Ducks D-Line: Something Brewing
By John Baker
There are whispers of incredible plays, hints of what might be developing within the closed confines of the Oregon Ducks practice facility. Players offer small bits of information. Head coach Mark Helfrich and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti offer positive reports mixed with vague references.
A couple weeks into fall practice and there seems to be more and more evidence that what everyone thought they saw in the spring is really coming to pass. The Oregon defensive front is going to be good — really good. Oh, and deep. Really deep.
The Ducks came out with their two-deep roster earlier in the week and you see a group of players that are all going to play significant snaps for the Ducks. The position that catches the attention first is at one of the defensive tackle spots where true sophomore Arik Armstead has earned a starting nod over the experienced Ricky Heimuli. The rest of the current first-string defensive lineman are Wade Keliikipi at tackle, Taylor Hart and Tony Washington at the ends. What's even more intriguing, however, is the talent behind them. They may be starters right now, but their backups are guys who've made a few plays of their own during the last two years. Simply put, the margin between starters and backups is razor thin. They all can play.
Backup ends are DeForest Buckner and Christian French, a pair of guys capable of plenty of destruction. The tackles are Ricky Heimuli and Alex Balducci. Another name, Oshay Dunsmore, has been converted from the secondary into a defensive end, and he spent the last week making plays according to player reports and some nice compliments from the coaches.
What do you do with an apparent abundance of talent? You play them. That's what Aliotti's plans are moving forward. He said he won't have any hesitation playing seven, eight or even nine guys along the defensive front this season.
Oregon's national prowess is tied almost exclusively to its offensive attack, and well it should be. But the Ducks quietly are turning the defense into a tackling, playmaking brother to the offense. The secondary is stacked with returning starters and quality backups. The linebacking corps has replaced three missing starters from 2012, but should be OK. The defensive line, however, seems to be making the most people smile.
Armstead is one of the most highly-decorated high school defensive linemen ever to commit to Oregon and a lot was expected of him even as he played as a true frosh. He's big, he's long and he's athletic in addition to being nearly 300 pounds. The fact he's list ahead of Heimuli, who as a young player drew comparisons to Haloti Ngata, tells you the quality has risen to the surface.
Reports out of fall camp had the defense often getting the better of the offense in live situations. A big reason for that was the push and speed of a defensive front that has plenty of interchangeable parts, all with unique and effective skill sets. Armstead is the name people will look for this season, but the speed off the edges with Washington and Hart, combined with the ability to keep the line fresh throughout the games, is just as important.
Oregon may have a defense worthy of its offense — and worthy of a national championship game