Can Oregon DL Fulfill Potential?
By John Baker
What do Wade Keliikipi, Arik Armstead, Ricky Heimuli and Taylor Hart have in common? They are a very experienced, very talented set of defensive linemen who will be coached by a new face in 2013 -- Ron Aiken.
An NFL defensive line coach for years, Aiken has been tutoring defensive linemen for the Arizona Cardinals the past six years. What he inherits in the four players mentined earlier are a group that has played a ton in 2012 and could be on the cusp of somethin special. That means eyes and opinions will be fixed on Aiken's ability to maximize a group that may be one of the program's most talented -- end to end -- in a while.
Hart, Heimuli and Keliikipi are all pushing the 300-pound barrier and do their best work between the tackles, though Heimuli is capable of getting around the edge when given the opportunity. All three are stout against the run and were big reasons the Ducks, who get plenty of respect for the fast-paced offense, delivered more than a few memorable defensive performances in 2012. The wild card is Armstead, a true freshman who saw his playing time increase to a regular rotation slot by the end of the season.
A big-time recruit when he put on an Oregon hat as a high school senior, Armstead was given limited reps early on, but by the time the season reached its crucial juncture, the young man was playing major snaps for the Oregon defense -- and delivering some outstanding performances. Now, with a year under his belt and DE Dion Jordan off to the NFL, Armstead could see his freedom increased and that freakish combination of speed, quickness and strength dropped with a thud on other Pac-12 offenses. He could be special in 2013.
However, much of that success, if it comes, will be due to the arrival of Aiken, his ability to size up the talent and potential of his linemen, the ability to put them in the best positions to succeed, and develop some depth. At its height in 2012, the Ducks were rotating as many as eight defensive linemen in and out of the game regularly. Oregon's fast-paced offense can create some very quick offensive possessions, which means a defense that just got off the field returns pretty quickly. Developing quality depth on the defensive line will be a key for Aiken and the Oregon defense.
Because often, it's the Duck defense that's been the key to Oregon's offensive success. But don't tell that to the offense.