'Backer U West cranks up tradition after down years

CORVALLIS — For much of the Mike Riley/Dennis Erickson era at Oregon State, the school was known as “Linebacker U West” — a play on the tradition established at Penn State in an earlier time.

During an eight-year period, OSU sent James Allen, Nick Barnett, Richard Seigler, Keith Ellison, Joey LaRocque and Keaton Kristick to the NFL.

But strong linebacker play was missing as the Beavers suffered through losing seasons in 2010 and ‘11.

Linebackers have made a resurgence this year as Michael Doctor, D.J. Alexander and Feti Unga have formed one of the better units in the Pac-12.

Unga, a 6-1, 250-pound senior from Rochester, Calif., who has 44 tackles, fortifies the middle. But the real key has been the emergence of outside ‘backers Doctor and Alexander.

“They’ve been productive,” says OSU’s first-year linebackers coach, Trent Bray. “They’ve done a good job against the run, fitting in where they’re supposed to, and they’ve made plays.”

Doctor, a junior in his second season as a starter, goes into the Civil War game ranked second on the team in tackles with 61 and in tackles-for-loss with 7.5. Alexander, a sophomore in his first year as a starter, has 37 tackles and 5 1/2 tackles-for-loss. They’ve been key components as the Beavers have improved from 101st nationally against the run in 2011 to the top 10 this fall.

Bray — an all-Pac-10 middle linebacker during his senior year at OSU in 2005 — says one of the problems in recent years is the Beavers have been forced to go with inexperienced ‘backers.

“In the years when I played, we learned from the guys in front of us,” Bray says. “I played behind Seigler and learned the position from him. Nick learned from the guy in front of him. All of a sudden, the guys being used were forced to play young and weren’t quite ready for the challenge.”

Another component is speed. Doctor and Alexander — who both run the 40 in the 4.4 range — have large doses of it.

“They’re in the mold of the Barnetts and Ellisons,” Bray says.

“Our defensive system is built on speed,” says Doctor, a Tulsa, Okla., native. “We have a lot of players who can fly around and make plays in open space.”

“We have a lot of speed on the defense this year, not just at linebacker but also with guys like Ryan Murphy and Jordan Poyer” in the secondary, says Alexander, who hails from Palm Desert, Calif. “It’s good because we can cover ground fast, fly to the football and make plays.”

In Oregon State’s 4-3 defensive system, speed at outside linebacker is critical.

“They’re the guys who have to be able to play the fastest in what we do,” Bray says. “We like to spill the ball to the edge and blow up pulling linemen and take guys out. Their ability to see and react quickly and use their speed to get in the backfield and disrupt plays is very important for us.”

Doctor and Alexander were both undersized — at about 190 pounds — when they arrived on campus as freshman. The 6-foot Doctor now weighs in at 225, the 6-2 Alexander coming in at 220.

“We’re a lot bigger and stronger, but size doesn’t matter,” Doctor says. “As long you’re out there making plays and doing your job, that’s what matters.

“College teams are moving more toward the spread offenses, and you need more speed to combat that. You have to be able to tackle well in space.”

Doctor was a star running back at Booker T. Washington High, rushing for 1,299 yards and scoring 28 touchdowns as a senior. He thought he would play the same position at OSU.

“But when I got here, coaches told me I’d get a chance to play sooner on defense,” he says. “I played safety in high school, so that was fine with me. And I got to play some my first year.”

“Michael has done a lot of things well this season,” Bray says. “He has taken over making calls when we’re in the nickel and dime (defenses). The mental part of his game is the biggest difference from last year. He has done a great job of seeing his line keys and being where he’s supposed to be.”

Alexander played linebacker, tight end and receiver in high school.

“I came in open-minded,” he says. “I didn’t care where they played me. I’d have played safety or anything as long as I got the chance to play.”

“D.J. has done a much better job of understanding the defense,” Bray says. “That’s what kept him off the field last year. He has worked very hard at studying and knowing where he as to be on a certain play. And he has a ton of upside as he gains more experience in the future.”

The contributions of Bray, too, should not be overlooked.

“He’s a tremendous coach,” Doctor says. “He was a great player here and we run the same (defenses) as when he played — just different formations. He can relate to us, he teaches the keys he knew. He has been a great help to the Beaver defense.”

Doctor and Alexander have grown close on and off the field.

“We’re brothers now,” Alexander says.

The only question is, which one is faster?

“I think I’m faster than D.J., but he’s pretty fast, too,” Doctor says. “We joke around about it every day. We’re supposed to settle things in the spring. Until then, there will always be some controversy about it.”

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