The quote sounded strange coming from Mase Funa, Oregon’s freshman linebacker who already leads the team with four tackles for loss, including two sacks.
“Right now, I’m not as athletic as I used to be,” Funa said following Wednesday's practice as the 15th-ranked Ducks (1-1) prepare to host Montana (2-0) at 7:45 p.m. Saturday.
Funa played at 245 pounds in high school, but after missing his senior season with an injury and bulking up for college, he began his UO career at 268 pounds. At 6-foot-2, Funa is working to get closer to the playing weight from his prep days.
“Once I get down to that weight I will feel more comfortable dropping back into coverage and covering wide receivers and running backs,” Funa explained. “Up front in the trenches, being able to hold my ground against big tackles like Penei (Sewell) in practice, that weight has helped with that part of my game. I feel like a more comfortable weight for me to be at throughout the season and my career would be at around 255 so I am working to get there.”
Playing the STUD position that new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos brought to the Ducks, Funa has frequently found his way across the line of scrimmage. He had three tackles for loss with two sacks in Saturday’s 77-6 win over Nevada after getting a tackle for loss while debuting in Oregon’s 27-21 loss to Auburn.
“Mase has done an unbelievable job,” Avalos said. “For a freshman, he knows the defense really, really well. As good as any freshman I’ve seen play in this defense. Fundamentally and technically, he is pretty sharp and that has allowed him to make plays this season. Obviously, there are things to continue to build off that he’s hungry to get better at.”
Funa said the outside linebacker spot that Avalos has for him is similar to what he played at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana Calif. He was a first-team all-league selection with 52 tackles, 6½ sacks and three forced fumbles while returning two interceptions for a touchdown as a junior.
He suffered a knee injury prior to his senior season and sat out the year following surgery.
“I had a teammate who went though a similar thing the year before and he helped walk me through it,” Funa said. “The biggest thing he prepared me for was the mental game. Having to keep my mentality straight and pushing through the pain.”
Funa studied the game when he couldn’t play.
“Missing out really did take a toll on me, but I don’t think it took a toll on my knowledge for the game,” he said. “I knew what I was capable of doing. I trusted myself to come out here and trusted the coaches to do whatever they told me to get on the field.”
Funa was the highest-ranked linebacker to ever sign with the Ducks as a consensus top-100 prospect ranked among the top 10 at his position by ESPN and 247Sports.com.
“He’s got a lot pent up now after missing his senior year,” UO coach Mario Cristobal said. “This is his first action in a year. It is impressive to see what he’s done so far, but his best football is ahead of him.”
Nevada faced third-and-11 when Funa sacked quarterback Carson Strong for a loss of six yards midway through the second quarter of Saturday's game. He got backup quarterback Hamish McClure for an eight-yard loss in the fourth quarter.
“Playing my first game at Autzen and having two sacks and hearing the crowd go crazy, especially seeing my brothers on the sideline going crazy for me, was heartwarming,” he said. “That is one of the best feelings as a football player is knowing your team is right there to celebrate with you.”
DJ James, Jamal Hill, Mykael Wright, Ge’Mon Eaford, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Brandon Dorlus and Keyon Ware-Hudson were among the other true freshman who made their Autzen debut on defense against the Wolf Pack.
“There were a lot of freshmen on the field at one point,” Avalos said. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything where that many freshmen were on the field, which is a good thing.”