Ken Wilson Mixes and Matches Young Linebackers in Spring Scrimmage

Veterans continue to learn the defense while new faces got their first taste of live action.
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Playing in front of fans inside Autzen Stadium for the first time since 2019, Linebackers Coach Ken Wilson said it was a mixed bag for his group in Saturday's scrimmage.

"The play on the field was a little erratic. We got a lot of work to do," Wilson said of his position group. "There were some good things, there was a lot of bad things. It was kind of up and down."

Almost every defensive player we've heard from in spring has said they feel the transition to a new defense has gone smoothly. However, Mario Cristobal has said his team has already installed two and a half seasons worth of material. It seems like we saw a bit of that learning curve Saturday.

"I think all of the different things out there--and putting in a lot of new stuff, guys getting to compete again and tackle for the first time since the bowl game--there were a lot of things going on," the coach said. "Some of these guys handled it really well and some of them have to pick it up a little bit."

The Ducks have added some new faces to their defensive staff this offseason, namely in Tim DeRuyter and Marcel Yates. Wilson spent time coaching alongside DeRuyter in their time together at Nevada and already had a longstanding relationship with Yates. 

"I've worked with Tim in the past, so that was a great deal to have him back with me," Wilson said of the Ducks' defensive coordinator. "I really enjoyed my time previously."

The addition of the pair from Cal gives the Oregon defensive staff a nice blend of seasoned veterans and motivated up-and-comers in graduate assistants and quality control staff, a recipe for success any head coach would welcome.

Now passing the halfway mark, Wilson said it's time to hit another gear to continue the defense's push for improvement. 

The talent is certainly there for the linebacker core, but the group may be one of the youngest on the team, with players like Isaac Slade-Matautia, Dru Mathis, and Nate Heaukulani the only ones with actual spring scrimmage experience. With that in mind, Wilson wanted to distribute Saturday's reps to younger players like Noah Sewell and Jackson LaDuke to get a taste of what that's like.

"I needed to get guys out there and get them goin and see what that looks like," he said of his approach. "With the temperature up and stuff they gotta push through some of that and learn how to play division one Pac-12 big-time football." 

Keeping in the spring spirit of experimentation, mixing and matching players also allows the staff to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each player, as Wilson works to find the best combination for game one against Fresno State. 

With such a young room, he's not worried about clarifying any sort of depth this spring. Rather, he's leaving it in the players' hands.

"I'm letting them make that decision with how they play and how they go about it, Wilson said. "I tell them constantly this an open competition out there and you're gonna make mistakes, but the one thing I don't wanna see is guys not playing hard." 

Another point of emphasis this spring is instilling the culture of the program. Wilson said he's relying on players like Sewell and Slade-Matautia, who have seen ample game action, to teach the newer players the standard of grit and mental toughness that is expected at Oregon.

All practices serve as an opportunity for instruction, but the Ducks' scrimmage Saturday was free-flowing and intended to serve as a gauge of sorts. 

"We were just letting them play. We were throwing it all at them so we could see how far in the progression we are--what we need to maybe pull back on, what guys can handle," Wilson said.

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