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By Jason Vondersmith/Portland Tribune/Eldest of three football brothers excited about Ducks' season

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON ATHLETICS - La'Mar Winston of Oregon returns a fumble 61 yards for a touchdown during the first half of  a 42-24 victory at California last season.EUGENE — La'Mar Winston speaks highly of his brothers — his teammates on the Oregon Ducks and, literally, two younger siblings.

Eli'Jah Winston, as a redshirt freshman linebacker, has a chance to play a lot for USC.

"My brother is better than me, and I've always said that," said La'Mar, the loquacious Oregon senior. "Some people are like, 'What you talking about?' I'm like, 'Nah, not a lot of people have had the opportunity to see him, see how he plays. If you like my game, imagine me but bigger, faster, stronger, smarter and better, even though he's younger.'"

And Emar'rion Winston is a sophomore at the brothers' alma mater, Central Catholic.

"Oh, that's the one I'm most excited about," La'Mar said.

The Winston at Oregon has lived up to his billing as a premier linebacker from Portland. He'll likely be a three-year starter, having started 16 games the past two years and played in 36 in his career, and perhaps he might be making plays as the UO defense's new "Stud" player.

Opponents surely will take notice of the 6-2, 225-pound Winston. He made his share of plays last season, including returning a fumble 61 yards for a touchdown at Cal, recording a strip-sack on third down on the final defensive possession to preserve a win against Arizona State and making a team-high 10 tackles in the Redbox Bowl win versus Michigan State.

It just seems like yesterday when Winston and fellow former Rams player Brady Breeze were recruited to Oregon by then-coach Mark Helfrich in 2015, and then stayed on even after the firing of Helfrich and hiring of Willie Taggart. Then Taggart left for Florida State and in came Mario Cristobal.

Winston played his first year on special teams, while Breeze redshirted. So, Winston is a senior and Breeze is a junior, eligibility-wise. (Breeze also is in contention to start and is likely to play a lot, at safety and on special teams.)

As verbal commits, they watched as Oregon went to the 2015 Alamo Bowl behind QB Vernon Adams and led 31-0, only for TCU to win in overtime.

In their first year, the Ducks fell to 4-8.

Taggart helped right the program somewhat, even with QB Justin Herbert injured, as the Ducks went 7-6.

Last year, the Ducks had trouble in road games, but the Cristobal-led team finished 9-4.

Many starters return, and it's a whole new attitude at Oregon. The Ducks have been picked to win the Pac-12 North Division by media, and the first Associated Press poll had them ranked 11th.

Seniors realize that for the first time in their tenure at Oregon the Ducks should be Pac-12 title contenders.

"It's a complete different mentality, we're talking about what guys had been part of, had an opportunity to do, they've been around (good teams) a little bit, but it'll be all new for a lot of us," Winston said. "It'll take a mentality we haven't had before."

So much has changed in the past five years at Oregon in Winston's time.

"Time flies when you're having fun. I heard that term in middle school and didn't know what it meant until now," he said.

"There have been catastrophic changes. Changes in everything. The culture as a whole, the way we carry ourselves and see things, what perspective we're looking at things, how we talk to each other, how we communicate. I could name so many things. Brother to brother, teammate to teammate, player to coach, the culture has changed. It feels different here. Everything's together, and I like that."

Winston remembers the post-Alamo Bowl Ducks, and the 4-8 Ducks in 2016, and playing for three head coaches in three years.

"A lot of our guys have handled it so well," Winston said. "A lot of guys could have packed up and left, turned around and looked for better opportunities. None of us quit, never gave up on each other and this program. This has shown a lot in our grit and emotions toward each other, the way we play and the passion we play with, that contributes to our jell and bond."

So many players return for the Ducks all over the field, including at linebacker with Winston, Troy Dye, Adrian Jackson, Isaac Slade-Matautia and Sampson Niu, and the position features some talented newcomers.

Andy Avalos, the new defensive coordinator who coached previously at Boise State, features the "Stud" performer, a linebacker/defensive end player assigned to create havoc and make plays. Winston, Jackson and defensive ends DJ Johnson, Bryson Young and Kayvon Thibodeaux have been working at the position.

"We have so many players it's hard to know who's going to play where because we all can do a lot," Winston said. "There's a lot of competition for that spot, and a lot of competition for a few other spots. That 'Stud' position you really have to be a playmaker and extremely disciplined and know your keys."

Winston characterizes Avalos' defense as "hyperactive" and "there are a lot of opportunities within this defense for guys across the board to make a play. It depends on how well you beat a (blocking) person. That's all you can ask for as a player, that's all you want to do is read and play fast."

Winston's Central Catholic buddy might be making plays right next to him. Cristobal and Avalos have spoken highly of Breeze's training camp play, and not just from a special teams perspective, and the 6-foot, 195-pound junior has the respect of his fellow Ram.

"He shows his commitment and consistency," Winston said. "I'm really excited for him to get an opportunity to show what player he is. He's a sideline-to-sideline player. He loves this program. He really loves this program, and he loves the game of football.

"And that man is a hitter. He and Nick Pickett (at safety), they are coming down and laying the wood ... When you work hard and things are aligning, you deserve those opportunities."

With the talent and experience, the Ducks have high hopes, but Winston and players know it won't be an easy road through Washington, Stanford and others to the Pac-12 North and Pac-12 titles.

The key word being "road," as Oregon's five toughest games, arguably, will be on the road: Auburn (Aug. 31 at Arlington, Texas), Stanford (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 2) and Arizona State (Nov. 23). The home schedule will be highlighted by Washington State (Oct. 26), which has beaten Oregon four consecutive years.

Last year, the Ducks blew a big lead and lost to Stanford at home, beat the rival Huskies at Autzen Stadium and then fell way behind and lost games at Washington State, Arizona and Utah.

Winston said the Ducks showed "that it was almost there, it was working."

He added: "With this year, we're not only excited, but we've got to handle business. A lot of games and plays we left out on the table. We have a lot of these guys returning, and some getting fresh opportunities, and we have to turn those plays into productivity. ... We play with that (road schedule) in consideration. Our goal since last year is to continue to play at a consistent level day in and day out, start games and finish games the same way, no let off.

"We've got to look at it as a blessing that a majority of our tough games are away; we need to be put into those positions. If we want to beat a team ... you want to be in those positions. Those (championship) teams dominate and execute in those realms, with those opportunities. I'm excited."

Yes, and maybe the Oregon-USC game on Nov. 2 will be a special time for the Winston brothers. Maybe the elder guy will show the younger a thing or two.

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