Preseason Camp Preview: LB
Who's back: It's the end of an era for the Oregon defense. After leading the Ducks in tackles each of the last four years, Troy Dye is now an NFL rookie, with the Minnesota Vikings. His unheralded partner in the middle of the UO defense the last two seasons, Isaac Slade-Matautia, now has a chance to emerge from Dye's shadow and enjoy some much-deserved attention. Slade-Matautia is as instinctive as they come, leading the Ducks with 11 pass breakups in 2019, and also with six quarterback hurries. Given Oregon's losses to graduation and also opt-outs, "Slade" is the Ducks' top returning tackler, after 62 stops last season.
The rest of the projected starters are new, although they're not new faces. Dru Mathis spent the first half of 2019 learning Oregon's defense, and got up to speed just in time to fill in as a starter while Dye recovered from a thumb injury. On the outside, Mase Funa played in all 14 games as a true freshman and is ready to take over in the absence of Bryson Young. La'Mar Winston Jr.'s heir apparent on the other side is Adrian Jackson, whose potential is substantial if his development clicks. There isn't extensive experience lower in the two-deep, other than Sampson Niu, a warrior who has played through injuries the last three years. MJ Cunningham is an in-state kid who will push for a regular role this season. Nate Heaukulani and Nick Wiebe are two other veterans in the meeting rooms, both leaders on the developmental squad who can be counted on in a pinch to take game reps as well.
Who's new: There's a whole lot to be excited about among the new faces at linebacker. Five-star recruit Noah Sewell enrolled for spring practice, and he was joined this summer by fellow five-star inside linebacker Justin Flowe. The coaching staff is very excited about the other 2020 signees, too, Jackson LaDuke and Jaden Navarrette. Isaac Townsend and Treven Ma'ae had a chance to learn the defense as redshirts in 2019, and the linebacker group added converted defensive end Andrew Faoliu to its ranks this offseason.
Projected depth chart
STUD: Mase Funa, So.; Isaac Townsend, RFr.; Treven Ma'ae, RFr.; Jaden Navarrette, Fr.
MIKE: Isaac Slade-Matautia, Jr.; MJ Cunningham, So.; Noah Sewell, Fr.; Nick Wiebe, So.
WILL: Dru Mathis, Sr.; Sampson Niu, Sr.; Justin Flowe, Fr.; Nate Heaukulani, Sr.
SAM: Adrian Jackson, So.; Andrew Faoliu, So.; Jackson LaDuke, Fr.
What to watch: No doubt about it, a big storyline this month will be the development of the young guys. With no nonconference games on the schedule, this isn't a typical season in which newcomers have a couple games to get their feet wet before facing Pac-12 competition. The Ducks need to be in midseason form when the schedule opens in November; will their elite recruits be at the level then? Slade-Matautia isn't the most vocal guy, but if the freshmen follow his lead, Oregon's defense can hit the ground running.