Linebacking corps key to Oregon defense

Senior Michael Clay is the unquestioned leader of Oregon's linebacker corps after registering 102 tackles as a junior in 2011. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

The Oregon Ducks have been steadily improving their talent level at every position, but the biggest jump in talent level might lie at the linebacker position.

While there have been a few Ducks linebackers who have gone on to the NFL, they have been few and far between historically. That’s started to change recently, as the program has seen a significant rise in talent level, sending Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger and Josh Kaddu on to the NFL in the past two years.

This year's crop of linebackers may be among the strongest groups yet, as the Ducks return three upperclassmen that could all challenge for all-league accolades. There is plenty of young talent waiting in the wings and this season should provide those players plenty of opportunity to get more game experience.

Returning Starters

Michael Clay (5-foot-11, 225 pounds): The senior is coming off of a 100+ tackle season despite missing three games due to injury. Clay had 102 tackles (8.5 for loss), three sacks, two interceptions, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Clay is clearly the leader of the group as he has the most experience and a knack for making the big play when the Ducks need it. Clay could compete for All-America honors if he repeated or bettered his 2011 production.

Seasoned Veterans

Kiko Alonso (6-4, 247): Entering his senior year, Alonso is one of the most intriguing players on the Ducks roster. Alonso has missed significant time in his career due to injury and suspension but has shown flashes of brilliance, including an MVP performance in the 2012 Rose Bowl which saw him register five tackles, 1.5 sacks and a game-changing interception.

Alonso has the size and skill to become an early round draft pick with a healthy and productive senior campaign.

Boseko Lokombo (6-3, 225): The big-play senior has made the most of his playing time for the Ducks, including returning both of his interceptions for touchdowns last season. Like Alonso, Lokombo could be primed for a huge jump in production as he will be a full-time starter for the first time in his career. With Clay and Alonso garnering much of the attention, Lokombo should be able to roam free and make big plays for the Ducks defense.

Scratching the Surface

Derrick Malone (6-2, 210): Appeared in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2011, making 15 tackles while helping out on special teams. Will be among the top reserves this year and is among the quickest and most active Ducks defenders.

Anthony Wallace (6-0, 235): Appeared in six games as freshman and slowly showed improvement as he got more comfortable with the speed of the game. Has a different style from other Oregon linebackers, as he is a run stopping force with his size and toughness. The primary backup to Alonso at middle linebacker, Wallace seems primed to make a big jump in 2012.

Rodney Hardrick (6-1, 235): Hardrick appeared in four games as a freshman and showed considerable promise in limited playing time. Will be a valuable backup and earn enough time to take a big step forward.

The Newcomers

Redshirt Freshmen: Tyson Coleman, Rahim Cassell and Carlyle Garrick are all coming off of redshirt seasons that saw them earn high praise from teammates and the Ducks' coaching staff. They should all earn significant time late in games as they work their way into the rotation. All three have athleticism to match the rest of the fast Oregon defense.

True Freshmen: Brett Bafaro is an in-state recruit that should bring added toughness to the linebacker group. He’ll probably be redshirted, but Bafaro is the type of player that will bring it every day in practice while working to improve himself and his teammates.