Sampson Niu has found a few mentors at Oregon.
The sophomore inside linebacker learned from Jimmie Swain, Troy Dye and Kaulana Apelu last year while getting most of his playing time on special teams.
“Jimmie and Troy, those guys were like teachers out there,” Niu said. “Always helping me, correcting me. Same thing Lana does for me and the other guys, trying to get us ready.”
Apelu got Niu ready to replace him when his season was interrupted for the second year in a row due to injury. Apelu suffered a fracture in his leg during Saturday’s 42-21 win over UCLA that will sideline him for the rest of the regular season.
“Lana is like an extra coach this week,” UO coach Mario Cristobal said.
Apelu, a senior who earned a scholarship last year before a fractured ankle kept him out of Oregon’s final eight games, ranks second on the team with 58 tackles despite battling injuries for the past few weeks.
“Lana and I watch film together and he teaches me different techniques and alignments and fits,” Niu said. “He shows me where I should be during plays, what to look for pre-snap and things like that.”
Niu got his first career start in place of Apelu two weeks ago at Arizona and finished with two tackles. He followed up with a career-high five tackles after replacing Apelu against the Bruins.
Niu is expected to get the start for Oregon (6-3, 3-3 Pac-12) on Saturday afternoon at Utah (6-3, 4-3), although he has split time evenly with sophomore Keith Simms during practice this week.
“I think all the reps those guys have been taking, the training they had has paid off,” Cristobal said. “They have been behind some real good players. All those cumulative reps, the walk-throughs and extra film work, watching on the second team and now the additional reps they are taking. Both of those guys have performed well and they are instinctive. They are really natural at that position and they bring physicality.”
Oregon went through four inside linebackers next to Dye last season when Apelu and A.J. Hotchkins were both injured and Blake Rugraff was replaced by Swain. Apelu once again joined the injured list at that position this season along with redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia, who is out for a couple weeks with a shoulder injury.
Dye, whose 80 tackles have him in line to lead the Ducks in that category for the third year in a row, has been the constant on Oregon’s defense with a rotating cast of inside linebackers next to him. Cristobal referred to Dye as a quarterback of the defense along with senior safety Ugochukwu Amadi.
“Troy is a big part of our defense in terms of leadership and making plays,” Niu said. “He is a real smart and sees stuff before it happens.”
The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Niu played 63 snaps against Arizona followed by 62 versus the Bruins.
Utah may run the ball more than usual this week with freshman quarterback Jason Shelley replacing injured Tyler Huntley. Junior running back Zack Moss, a 5-10, 215-pound junior, has run for 1,139 yards to rank third in the conference with 121.3 rushing yards per game while ranking second with 11 rushing touchdowns.
“A lot of similarity to the back we faced last week because he is so physical,” Cristobal said in comparing Moss to UCLA’s Joshua Kelley, who ran for 161 yards on 26 carries against the Ducks. “He is a big guy who gets downhill. He’s a dynamic player. Every week we find ourselves playing against one of the best players in the conference and he is one of them.”
Herbert semifinalist for top QB award
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was named one of 16 semifinalists Wednesday for the Davey O'Brien Award, which annually goes to the top college quarterback in the country.
Herbert and Washington State's Gardner Minshew are the only Pac-12 players on the semifinalist list. Among others on the list are Fresno State's Marcus McMaryion, who formerly played at Oregon State, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and West Virginia's Will Grier.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota won the award in 2014.