Position groups that must improve: No. 3

The first day of spring practice is more than a month away, but it’s never too early to take a look at what Oregon must do this spring to be a championship contender in the fall.

We’ll be doing different countdowns looking at players, position groups and position battles over the next month, and we’re starting this week with the five position groups that need to improve the most. Yesterday the safeties saw themselves at No. 4, today we moved up the defense a bit to the linebackers.

No. 3: Strongside linebacker

2013 review: The Oregon linebackers were stout in the middle of the field considering the amount of talent and number of reps they needed to replace from the previous season. They were good in run support as opponents only averaged 3.8 yards per rush, but there is certainly room for improvement. The Ducks held opponents to 100 rushes of 0 or negative yardage, and while that sounds like a solid number (averaging eight rushes of 0 or negative yardage per game), it ranked No. 97 nationally. By comparison, Tulane led the nation in opponent rushes of 0 or negative yardage with 172. And about a third of the time, opponent rushes went for at least five yards, which placed the Ducks at No. 23 nationally.

Why they must improve: The linebacker corps as a whole returns plenty of talent and experience in Tony Washington (60 tackles, including a team-high 12 tackles for a loss and a team-high 7.5 sacks), Derrick Malone (team-high 105 total tackles) and Rodney Hardrick (65 tackles including three for a loss). However, where they’ll need someone to step up is at strongside linebacker after losing Boseko Lokombo (63 tackles, seven tackles, team-high seven quarterback hurries). The Ducks will be looking to replace both its strongside defensive end and its strongside linebacker, so when opposing offensive coordinators look at the Oregon defense, there will be an evident hole in terms of experience. The Oregon defense up front is going to need to become stout quickly as it faces Michigan State and its talented rushing attack in Week 2. Last season running back Jeremy Langford emerged for the Spartans, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, so in order to slow his attack, and every other tough running back they face this season, the Ducks will need to find someone to step in at strongside linebacker. Tyson Coleman saw limited action last season, tallying 21 tackles, and he’ll likely compete with Torrodney Prevot (14 tackles) to fill the shoes left by Lokombo.

The countdown: