LOS ANGELES — Oregon linebackers coach Ken Wilson was on the practice fields with the Ducks when he received the thumb’s up from coach Mario Cristobal.
Justin Flowe, the top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2020 recruiting cycle, chose Oregon over a list of blue-blood programs during the early signing day period.
“My heart was beating a little faster,” Wilson said of his reaction to adding the No. 1 overall recruit from California to the haul. “The team got better. We had a lot of good signees that day.
“Justin is certainly a great piece to the puzzle and is going to add to our linebacker corp. He’s going to play early, and it’s going to be our job to get him up to speed and get him out on that field.”
Flowe joins fellow five-star prospect Noah Sewell, the younger brother of Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, as the co-headliners of Oregon’s incoming class.
The coaching staff is also excited about outside linebackers Jaden Navarrette and Jackson LaDuke joining a Pac-12 championship defense that could return nine starters.
Troy Dye, the team’s leading tackler for the fourth consecutive season, will suit up for the seventh-ranked Ducks one last time against No. 11 Wisconsin on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl (2 p.m., ESPN).
Isaac Slade-Matautia, the other starting inside linebacker, will be back next season, along with backups Sampson Niu, MJ Cunningham and Dru Mathis.
On the outside, Oregon graduates Bryson Young at the “stud” position, where true freshman Mase Funa has a bright future.
“Competitors always want to compete,” Wilson said of recruiting the touted young talent to challenge the returning group for starting spots in 2020. “On a daily basis you want to come and earn your job. If someone is behind you pushing you and trying to beat you out, I think that brings out the best in you every day. And that makes the team better.
“We’re trying to do that across all positions. We’re always looking for depth, man.”
Mirabal on Sewell
During Monday’s “media day” event at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Penei Sewell drew a crowd at his podium.
Alex Mirabal did his best to explain what makes the 6-foot-6, 325-pound sophomore so special. Oregon’s offensive line coach recalled a reverse call against Stanford in 2018 when Sewell freelanced against a look the Ducks weren’t expecting.
“There was supposed to be a three-technique (defensive lineman) and the three-technique wasn’t there. There was an empty B gap, and they were bringing a cross-blitz,” Mirabal said. “And he took the first blitzer and threw him. Then he took the second blitzer and ran him 20 yards through the end zone. I was like, ‘Penei, how did you do that?’
“He said, ‘Coach, I just saw it.’ You don’t want to curtail that. You want to allow him to be that player. So we don’t keep him in a box. He’s got that sixth sense. He’s a great player.”
Sewell, the highest graded offensive lineman in the nation by Pro Football Focus, is the third unanimous all-American in program history. The Ducks are 16-3 in the games he has started during his first two seasons.
At least two Heisman Trophy voters had Sewell on their ballot this year.
“Even people that are novice football fans watch and are like, ‘Man, who is 58?’” Mirabal said. “It’s because he plays to the echo of the whistle, he plays with a tremendous amount of passion, and then he just has a sixth sense where he sees things that you can’t coach. He plays beyond just his assignment.”
• Four of Oregon’s draft-eligible juniors who received feedback from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee — nose tackle Jordon Scott, defensive end Austin Faoliu and cornerbacks Deommodore Lenoir and Thomas Graham — said Monday they are focused on the Rose Bowl and will announce whether they will turn professional or return for their senior year after the season concludes.
• The Ducks had their 2019 team picture taken in front of the Rose Bowl on Monday after the players and assistant coaches fulfilled their final media obligations before the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
• Cristobal and Wisconsin counterpart Paul Chryst will hold a final head coaches press conference on Tuesday before making final preparations for the game.
Sewell was asked about preparing to play in front of close to 100,000 fans in the Rose Bowl.
“Did you say 100,000 people?” Sewell said.
The reporter clarified that the capacity is actually closer to 90,000.
“Yeah, that tops our list for sure for the biggest crowd,” Sewell said. “In between the lines, it’s just us against Wisconsin. So I guess they’ll be loud, but I’ll focus on Wisconsin. It will be fun.”