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Oregon defense starts with LBs

USC Trojans quarterback Barkley passes under pressure by Oregon Ducks linebacker Boseko Lokombo during the first half of their NCAA football game in Los Angeles. Image source: Reuters.com

Matthews, Paysinger lead deep unit that set the bar high for 2010

By Jason Vondersmith
The Portland Tribune, Nov 25, 2010

EUGENE —Not many teams can withstand the loss of a linebacker to a suspension and another to a position change, and still have the luxury of depth with good players on the sideline.

Oregon has done it, and the linebacker corps, led by seniors Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, reigns as one of the No. 1-ranked team’s strengths for the second consecutive year.

“We’ve set the bar high, and we’ve gotten better every game,” linebackers coach Don Pellum says, as the Ducks (10-0 overall, 7-0 Pac-10) prepare for their 4 p.m. Friday game against Arizona (7-3, 3-3) at Autzen Stadium.

Pellum, one of a handful of longtime Oregon assistants, judges his players’ performance on effort and hustle. He has been pleased, as has coach Chip Kelly, whose defense rescued the Ducks at Cal two weekends ago in the team’s closest game.

Kelly calls the linebackers the “backbone” of the defense.

“I know we lead the conference in a lot of defensive categories, and it’s because of our overall team,” Kelly says. “But, really, our linebackers have been fantastic. All six of those guys.”

The six who see regular play are Matthews in the middle, Paysinger on the inside, Josh Kaddu on the outside and reserves Bryson Littlejohn, Michael Clay and Bosoko Lokombo.

The defense has been about depth all season, as coordinator Nick Aliotti relies on about 25 guys to contribute, leading to incredible balance. Including special teams, 17 players have 20 or more tackles — compared to 15 all last season — and another eight have 10 or more tackles.

Matthews and Paysinger top the tackles chart with 60 and 57, respectively, with Clay eighth (32), Kaddu ninth (28), Lokombo 11th (27) and Littlejohn tied for 14th (22). For the top two tacklers, those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but Pellum also rotates the linebackers. And, all the linebackers see ample time on special teams.

“We’re not playing as many snaps as last year, because we did a good job in the offseason getting the younger guys on the same page on defense,” Matthews says. “We get more breathers, so guys come off fresh. The tackle numbers aren’t high, compared to other people around the country, but we’ve been in more blowouts, too. Other guys usually play every snap.

“I’m fine with my stats. We’re 10-0, the only stat that matters.”

Matthews and Paysinger have combined for 11.5 tackles for loss.

And, while it’s unusual for a middle linebacker to have more than one interception a year, Matthews has three picks, plus three fumble recoveries.

Friday’s game will be the final home appearance for Matthews and Paysinger, as well as for Littlejohn. Matthews and Paysinger are three-year starters alongside each other, and they are friends off the field.

Matthews, from Agoura Hills, Calif., and Paysinger, from Los Angeles, remain members of a mutual admiration society.

“He’s a true linebacker, everybody knows his family history,” Paysinger says of Matthews, whose father (Clay Sr.) and uncle (Bruce) starred in the NFL, and whose brother Clay Jr. has risen to stardom with the Green Bay Packers. “He’s instinctual, knows plays before they happen. He’s a smart linebacker.”

Matthews, on Paysinger: “He’s a great linebacker, he has a lot of speed and definitely shows it. Great instincts. He’s the best he’s ever been.”

Pellum has enjoyed coaching the pair.

“What’s been gratifying coaching Spencer and Casey is they are such great kids,” he says. “So easy coaching them. They have life together off the field, and there’s no drama or stress. They’re here early for practice and they stay late, and do a good job coaching the young players not only in football but life things. They’ve been great mentors. They give us a lot of experience.”

There was some shakeup in the linebacker corps in the offseason. Kiko Alonso, Matthews’ backup, was suspended for the season after a drunk driving arrest — he has remained with the team, slated to contend for playing time in 2011. Eddie Pleasant, the 2009 starting outside backer, was moved to safety because of the depth at linebacker, opening up more playing time for Kaddu and Lokombo.

The 6-3, 235-pound junior Kaddu and 6-3, 225 redshirt freshman Lokombo have been solid, if not spectacular at times; Kaddu has 2.5 sacks and Lokombo three fumble recoveries, including one returned for a touchdown against Arizona State.

“It was an experiment, and it worked out well,” Pellum says, of the Pleasant move. “(Kaddu, Lokombo) are both very similar in stature and ability, they just need to play more. The upside of those guys is great.”

Paysinger calls Kaddu and Lokombo “the best true athletes on defense.”

Adds Matthews: “Bo has definitely shown spurts of being a great linebacker. Very athletic. With his body build and change of direction — as soon as he gets the defense down, he can be a great linebacker. Josh has been solid, definitely developed more this season, and has played his best games as the season has gone on.”

Kelly lauds the linebackers for being troopers in practice.

“Their approach to practice is the same approach they (take) in games,” he says. “They translate from drill to team (session) and from practice to game extremely well.”

As stellar as UO’s offense has been, the defense will have to rise to the challenge of Arizona’s speed and then Oregon State’s homefield advantage in the Civil War game Dec. 4.

Four opposing running backs have tallied 100 or more yards against the Ducks, topped by Tennessee’s Tauren Poole (23 carries, 162 yards). The Ducks are giving up 126.3 yards per game and 3.4 per carry, about the same as last year. Led by the linebackers, as well as D-linemen and safeties Pleasant and John Boyett, the Ducks swarm to the ball very well with their speed.

“When we don’t play well, it has a lot to do with effort, coming out flat,” Matthews says. “The times we come out flat in the first half, we’ve played lights out in the second half. We haven’t had a total flat game.

“Swarming defense is the type of defense that gives us the best chance to win games. It can lead to big plays. We have so much speed on defense.”

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