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Football Practice Report: Sept. 15

Sep 15, 2021

Venue: Outdoor practice fields
Format: Full pads

Oregon's inside linebacker room already was missing Jackson LaDuke due to injury when this season began.

Then, Dru Mathis suffered a knee injury against Fresno State. Three days later, the Ducks found out that freshman sensation Justin Flowe also had been injured in the first game of the year.

"It was a pretty crazy 72 hours," senior Nate Heaukulani said.

Considered one of the deepest positions on the UO roster prior to preseason camp, the inside linebackers were suddenly in scramble mode. Jabril McNeill moved inside from an edge position after LaDuke's injury. After Mathis and Flowe were sidelined, nickel safety Jeffrey Bassa moved down to linebacker. Freshman Keith Brown moved up to the first-string, with Heaukulani and junior walk-on Micah Roth (below) rotating in with the two-deep prior to last week's game at Ohio State.

And how did that game go for Oregon's suddenly stressed inside linebacker depth? Returning starter Noah Sewell made some of the biggest plays of the game for the Ducks, Brown held up well in his collegiate debut before being sidelined by a cramp, and Heaukulani played more than half the game to helped the Ducks knock off the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium, 35-28.

"They realize," UO coach Mario Cristobal said, "that the whole thing about 'next man up' is real."

After being in scramble mode last week, the inside linebackers are getting accustomed to the new rotation as Saturday's home game against Stony Brook approaches. Sewell and Heaukulani are helping position coach Ken Wilson bring the newer faces up to speed, having weathered the tumult of last week.

Cristobal said Brown did a "great job" in his first collegiate start, and he praised McNeill as a "really smart" player who is adjusting well to playing in the middle of the defense. Bassa, who was a hulking presence at safety, had  knowledge of run defense from playing nickel that has helped ease his transition, according to veteran safety Verone McKinley III.

Heaukulani was himself once a young newcomer learning the ropes of major college football. When he joined the program in 2018, his mentor was Kaulana Apelu, another former walk-on who earned a scholarship and a prominent role on defense.

"He was great – kind of showed me the ropes, showed me how to be successful here at a big-time program," said Heaukulani, a Portland native who helped Jesuit High win state titles in 2013 and 2015. "He was one of the nicest human beings and a great teammate, to lead the way for younger guys. That's what I'm trying to be here now that I'm older."

Heaukulani was a standout on Oregon's developmental squad for most of his first three years in the program. But he saw game action in some pressure situations over that time, notably at Arizona State in 2018 and at times throughout last season. He played in 2020 as a scholarship guy, after being awarded a full ride along with offensive lineman Ryan Walk last fall.

"I kind of still look at myself as a walk-on; I want to keep that walk-on mentality," Heaukulani said. "We're the hardest workers on the team and we get no shine; we didn't have any (recruiting) stars. … If I keep working like this, the sky's the limit."

Practice highlights: Up until Wednesday, Oregon's defense generally had the edge in the team's weekly 2-minute drill scenarios. That changed this week, thanks to the kind of clutch performance from QB Anthony Brown that was so valuable at Ohio State. He completed a pass to Johnny Johnson III to get the ball into the red zone, and kept the drive alive with another completion on fourth down before winning the drill for the offense with a touchdown pass to Jaylon Redd as time expired. …

A couple of receptions by Jack Vecchi got the No. 2 offense down to the 5-yard line in that drill, but a strip sack by Jamal Hill got the defense off the field to end practice. … Hill also had a pass breakup in 1-on-1 coverage drills conducted in the red zone. That period also included an interception by DJ James, and a couple pass breakups by Steve Stephens IV. … Dontae Manning's fast-twitch athleticism was on full display as he blocked a field goal during special teams work.

Other observations: Bassa has been working into the rotation of possible kickoff return men since the start of preseason camp. Now that he has changed positions, there can't be many other teams in the country with an inside linebacker among the candidates to return kickoffs. … Field-goal kickers Camden Lewis and Henry Katleman are honing their accuracy by doing drills with goalposts that are just 9 feet wide. That's the regulation width for arena football, and less than half the width of college goalposts.

Post-practice interviews:

Head coach Mario Cristobal

Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter

Senior linebacker Nate Heaukulani

Junior safety Bennett Williams

Sophomore safety Verone McKinley III