In Defense Of: The Duck Defensive Line

DE Tony Washington

Gone from the 2013 Duck D-Line are such stalwarts as Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and Ricky Havili-Heimuli.  All very good players who will be missed, but the cupboard isn’t bare.  Though some fans panicked at Oregon’s inability to close on a couple of highly regarded D-Lineman on LOI day, there remains much to look forward to from the Duck’s DL in 2014.  Here are some reasons to believe Oregon’s D-Line will deliver:

DE Arik Armstead

Kevin Cline

DE Arik Armstead

Arik Armstead hangs up his Nike Hyperdunks.

Or at least they’re now strictly really cool campus kicks.  When last seen on the hardwood, he was taking a pass from Jalil Abdul-Bassit and deftly kissing the ball off the glass for two.  He showed soft hands, great feet and amazing quickness in a tight space to make an athletic play few college lineman could pull off.

Now he’s all in for football, which can only mean he’s determined to make his 2014 season special.  Heaven knows, at 6-8 and a chipotle burrito under three bills, he doesn’t need to get any bigger.  Yet apparently he’s taking his game from the hardwood of the Matthew Knight Arena to the even harder Brazilian Ipe wood of the weight room in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.  If you’re a Pac-12 offensive lineman, this is not good news.

DT DeForest Buckner

Andrew Shurtleff

DT DeForest Buckner

DeForest DeStroys offenses.

No player’s continued progression is any more tantalizing than DeForest Buckner’s.  Few and far between are the players who are ready to step on the field as true freshmen and play significant snaps.  Buckner did that in 2012, which is why in just his third year in the program, it feels like he’s been around forever.

He’s 6-7 and 286 pounds.  He’s a Hawaiian hoss.  Buckner is tough against the run, explosive at the snap (thanks Jimmy Rad!) and fast enough to run down a play from behind.  With his towering frame, might he add even more muscle and not lose any quickness?  Either way, he’s got All Pac-12 potential.

DE Tony Washington

Courtesey of Valero Alamo Bowl

DE Tony Washington

Washington hates Washington.

Okay, maybe not really.  How much rancor can one’s heart muster for a team routinely trampled?  All Tony Washington was tasked to do in 2013 was step in and make everyone forget the departure of Dion Jordan, the third player chosen in the 2013 NFL Draft.  All he did was make plays with 60 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles.  And, to go with his Pac-12 Academic All-Conference honors, he’s studying right now for a big senior finish to his Oregon career.

DT Alex Balducci

Craig Strobeck

DT Alex Balducci

We just like saying “Balducci.”

Great football name, Alex Balducci.  Right?  It’s a moniker that would have been at home in the classic movie The Godfather.  Balducci would have been the hit man Luca Brasi.  You can just see DL coach Ron Aiken glancing at the beefy Portland native a bit off-handedly and saying, “Balducci, take care of it.”  Look for the defensive tackle out of Central Catholic to continue to make Oregonians proud in 2014.  And look for running backs and quarterbacks to be the ones “sleeping with the fishes” (fans under 40, Google it).

DE Christian French

Andrew Shurtleff

DE Christian French

Christian French? Oui.

Of the players mentioned so far, big Christian French is the biggest unknown.  But the upside is undeniable.  Flash back to the 2011 Army All-American game, the first and still most renowned of the growing number of national high school All-Star tilts.  French runs about forty yards to catch and tackle a running back from behind.

We’re talking about a running back that probably runs a 4.4 forty!  Army All-American running backs are not Budweiser Clydesdales, but French is a big, very fast defensive end.  Time will tell whether or not the physically gifted athlete will take his game to the next level in 2014.  He certainly wouldn’t be the first player to shine in his third year in the program.

Will a newcomer continue Oregon's tradition of Poly standouts?

Craig Strobeck

Will a newcomer continue Oregon’s tradition of Poly standouts?

The Poly Pipeline continues.

