Michael Doctor should be one of several Oregon St. linebackers who have a better year this season. (Photo by Andy Wooldridge)
With a strong secondary behind them, and edge speed from DE's Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn that the Beavers haven't fielded in over a decade, how Oregon St.'s linebackers play could well define the defense's season.
Last season, what was expected to be an area of strength became a problem when a rash of injuries hit. Senior OLB Cameron Collins, the only graduation loss, started 11 of 12 games, but couldn't keep completely healthy, playing dinged up much of the time, and needing relief in several games.
Then, when 3 LBs got hurt in one game against BYU, the Beavers were suddenly super thin at the position, with Reuben Robinson showing up at 2 or 3 different spots on the depth chart at once.
Depth remains an issue this season, after Tony Wilson retired due to recurring shoulder stinger problems.
But while Oregon St.'s season was going off the rails completely, then sophomore Michael Doctor was quietly having a pretty good season, recording 78 tackles, second on the team, and also grabbing a pair of interceptions.
With a solid season of starting under his belt, Doctor, now a junior, should have a significantly stronger campaign this fall at the weak-side linebacker spot.
A big key will be whether Feti Unga can stay healthy in his senior season. If Unga can stay on the field, the critical middle linebacker job should be in good hands. Its worth remembering that when Unga, who played in only 9 of 12 games, and missed 4 starts, first went down, it was he who was leading the Pac-12 in tackles. Not California's Mychal Kendricks or Washington's Cort Dennison. And Unga still finished 6th on the team in tackles, and led the Beavers in assists.
The wild card is sophomore strong side linebacker D.J. Welch. Welch, who will be making his first start against Nicholls St., played in 10 games last season, and inherits Collins' job. At 6'2", and just 225 lbs., Welch is built more like a weak-side backer, or a rover. But defensive coordinator and line backers coach Mark Banker, who has drawn considerable heat for Oregon St.'s repeated recent struggles, especially against spread offenses, wants to get more speed on the field, and Welch does bring that to the equation.
Welch set school records in both the 100 meters and 200 meters at Palm Desert High School before becoming a Beaver. How many linebackers at any level are the best sprinter in their program?
If the starters can avoid the injury bug, Robinson and Josh Williams, another in the seemingly endless series of Beavers who played as a true freshman, should provide the depth necessary, which could allow the Beavers to red-shirt Joel Skotte, who was the Oregon 5A Defensive Player of the Year.
But with both Unga and Robinson graduating after this season, it might be better to get Skotte some experience, as he could be heir apparent in the middle.
Depth at the outside spots is more problematical, as while Robinson made a couple of starts, one on each side, and played considerable minutes in relief of Collins, he doesn't have the speed to stay with the new breed of spread-read running backs becoming prevalent in the Pac-12.
Jabral Johnson, still another Beaver that played as a true freshman, and appeared in 9 games, figures to fit into the rotation this year, especially if injuries become an issue. Johnson will need to be ready for the likes of Utah's John White IV, California's Isi Sofele, and Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, because he's likely to get to see them up close.
Still, a somewhat unheralded Oregon St. linebacker group should have an improved season over last year.