Rodney Hardrick may be the answer to one of the Oregon Ducks' biggest questions heading into the 2013 season.
Perhaps the most troubling of the team's offseason concerns comes in the wake middle linebacker Kiko Alonso's departure. Oregon lacks an obvious replacement for Alonso on the inside, especially with the transfer of 235-pound junior Anthony Wallace.
Before his knee injury midway through the 2011 season, Hardrick was receiving a significant amount of playing time as a true freshman, racking up eight total tackles in four games. Though his production on the field actually regressed during his first full season in 2012, Hardrick still provided valuable depth as a sophomore.
The Ducks appear to be set at outside linebacker, even with the departure of senior leader Michael Clay. Boseko Lokombo, Tyson Coleman and Derrick Malone are all promising options.
Still, that gap in the middle looms large on Oregon's defense.
Redshirt sophomore Rahim Cassell appears to be one of the favorites to replace Alonso. However, his small build and outstanding athleticism seem to make him more fit to play on the outside with Lokombo, Coleman and Malone.
Over the last four seasons, Oregon has played host to a string of outstanding inside linebackers. Casey Matthews, Josh Kaddu and Alonso are all NFL-caliber players.
Each of them also eclipsed 235 pounds.
Even Dewitt Stuckey, who received a significant chunk of playing time on the inside in 2011, weighed in at 229 pounds by the time he left the Ducks.
To put it in perspective, Cassell weighs only 215 pounds while Hardrick weighs 230 pounds.
The Ducks do have a history of playing faster, leaner athletes at linebacker. Nonetheless, Cassell's slight frame may be pushing the limit on the inside, and it is imperative that the team can find a player who has enough bulk to act as the rock in the middle of the defense.
Hardrick has not only the size to play in the middle, but he also has the intangibles.
According to Rob Moseley of The Register-Guard, he kept a positive attitude and great work ethic even while he was out with his injury:
“You’re on the sideline, you hear the call, you echo the call for the defense,” Hardrick said. “I’m not in, but I have the mental part down. Now it’s just getting my body to catch up.”
Graduating linebacker Michael Clay also had positive things to say about the player:
“He knows the WILL (weak-side) and MIKE (middle), both positions, so he can give me and Kiko a blow when we get tired out there,” Clay said. “So he’s a big asset to us."
Because of Hardrick's knowledge of the playbook, he is versatile enough to play on both the inside or the outside.
Ultimately, his set of intangibles, including a high football IQ, a strong work ethic and a positive attitude, combine with his talent and size to make Hardrick a primary candidate to start at middle linebacker for the Ducks in 2013.