “That’s for the coaches to decide in the fall, but I think I can bring something to the table. I will be ready when my name is called.”
Dye, a 6-foot-4, 221-pound junior, has led the team in tackles the past two seasons and started 20 consecutive games. His 86-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the Las Vegas Bowl gave the lethargic Ducks a little life during the disappointing loss to Boise State in Cristobal’s first game after replacing Willie Taggart.
“You’ve got to feel good about this linebacking corps,” Cristobal said of the Dye-led unit. “Experience, size, length, instinctive, and now they have a better feel their second year in the defensive system.”
Hollins had 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles last season after moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. The fifth-year senior played on special teams in 2014 when Oregon won the Pac-12 and made an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff title game.
In 2016, Hollins led the defensive linemen with 51 tackles in Brady Hoke’s 4-3 defense. Last year he emerged as a play-maker in Leavitt’s 3-4, capping the breakthrough regular season with an interception for a touchdown against Oregon State.
“I’ve been with him since my first year in the 4-3, I was with him as a defensive end, and my first year as an outside linebacker last year,” said Young, who was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Hollins during the spring. “It’s easy to learn from him because he’s been here for a while and he has experience. I’m kind of lucky to have someone to look up to like that.
“There’s really nobody on the team that has experience like that.”
Winston made seven starts at the other outside linebacker position as a sophomore, finishing with 49 tackles, including eight for loss and two sacks.
“We’re a lot more comfortable and confident in our play just being in the same system,” Winston said. “There’s always room for growth, but as of right now we’ve been growing, so I’m happy for my team.”
The coaching staff was tempted to pull the redshirt off Slade-Matautia, a promising prospect from the 2017 recruiting class, after A.J. Hotchkins and Apelu went down with injuries last fall. Then senior Jimmie Swain filled the void and capped his career with a strong finish (65 tackles) playing alongside Dye.
“Isaac Slade. I mean, that guy’s a really good football player that’s going to help us win a lot of football games around here,” Cristobal said.
Simms, who is healthy after redshirting in 2017 because of a knee injury, is also expected to get a lot of snaps at inside or outside linebacker in 2018. He had eight tackles and a sack in the spring game.
“We’re really just going out there feeling confident that we can dominate any offense and stop any offense,” Simms said of the expectations for the defense entering Leavitt’s second season as coordinator. “The confidence, the maturity in year two should be good for us.”
D.J. Johnson — a Miami transfer who was one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2017 class — is petitioning the NCAA to play immediately. The 6-5, 256-pound sophomore will likely have to sit out a redshirt season before contributing in 2019.
“These waivers are always tough,” Cristobal said. “We’re just letting it play out and not having any inflated expectations. We’ll see where it takes us. The good thing is he’ll be out there at some point in time.”
Spring rewind: After the unit showed well in the spring game, Cristobal dismissed Fotu Leiato, a projected starter at the hybrid “Duck” linebacker position, from the program. The senior was arrested April 25 for allegedly removing a parking boot from a vehicle and also booked on a warrant for failing to appear in Eugene Municipal Court earlier to face a second-degree criminal trespass charge.
Fall outlook: Two touted incoming freshmen, Andrew Johnson of Tifton, Ga., and Adrian Jackson of Denver, are projected to have an immediate impact in the linebacker rotation and on special teams.
Projected depth chart: OLB — La’Mar Winston, D.J. Johnson or Keith Simms; Jack — Isaac Slade-Matautia, Kaulana Apelu, Adrian Jackson; Mike — Troy Dye, Keith Simms or Sampson Niu; OLB — Justin Hollins, Bryson Young, Andrew Johnson
Saturday’s position review: Secondary