Just a month ago, there were questions as to who the starting MIK linebacker would be for the Beavs. Joel Skotte was struggling. And then the baton was passed to redshirt-freshman Rommel Mageo, who got his first start against Colorado. And he played very well, beyond most expectations.
But then came Cal and Washington State the last two weeks and with those pass-heavy teams, Mageo became the forgotten man. The nickel and dime defense were omnipresent, and your middle linebacker comes to the sidelines in lieu of a defensive back(s). But Stanford this week bears little resemblance to those two teams.
Those well-rehearsed dime and nickel packages the last two weeks are likely to give way to more 4-3, and Mageo figures to play a much larger role. In part, he could be asked to keep tabs on both Kevin Hogan and Tyler Gaffney, two of the primary producers in Stanford’s offensive arsenal. And so in just his second start, Mageo could face a heaping box of big, cardinal-red trouble.
If I were planted in his shoes, I would have goose bumps around the clock. If I came across anyone at the grocery 6-0 or better I’d probably launch myself at them yelling, “Ball, ball, ball!” OSU fans should thank the football gods that Mageo is far more composed.
“I’m preparing myself each and every day for it, and I’ll be ready by Saturday. I’m not nervous at all.” Mageo said.
THE SECOND-YEAR BEAV from Pago Pago, American Samoa knows the challenge that lies ahead.
But if knowledge is strength and strength is power, Mageo could have a significant, positive impact for the Beavs. If not, and as is often the case with inexperienced linebackers, the Stanford linemen and tailbacks could get the better of him. Based on what I’ve seen of Mageo this season in practice, and specifically with what I’ve seen of him this week, I’m going to go with the former.
“Right now I’m not worried about the physical part, I’m worried about the mental part,” Mageo said. “Reading my line keys and everything, seeing run or pass and doing what I’ve got to do.”
That's meant lots of game tape this week and tuning out the distractions – exactly what Oregon State linebackers coach Trent Bray wants from the 6-2, 244-pounder.
“This is a good game for him -- he’s a big, physical kid and this is a game where his physical presence will be much needed,” Bray said.
He shouldn’t be rusty. As Oregon State pulled away from Cal, Mageo saw his reps suddenly increase in the fourth quarter.
“He played about 21 snaps last week in the game against Cal, and you watch the film, he’s all over the place. They only had him for five tackles. When you go back and watch the film he had about eight in 21 plays. That’s extremely productive,” said Bray.
It's easier said than done, but Confidence has no idea whether you’re an inexperienced freshman or a fifth-year senior with 40 starts.
“He’s got what you need at MIK ‘backer,” Bray said. “He’s got a nose for the ball, and he finds a way to get to the ball.
“That’s the most important thing. When you start thinking too much about, ‘Where I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do’, it can slow you down. Practice is when you think and get in the right spots and by Saturday, you’ve done it so many times or watched it so many times, it’s a reaction -- not a thought process.”
I’ve had the benefit of being able to observe Mageo in practice on a weekly basis. Talkative he is not, but when the ball is snapped he is utterly immersed in the play with no fear of crashing the big bodies on the line -- as if he’s coated in a protective alloy and contact is as necessary as oxygen.
“It all starts with where I came from,” Mageo said. “Football is pretty physical back home and I just thought I’d bring it to the table. I thought I’d lead by hitting people, and I guess that’s how you lead by example.”
That mentality is vital to Oregon State’s defensive dynamic.
“We noticed it when we first put him in against San Diego State -- guys rally around a guy like that,” Bray said. “All of a sudden you are out there playing and big hits are happening – it lifts a defense up just like sacks do. His presence and his ability to be physical and set the tone with his play is huge for us.”
Only two teams have forced more than one Stanford turnover in a game -- Army put up a good fight and lost, Utah had better luck and won. If Mageo and the Beaver defense can make the big hits, bring pressure, cover tightly enough and force at least two turnovers, I gotta say I really like their chances against the No. 6 team in the land.
And my crystal call says the tipping point is going to be Mageo’s play. And no matter what happens, I’m pretty sure we’ll see him fighting to the very end.
“It’s going to be a tough game and during the game, a lot of things are going to change,” Mageo said. “The worst thing you got to do is back down.”