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Duck linebackers answer preseason question marks

Three make pact to rise to challenge, fend off opponents


by: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF OREGON  - Boseko Lokombo was the only returning mainstay in Oregons linebacker corps going into the 2013 season, but the unit has been solid during the Ducks 6-0 start.In July, Derrick Malone was surfing the Internet when he came across a ranking of the linebacker units in the Pac-12. The Oregon Ducks were rated 10th.

There was ample reason for doubting Oregon’s linebackers. While the Ducks would be returning Boseko Lokombo, Oregon had graduated stalwarts in Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. “Great players,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says.

So Malone got why the Ducks linebackers were picked to be the third-worst unit in the conference. “I understood because we were new,” he says.

Not that Malone liked it. He showed the rankings to Lokombo and Rodney Hardrick, the latter his former prep teammate in Colton, Calif. The three ‘backers knew a challenge when they saw one, and they made a pact with one another to rise up and meet it.

“We’re all competitors,” Malone says. “All of the linebackers took it head on. We’ve been working ever since.”

That work has paid dividends. Oregon’s linebackers have tremendous support from the defensive line and the secondary, but the unit has become a solid part of Oregon’s defense. The linebackers have played an integral role in the No. 2-ranked Ducks (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) holding opponents to 13.8 points per game entering Saturday’s 7 p.m. home game against Washington State.

“They’re getting better,” Aliotti says. “I’m very pleased. Very pleased.”

Hardrick, a 6-1, 245-pound redshirt sophomore, has played linebacker since he first put on shoulder pads as a youngster. But his true education at linebacker came once he got to Eugene. Hardrick, who plays middle linebacker, made it a point to learn as much as he could from Alonso and Clay.

“The guys who came before me — Kiko, Michael — set a great example. I got to learn a lot from them before they left,” Hardrick says. “I take stuff from everyone to make myself a better player.”

Hardrick has put that education to good use, making 22 tackles and picking off one pass this season.

Hardrick also has been able to pay it forward by taking Malone, his former teammate at Colton High, under his wing.

Malone, a 6-2, 215 pound redshirt junior, spent his prep career playing running back and defensive back. When he got to Oregon, the coaches saw him as a linebacker. The transition was difficult. He spent his redshirt season working with the scout team, trying to learn how to become a linebacker.

Malone says that he did not try to talk Hardrick into coming to Oregon, but was happy when his former Yellowjackets teammate picked the Ducks.

“I wanted him to be happy wherever he went,” Malone says. “But it’s great to have him here.”

While he is a year younger than Malone, Hardrick’s knowledge of how to play linebacker was invaluable for Malone.

“Rodney Hardrick helped me a lot,” Malone says. “He’s been playing linebacker since he was a little kid. He helped me learn to read my keys, how to communicate and how to be a great linebacker.”

Malone, the Ducks’ weak-side linebacker, is leading the Oregon defense with 52 tackles — he had 10 tackles in Oregon’s 45-24 win at Washington last weekend. Malone says part of the reason for that is how well he and Hardrick are able to read each other on the field.

“We know what each other is thinking,” Malone says. “We have a great friendship, and that helps us on the field.”

Lokombo, a 6-3, 230-pound senior from Abbotsford, British Columbia, is the heart of Oregon’s linebacker corps. Playing on the strong side, Lokombo has 25 tackles this season. Lokombo began the season a bit slowly but has come on strong the past few games. One of his biggest impacts is his ability to lead and inspire Malone and Hardrick.

“I’ve known Boseko since my official visit, and I’ve always looked up to him,” Malone says. “He’s a great athlete and a tremendous worker.”

A good deal of the work Lokombo puts in is off the field.

“I’m a student of the game,” Lokombo says. “I love football. I try to keep learning, keep improving and keep ascending. I had a lot of good mentors. They helped me a lot. Teaching me to learn from my mistakes has helped me to get to where I am.”

When the season is over, Lokombo may have a chance to move on to the NFL.

“It’s there, but I’m not too worried about it,” he says. “I’m worried about how our team is doing and us continuing to win.”

Lokombo, Malone and Hardrick have proved to be much better than the No. 10 linebacker unit in the Pac-12, and the guys they beat out to start in training camp, such as Tyson Coleman and Joe Walker and Rahim Cassell, also have contributed.

Aliotti wishes that his linebackers would get more credit for the job they have been doing, but he says that the people who matter know just how good those players are for Oregon.

“They do deserve a lot more respect than they’ve gotten,” Aliotti says. “But they get a hell of a lot of respect from us and from me and from our defensive coaches and from their peers. When your peers respect you and say, ‘Wow, that guy is a good football player, that guy busts his butt, he plays hard,’ that’s the greatest respect.”