In 1994, the "Gang Green" defense powered Oregon to the Rose Bowl. The heart and soul of that defense was the linebackers. The unit of Jeremy Asher, Rich Ruhl, Derrick Barnes, and Reggie Jordan simply made plays all over the field.
While that team put Oregon on the national map, it was largely made up of "sleepers" who were overlooked by the Pac-10's big boys at the time (USC, Washington, UCLA, and Arizona).
This year's unit of linebackers is probably the deepest, fastest, most athletic, and most highly recruited gang to ever play at Oregon.
Quarterbacking the unit is middle linebacker Casey Matthews. The son of former NFL star Clay Matthews, he broke family tradition by deciding not to attend USC.
The former Offense-Defense All-American showed his natural ability to play linebacker early, as he beat out a senior returning starter for the "Mike" position. After taking over as the starter, Matthews accumulated 67 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss.
This season, Matthews should challenge for a position on the All-Pac-10 team.
Last year's surprise player, Spencer Paysinger, returns as a starter at the "Will" position (weak-side linebacker). Paysinger was an afterthought before the spring of 2008, but the former wide receiver beat out several players for the starting position.
Paysinger's strong play continued throughout the season, as he was second on the team in tackles with 95 (25 for loss), playing well both at the line and in coverage. His interception returned for a touchdown put the final nail in the Beavers' coffin in last year's Civil War game.
Starting at the "Sam" position (strong-side linebacker) this season will be Eddie Pleasant. Pleasant, like Paysinger, also converted to linebacker for college, after being a star running back in high school.
Pleasant ended last season as Jerome Boyd's backup after playing mostly on special teams earlier in the season.
While he still may be considered the greenest of the starting linebackers, the coaches have high expectations for Pleasant.
Last winter he had the third fastest 40 time on the team (behind Jamere Holland and LaMichael James), and he showed off his speed and athleticism during spring practices. Also, at 5'11", 225 pounds, he is built like a tank. Pleasant is expected to be a star both at linebacker and on special teams.
While the starters for 2009 appear to be set, there is plenty of quality depth at all positions.
Backing up Matthews this season will be Bryson Littlejohn. The 6'1", 230-pound JC transfer was a four-star recruit last season who arrived in time for spring practices. During the spring, Littlejohn showed the speed and athleticism to play all three linebacker positions.
Also fighting for playing time on the inside this season will be sophomore Brandon Hanna (6'3", 233 lbs.) and redshirt freshman Kiko Alonzo (6'4", 225 lbs). Despite their positions on the depth chart, both players should get a lot of playing time on special teams.
The Ducks are probably deeper at the outside linebacker position than any other position on the team.
Pushing Paysinger and Pleasant for playing time will be senior Riley Showalter (6'3", 225 lbs.) and a trio of sophomores: Josh Kaddu (6'3", 205 lbs.), DeWitt Stuckey (6'3", 225 lbs.), and Terrence Pritchett (6'2", 215 lbs).
All of the backups at outside will make their presence known on special teams. During the spring, the coaches experimented with a kickoff coverage team made up of only linebackers.
Adding to the depth of the Oregon linebacking unit is a pair of four-star recruits that expect to play early for the Ducks. Boseko Lokombo (6'3", 215 lbs.) was generally considered the best recruit to come out of Canada last season (he played his junior season at South Eugene HS).
The Ducks also beat out California and Colorado for the Bay Area's top linebacker, Michael Clay. At 6'0", 220 pounds, Clay is expected to play on the outside for the Ducks.
While schools like USC, Oregon State, and California are often considered to have the Pac-10's strongest linebacking units, this season the Oregon Ducks' linebackers could have the largest role in deciding who wins the Pac-10 championship.