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UO walk-on emerges as spring standout

EUGENE — The hiring of Brady Hoke gave everyone on Oregon’s defense a clean slate.

Perhaps no player is taking advantage of the opportunity more during spring practice than De’Quan McDowell.

The walk-on from Marshalltown, Iowa, has caught the new defensive coordinator’s eye and earned the respect of his teammates with his aggressive play at linebacker through a dozen spring practices.

“I think he’s a guy who makes a lot of plays for us right now,” Hoke said. “He plays fast, he seems to understand things, and I’m pretty impressed with him to this point. He still has to be more consistent in what we’re doing.”

That qualifies as high praise from the old-school Hoke, who prefers not to talk about players individually at this early stage of the transition to his 4-3 scheme.

A year ago, McDowell arrived on campus without any promises as a lightly recruited wide receiver from Ellsworth Community College. After doing enough in a tryout to make the cut, the 6-1, 203-pound transfer switched to defense and tied for the team lead with five tackles in the spring game.

“I just pretty much came out here on faith and had the mentality that I was going to make the team no matter what,” said McDowell, who had Division II scholarship offers coming out of high school but opted for junior college with the goal of eventually playing major college football. “I was doing what I had to do to make it. I made it and have been working hard ever since.”

During the 2015 season, McDowell saw limited game action on special teams and played on the scout team defense in practice. Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick, two steady senior starters last season, took him under their wing in the linebackers room.

“I’ve never played linebacker in my life,” McDowell said. “Just coming out here I went into football-mode. We had our walk-on tryouts. I felt like the real tryout was in the spring at linebacker. I had to transition there. Joe and Rodney really helped me with the transition and learning what I needed to do.”

When Hoke was hired by Mark Helfrich after a historically bad season for the Ducks on defense, the former Michigan coach didn’t want the other coaches to tell him anything about the returning players so he could form his own opinions about the personnel.

McDowell, a psychology major, has tried to perform with the swagger of a blue-chip recruit instead of a greenhorn at his position.

“I told him the other day that I’ve got so much respect for him because he’s a walk-on,” linebacker Paris Bostick said. “For him to be able to do what we do, us being the guys on scholarship, and being committed to this like we do, I’ve got so much respect for him.

“He works harder than anyone on the team, I think, because he feels like he has to prove something. That kind of attitude drives everybody to be better. He’s all over the place. In every film I’ve watched, he’s around the ball.”

McDowell was the most valuable player on the Marshalltown High team as a senior, finishing with 80 receptions for 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns at wide receiver and 59 tackles and three interceptions at defensive back.

In two seasons at Ellsworth Community College, McDowell had only nine catches for 122 yards and five tackles.

“It’s great being out here running around, being able to exhaust myself, constantly watching myself get better, it’s been fun,” McDowell said. “I’ve just worked hard at anything and everything I needed to get better at — being more physical, knowing my techniques, learning the assignments. We have a whole new defense, so I’ve been able to study that and know what I’m doing without thinking.”

McDowell said he has been rotating with Johnny Ragin, a projected starter, in the nickel package and learning the weakside linebacker position in the base defense.

Teammates expect McDowell to be more than just a spring fling for Hoke. It sounds like he’s on track to be a key cog in the Ducks’ revamped defense in the fall.

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Bostick said. “I love De’Quan personally because I’ve been the underdog in my life. We all have and we know what that’s like. For a guy like that to be at this level and competing and making plays like he does every day, much respect to him.

“I think that will definitely carry over. His attitude that he brings to practice every day is great.”

McDowell doesn’t plan to let up until his dream of playing meaningful snaps at Oregon is realized in 2016.

“I’m hungry, I want this,” McDowell said. “It means everything. All the hard work and effort, when I look back I just look at everything I’ve been through and came through to get to here.

“It just makes me want to keep going as far as I can and wear it out.”