Want to run up the middle against Oregon State?

If you get past the defensive tackles, middle linebacker Kevin Unga will be there to make the stop.

Want to get around the edge?

That’s when outside linebackers Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander run down the ball carrier.

The trio of starting linebackers have helped turn the Beavers into one of the tougher run defenses in the nation.

They’ve been pretty solid against the pass as well.

Doctor and Alexander can run with receivers and are particularly adept at blowing up screen plays.

“They’re the second level of defense,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “They’ve got to work in combination with the front, they’ve got to work in combination with the back end, from a standpoint of run defense and pass defense. So they do a lot.”

They’ve done it well so far this season.

As a group, they certainly could be considered among the top linebacker corps in the conference.

“You’ve got (Unga) with a combination of power and speed, me and D.J. have got speed and power at the outside,” Doctor said. “So I feel like it’s a great fit. It’s a great mixture for all three of us.”

At 6-foot, 223 pounds, Doctor isn’t the most imposing player.

He’s got the speed to avoid those offensive linemen.

Football IQ comes in handy as well.

Doctor started last season and that experience shows. He leads the Beavers with 46 total tackles — five for loss — and has an interception.

“Michael Doctor, he’s smart,” Alexander said. “When I have a question, I’ll go to him, ‘What do you think of this?’ He’s just intelligent. He knows how to read stuff.”

Alexander can flat out fly for a linebacker.

With that speed comes impact.

As a sophomore, Alexander (6-2, 225) has developed to the point where he is adept at making the right read on plays, such as receiver screens.

The result is often a crushing tackle that can knock the wind out of an entire drive.

He’s fourth on the team with 31 total tackles, five for loss. He has a sack and forced a fumble.

“It’s good having him and his speed out there,” Unga said. “He’s flying everywhere and it’s good because he can make plays. He can lose two or three steps and still make a play.”

Alexander and Doctor bring the Beavers the kind of speed seen in elite defenses, such as the ones in the SEC.

As offenses with lightning-fast backs and mobile quarterbacks become more prevalent, players like Doctor and Alexander are needed on the other side of the ball.

“They run real well,” Banker said. “With today’s offenses and the way they make you play in space and get you singled up one-on-one, whether it be in run defense or pass coverage or having to make tackles in the open field, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Unga, a senior, holds it all together as the middle linebacker.

The Beavers took a step back last season when he went down with a sprained knee on the first play of the BYU game and was out for the next three games.

He’s got the size (6-1, 248) and the strength to staunch any flow that leaks through the line.

Banker calls Unga the Beavers’ hammer in the middle.

“Feti, that guy, he plugs holes for us and he stops the run up the middle and he’s a hard hitter,” Alexander said. “He’s a tremendous player.”

The three starters get the bulk of the snaps but if one needs a rest, Rueben Robinson is ready.

Robinson is a senior and has the size (6-3, 235) and skill to step in for any of the starters.

“Reuben’s diversity being able to play in the middle as well as the outside is tremendous,” Banker said.

Improvement has come easily under coach Trent Bray, a former middle linebacker for the Beavers.

Although Bray is a graduate assistant, he coached the position at Arizona State for three seasons.

“I think it’s huge to have a position coach totally devoid of any other responsibility and just being able to spend his 100-percent attention,” Banker said. “Not only that, he’s a good coach. That’s the important thing. He’s been in this system before and is not only comfortable with the system but he’s comfortable here in the environment of Oregon State and knows what it takes to play here and be a part of this program.”

OSU has produced some top linebackers in the last decade, including Nick Barnett, Richard Seigler, James Allen and Keith Ellison.

Doctor, Alexader and Unga could be added to that list soon.

Maybe a chance at the NFL as well.

“I think these guys will get their shot,” Banker said. “What the complete product will be, I think it’s still in front of them.”

Kevin Hampton is sports reporter for the Gazette-Times. He can be reached at 541-758-9519 or kevin.hampton@lee.net.

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