SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — “What are they like? What are they like, what are they like, what are they like…,” Oregon linebacker Boseko Lokombo thinks aloud, repeating the question as if the answer will come to him, eventually, if he says it enough times.
Then he snaps his fingers in the air in front of him, as if he caught the idea as it floated past.
“They are complete opposites in almost every way,” Lokombo said. “On and off the field. I can’t imagine two people being friends that were more different.”
Oregon’s Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, two of the best linebackers to ever play for the Ducks, will play their last game together in Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl against No. 7 Kansas State.
For reasons as different as the two players themselves, that they’ve reached this point is nothing short of remarkable.
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Alonso and Clay were both prep football stars in the Bay Area, separated by 12 miles in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains — Alonso at Los Gatos High and Clay one year behind him at San Jose’s Bellarmine College Prep.
“We met my junior year of high school, somebody hooked us up and we started working out together,” Clay said. “So when I committed to Oregon, I felt good because I already knew somebody there. We’ve been tight ever since.”
At 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, Clay has always defied expectations as to what someone his size could do on a football field. He turned himself into a four-star recruit at Bellarmine, then forced his way onto the field for the Ducks as a long snapper in 2009 when plans were for him to redshirt. He was Oregon’s top reserve linebacker in 2010 when the Ducks went to the BCS title game, then became a full-time starter in 2011, when he had 102 tackles.
He leads Oregon with 92 tackles this season.
Off the field, he’s been equally as impressive, earning All-Pac 12 academic honors and volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club in Eugene.
“From Day 1, Michael Clay didn’t act like a freshman, he’s always been mature, always been a leader,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “He is our smartest football player, and by that I mean he is the closest thing to a coach out there on the field that we have. He is on the inside, controlling things.”
Alonso’s road has been considerably more rocky — at 6-4 and 246 pounds, he is the prototype for a linebacker, but off-the-field difficulties held him back several times.
In 2010, he was arrested for DUI and suspended for the entire season. In May 2011, Alonso was arrested for felony burglary, criminal trespassing and criminal mischief. The felony was dropped when he pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal mischief and second-degree criminal trespass.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly suspended Alonso indefinitely after the second arrest, then reinstated Alonso after the Ducks’ season-opening loss to LSU last season.
“You can’t have two lives, you can’t be one thing on the football field and then another thing when you’re away from the game,” Aliotti said. “Once he got everything in his life aligned, he’s been great. I can honestly say he’s been on the straight and narrow since everything happened (in 2011).”
Alonso capped his junior year by earning defensive player of the game honors in Oregon’s Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, intercepting Russell Wilson in the third quarter to set up a Ducks touchdown and give Oregon a 42-38 lead.
This season, he’s second on the team with 75 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss and four interceptions. He’s projected as a mid-round pick in April’s NFL Draft.
“See ball, get ball, eat ball, that’s Kiko,” Aliotti said. “I don’t try to reel him in, I just unleash him when he’s out there. He’s a baller.”
Alonso is grateful for his second chance.
“If you’re messing up off the field, you’re not going to be on the field, simple as that,” Alonso said. “I’m very appreciative I learned that sooner than later. I’m not patting myself on the back or anything like that, I’m just glad I’m in the situation I am today.”
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The one constant for Alonso, through good times and bad, has been Clay.
“We have a very strong relationship, something that goes beyond football,” Alonso said. “I think we complement each other really well.”
And they get one more chance to play together, facing another 11-1 team in K-State and a Heisman Trophy third-place finisher in quarterback Collin Klein.
“(Alonso) is like my security blanket out there,” Clay said. “He’s right there when you need him.”