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Instincts guide UO linebackers

Alonso, Clay push away distractions, thrive as Ducks


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The last time the Oregon Ducks were at Reser Stadium, in 2010, backup linebacker Michael Clay broke through the arms of Oregon State's Jordan Poyer during a 64-yard fake punt run as Oregon won 37-20 to clinch a spot in the national championship game. Clay, now a senior starter, and the Ducks return to Corvallis on Saturday.EUGENE — Everybody has heard Kiko Alonso speak. We know he can speak.

After all, the physical and athletic Oregon linebacker intercepted Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson in one of the key plays of the Rose Bowl in January, won defensive MVP honors and then talked with reporters afterward — the first time he had shared thoughts with media during the 2011-12 season.

“I knew I could play like this,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a game like this.”

Now a senior, Alonso has chosen not to be interviewed all season, but his play has done lots of talking. He and longtime friend Michael Clay have teamed to be a steady and often starring duo at linebacker for the No. 5 Ducks, as they head into their final Civil War game Saturday at Corvallis against 16th-ranked Oregon State (noon, Pac-12 Networks).

If Clay and Alonso are not named to the Pac-12 all-league team, it’ll be an upset.

Alonso’s past off-field transgressions, both alcohol-related in 2010 and ‘11, likely have something to do with his tight-lippedness. When he does talk, whether it’s in an ESPN interview or to some other national outlet, he’ll likely share quite a compelling story — not the rags-to-riches type, but one of redemption.

Clay says it’s Alonso’s personality not to say too much, unless he visits the apartment of Clay and roommate/defensive back Brian Jackson and asks to play video games or watch pay-per-view.

“He’s a quiet guy,” Clay says. “Maybe he takes time to get comfortable with someone. He’s a quiet guy, keeps to himself.”

One cannot say the same thing about Clay, who has been front-and-center as one of the Ducks’ ambassadors since he earned playing time during his true freshman season of 2009. He loves to talk.

And, in Clay and Alonso, the Ducks have two senior pillars along the lines of Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, themselves good friends and teammates on the Rose Bowl team of 2009 and national championship game team of 2010.

It certainly amounts to an advantage when two guys bond off the field, linebackers coach Don Pellum says.

“They’re awesome,” he says. “They’re like brothers. They’re extremely close, and they’ll be close the rest of their lives.

“There’s me communicating with Kiko or Michael on things, but on the field, it’s the two of them working together. The closer they are, the better at communication, the better the whole process works.”

Adds Clay: “Being together so much, we feed off each other. He makes a big play, you want to make a big play. It’s a comforting situation.”

Clay and Alonso rank 1-2 in tackles with 82 and 68, respectively — Clay had an incredible 20 tackles in the 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford. Alonso has 11 tackles for loss, Clay 8. Alonso is tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and has two fumble recoveries.

Alonso had a team-high 10 tackles and added a key interception in the big win at USC, coming off a wrist injury and minor surgery and playing with a brace.

“He wanted to play the week before,” Clay says. “He doesn’t feel pain, I guess. He works hard. Probably the hardest worker in the weight room and on the field. He’s one of those hard-working guys you want to know, and can relate to — a trendsetter.”

Both players will likely get their shots at playing in the NFL.

Pellum, on the 5-11, 220-pound Clay: “He’s been a joy to work with. He’s very mature about how he handles his business, how he handles himself. He’s always treated football as a job, a serious job, like a real professional. He has great instincts. God gave him some special gifts. On top of that, he works at it.”

Pellum, on the 6-4, 245-pound Alonso: “Kiko’s been consistent. His health has been good, even with the minor brace on his wrist. He’s still performing at a high level. He’s done a better job of being an off-field student of the game, better at studying film. He’s broadened his overall perspective of offenses. In the past, he’d make some plays, but he wasn’t always making plays he was supposed to make. He was living on instinct. Now he’s doing it through the system, which is nice to see.”

Alonso and Clay lived about five minutes drive time from each other in the San Francisco Bay Area — Alonso attended Los Gatos High, and Clay went to Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. One offseason, before Alonso departed for Oregon and Clay entered his senior prep season, they met and worked out together. They had mutual friends. They hit it off.

Alonso redshirted during his first year at Oregon, and Clay joined him on the Ducks when he signed in February 2009.

“Kiko’s a great guy,” Clay says. “He had that little hiccup a couple years ago, but he’s definitely a great guy. Fun to know, one of the funniest guys on the team, one of the funnier guys I’ve met in my life. A family guy. He’s one of the better people I’ve been able to know.”

Alonso hasn’t shared his story with local media, but Billy Witz of FoxSports.com had the fortune of visiting with Alonso’s family during last season’s Rose Bowl. His parents, Carlos and Monica, talked about their son’s path back to UO’s good graces, after his 2010 season suspension after a drunk-driving arrest (he also underwent knee surgery) and his 2011 suspension (part of offseason and opener against LSU) after being intoxicated and knocking on the front door of an apartment that turned out not to be his — the night after the UO spring game. The resident, a woman, called 911 and fled, and police found Alonso passed out on the bed. A trespassing charge, among others, netted him legal penalties and another hit on his reputation.

Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti told him, “I don’t know if I could save you again.”

Alonso’s parents were frank about their son in the Witz story.

“Do I think he has a problem (with alcohol)?” Monica Alonso said. “No. But I do think maybe he didn’t know when to say, ‘OK, I need to stop now.’ ”

Alonso pushed away the alcohol, his parents say, did some soul searching and redeemed himself, capped by the performance in the Rose Bowl, a game in which his buddy Clay also had the key fumble recovery with 4:06 to play.

The big guy not talking doesn’t just happen with the media. Says his brother, Carlos Jr., in the Witz story: “He probably said more to you guys (after the Rose Bowl) than he said in the five days he was home for Christmas. That’s just him.”

Alonso told reporters after the Rose Game that he doesn’t want to talk about his off-field transgressions. This season, he hasn’t wanted to talk about anything, again — a rather unusual stance for any college athlete to take.

“The only person making Kiko unavailable (for interviews),” says David Williford, director of UO football communcations, “is Kiko.”