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Oregon has ‘ways to go’ sorting out inside linebacker depth

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 8/22/2019 By James Crepea, oregonlive.com
a group of football players on a field: Oregon linebacker MJ Cunningham © Sean Meagher | The Oregonian/OregonLive/oregonlive.com/TNS Oregon linebacker MJ Cunningham

EUGENE — The season is just nine days away but Oregon’s depth chart at inside linebacker is still very much fluid.

Troy Dye and Isaac Slade-Matautia will start at weak-side and middle linebacker, respectively, and Sampson Niu is the clear top backup. After that, things remain murky as to the pecking order of redshirt-freshman MJ Cunningham, true freshman Ge’mon Eaford and junior college transfer Dru Mathis.

“We still got a ways to go,” inside linebackers coach Ken WIlson said. “We’re still playing, we’re playing hard, practicing hard, still worrying about us. They’ve still got some time to get better but we’re running out of it, so the urgency is picking up out there.”

At different times this offseason Cunningham, Eaford and Mathis have each played with the second-team defense.

During the spring, it appeared Eaford and Mathis had the edge as they played extensively with the backups during the spring game.

But Cunningham, who moved from middle during the spring to weak-side this month, has been mostly with the second-team during fall camp while Eaford and Mathis fluctuated between second and third team.

“(Cunningham’s) improving,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “He’s still got a ways to go, especially in terms of communication, but he’s trending upwards. I think he’s come a long way. ... I think him and coach Wilson have formed a tremendous relationship. He’s trending upwards and he allows himself to be pushed and coached because he’s going to have to to get him to where we need to be.”

Cunningham is raw and inexperienced, but teammates have seen improvement in his play compared to last year.

“He seems more confident with his play,” Slade-Matautia said. “Last year his fundamentals was kind of out the door, but I’m sure he focused on the offseason with the coaches, knowing the plays. There still is work to do but he’s going to be great when he gets the linebacker fundamentals down, the techniques.”

The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Cunningham said he feels comfortable at the weak-side role, which requires more coverage than the middle linebacker spot.

“I’m just worried about myself,” he said. “(I) get in my playbook so I can get out there, read my keys and make the plays that need to be made.”

The Ducks are clearly going to learn heavily on Dye and Slade-Matautia and rotate in Niu, but identifying the fourth and fifth options will be critical to keeping the starters fresh all season, something Oregon struggled with last year.

Cunningham, Eaford and Mathis have only a few practices left to show they can be trusted if need be in the season opener.

“I think the consistency from the operation standpoint (is critical) because it’s just not what you’re doing at linebacker at linebacker,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “It’s helping setup the fronts and the defense and that takes reps, that takes getting comfortable and confident in what you’re doing so you can get up there and be a field general.”

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©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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