Michael Clay, Dion Jordan and Kiko Alonso are now alums. The backbone of a defense that went 46-7 with four trips to the BCS, striking last year for 26 interceptions and 28 sacks, they've moved on to NFL tryouts and the rest of their lives.
That means Nick Aliotti and Don Pellum have to replace the soul and leadership of a superb unit. It also means they have to replace 226 tackles this season. That's a lot of hits to replace in the middle of the lineup. Some will come from Derrick Malone and Tyson Coleman, touted recruits from the 2010 class who are now juniors. They got a ton of time over the last two years in the rotation and on special teams. Now they have a spring and a summer to prove they're ready to replace legends who stood and delivered in the greatest era of Oregon football.
Coleman's maturity is still an open question. He was the host last weekend when recruiting prospect Davin Bellamy made his official visit, the two winding up in an unfortunate Twitter photo with a bong as a centerpiece, two years after Coleman was arrested for running from the police after ditching a can of Four Loko in the bushes. Alonso had his troubles too, and made a marvelous turnaround. Young Coleman faces a similar challenge, to improve his judgment and decide what kind of leader he wants to be.
On the field, Malone and Coleman are dynamic and athletic, and could be a significant part of the answer in replacing the accomplished tandem of Clay and Alonso. Clay was the heady, alert captain directing traffic, Alonso the physical specimen and NFL prototype at 6-4, 242, making interceptions against USC and Oregon State with a cast on his hand. Together they combined for 24 tackles for loss last season and 191 tackles, setting the tone in practice and on Saturdays. The Ducks will have to paddle furiously to replace them.
Returning outside linebacker Boseko Lokombo, a top reserve in his first three seasons as a Duck, with a knack for big interceptions and the country fumble, could be ready for a much larger role in 2013. He's always been quick and instinctive, flashing his terrific potential in a 8-tackle performance in the loss to Stanford. Lokombo has four career defensive touchdowns. He's played in all 40 games of his Oregon career, recording 36, 33, and 39 tackles in the first three years.
A fourth part of the answer could be Joe Walker, the 6-2, 225-lb. transfer from Harbor Community College in Los Angeles.
Walker is another of the under-the-radar, late-blooming, versatile athletes the Duck coaches have specialized in developing over the last few years. Undersized and coming off shoulder surgery, he wasn't recruited as a 2010 senior at Palos Verdes High School. Suffering through a year off from football, he applied himself in rehab and the weight room, careful to take a part-time load at Harbor to avoid starting his eligibility clock.
Walker added 25 pounds of muscle, exploding in his freshman season with 107 tackles, 7th in the state among junior college players. He led a defense that allowed opponents just 3.6 yards per rush. Offers poured in from around the country, and after a December visit he chose the Ducks.
The exciting thing about Walker as a new signee is his range and recognition. The highlight film shows him running plays down all over the field, tackling one-on-one in space, chasing down ball carriers and quarterbacks from sideline to sideline. He plays with enthusiasm and desire, diving, slashing, aggressive and hungry. He's already enrolled at Oregon and taking classes, and Jim Radcliffe and his staff will make him even stronger and more explosive.
The recruiting sites say he runs a 4.5 40, but everybody runs a 4.5 40 during recruitment. Darron Thomas was listed at 4.5 as a high school senior. In the words of the immortal Casey Stengal, you could look it up.
Walker's year without football seemed to deepen his perspective. If he can adjust to the speed and strength of D-1 football and learn the defense, he could fill Alonso's role in 2013, writing another redemption/underdog story that is the best part of sports.