Justin Hollins will be the last player who suited up during Oregon’s run to the College Football Playoff to exit Autzen Stadium on Saturday.
“It all came pretty fast,” the senior outside linebacker said. “It felt like yesterday when I was a freshman running out of the tunnel for the first time.”
That was Aug. 30, 2014, when Hollins debuted in a 62-13 win over South Dakota. The Ducks won 13 games that season, but dropped off to four wins just two seasons later.
Hollins has sat out a season due to injury, played for three head coaches and three defensive coordinators and switched positions once and back before playing his final home game when Oregon (6-4, 3-4) hosts Arizona State (6-4, 4-3) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Following a practice this week, Hollins listened as his five seasons with the Ducks were recited, beginning when he played mostly on special teams as a true freshman while Oregon made it to the national championship game in his hometown of Arlington, Texas, before losing 42-20 to Ohio State.
“People don’t realize, that wasn’t easy,” he recalled. “I saw those guys come through here and practice hard every day. They set a standard for me in practice on how to compete. As a young guy, I had to catch on to what the older guys were doing.”
Hollins was injured the following spring and sat out a redshirt season in 2015.
“One of those unfortunate things, but what doesn’t break you makes you better,” he said.
Brady Hoke replaced Don Pellum as defensive coordinator in 2016 and moved Hollins to defensive end in his 4-3 scheme.
“Gotta do what you gotta do,” Hollins said.
After Mark Helfrich and his staff were fired following a 4-8 season, Willie Taggart was hired and brought in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who moved Hollins back to linebacker.
“You have got to fit into the system and get some playing time,” he said.
Taggart left before the Las Vegas Bowl and was replaced by Mario Cristobal, who retained Leavitt. Hollins also stayed, although after earning his degree in Applied Economics, Business and Society, he could have left as a graduate transfer to play at another school this season.
“For some people, it’s easy to get up and leave, jump ship,” Hollins said. “I stuck through it and created bonds with guys who have become great friends.”
The 6-foot-5, 242-pound Hollins has a career-high five sacks this season and his 47 tackles, including 11 for loss, put him on pace for his best marks in those categories with two games in the regular season and a bowl game left on the schedule.
“The amount of football he’s seen has added up,” Cristobal said. “He knows not only what he needs to do, but also what those guys around him have to do as well. His instincts allow him to get better and better. That is what makes him a good football player, he understands the game and sees it very well.”
Hollins will play in his 50th game for the Ducks against the Sun Devils. He has 167 career tackles, including 33 for loss, with two interceptions and seven forced fumbles.
“I don’t look at the stats, but one of the goals is always to be effective on the line of scrimmage and make plays to put the team in the best position,” Hollins said.
Hollins and 6-6 senior defensive end Jalen Jelks have both been versatile enough to move between the line and linebacker this season while combining for 18 tackles for loss, including 8 1/2 sacks.
“We work great together,” Jelks said. “That’s like my brother. If he’s on one side and I’m on one side, there’s probably no way somebody is going to run outside on us. We always try to have that locked into our mentality when we go out there. Nobody is going to run on us, nobody is going to pass on us, it’s me and you locked down out here so make sure we set this edge and get to the quarterback. We call ourselves the dynamic duo.”
Oregon has only seven seniors on defense, but that class has provided some of the top playmakers, including Jelks and Hollins. Safety Ugochukwu Amadi has returned two interceptions for scores and linebacker Kaulana Apelu ranks second on the team with 58 tackles, although he will miss the rest of the regular season due to injury.
“They love the game and they play hard,” Leavitt said of the seniors who will be introduced before their final home game against ASU. “They practice hard and have done a good job. Extraordinary really.”
Jelks, safety Mattrell McGraw and running back Tony Brooks-James are the only other Ducks remaining from the 2014 recruiting class and each of them sat out a redshirt season that year.