New defensive coordinator Don Pellum and defensive line coach Ron Aiken are hopeful they’re getting immediate help in the form of J.C. All-American Tui Talia out of the Bay Area’s Diablo Valley College.  After all, the 6-5, 270-pound Tulia was ranked the No. 1 Junior College DE by ESPN.com.  While the jump from J.C. to Pac-12 football is considerable, Talia will be one to watch during Spring ball.

Then there’s the captivating prospect of Austin Maloata.  Originally a USC commit coveted by the erstwhile Trojan defensive line guru, Ed Oregeron, Maloata figures to be more of a project.  He has only one year of American football under his belt, but he was a force at one of Southern California’s top prep programs, Centennial High School in Corona.  He’s also 291 pounds of “relentless motor,” as noted by goducks.com.  Time will tell, but we can dream, right?

DT Stetzon Bair

Kevin Cline

DT Stetzon Bair

Waiting in the wings.

Inevitably each season sees a newcomer rise from obscurity to assert himself and become part of the rotation.  This is especially true at Oregon, where the modus operandi is to play a lot of bodies in order to keep everyone fresh enough to play fast.

On signing day, coach Helfrich dismissed concerns about his D-Line and offered up the name T.J. Daniel, a sophomore from Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, as one whose scout team exploits had coaches dreaming big.  Others poised to assert themselves include returnies Sam Kamp, Stetzon Bair, Cody Carriger and Ryan Hagen, along with incoming freshmen Jalen Jelks and Henry Mondeaux.

The upshot is this: when the 2014 season kicks off, Oregon will be ready with a fast, well-conditioned and deep D-Line.  Don’t sweat it, Duck fans.  Leave the sweating to the summer workouts and the guys who can’t wait to get after it all over again in September.  What say you?  I invite your comments below.

Top photo: Kevin Cline

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Casey Fluegge

Casey Fluegge

Casey Fluegge grew up on a farm west of Junction City, Oregon. Today he is a self-employed advertising copywriter living and working in West Des Moines, Iowa. He is far, far away from Autzen Stadium, Matthew Knight Arena, Hayward Field and PK Park, and thus he thinks the Pac12 Network is one of the greatest advancements in recorded history. He thinks the fact that DirecTV doesn’t carry the Pac 12 Networks is one of the world’s great travesties. (Because Dish really sucks!) Casey is a graduate of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, circa 1987. After 25 years of working in advertising agencies in San Diego, Kansas City and Minneapolis, he is now the sole owner of Casey Fluegge Creative, LLC (visit his site at caseyflueggecreative.com). Call, email or tweet him sometime if you need help with your company’s advertising. Or if you just want to talk Ducks.

  • Rusty

    Great article, I’m not worried… Although the defense will be on the field a lot , as usual after we score in 60 seconds…

    • cfluegge

      Touche, Rusty:)

  • geauxdux

    More worried about our linebackers. They were the weak link last season. If we shore that group up, the defense will be fine.

    • cfluegge

      You make a valid point, geauxdux. Stay tuned. In the future, I will address the linebackers, as well. I’ll be interested to get your take on that. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Guest

    Thanks for the write-up. Oregon certainly has some talent but they have BIG shoes to replace.

    The Ducks should be able to put a good “starting” defensive line unit on the field in 2014. Some, including myself, are a little more concerned about depth and, to a lesser extent, size since we rotate so frequently and failed to stop the power rushing offenses this past year (see Stanford).

    One area that you didn’t address in the article is the possible change in philosophy by our new DC, who has hinted in interviews that he intents to be more aggressive on the defensive front (less read-and-react?) and how he wants our d-lineman to become stronger. This might have just as large an impact as who suits up next year, IMHO.

    Other concerns about Oregon’s football team include: linebackers (as previously mentioned) and our decline in red zone offense. A healthy MM should help with the later, but the playcalling also needs to improve (i.e., more runs inside the redzone?).

    • cfluegge

      All excellent points! By all means, the ability of the Ducks to develop some of their young talent into players who can rotate in and add depth will be huge (no pun intended). I also agree it will be interesting to watch Coach Pellum’s impact on the defense, particularly as it pertains to the front. I will also examine linebackers in a future story. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Randy

    A bit too polyanna for my blood. I thought this piece would be a defense of the unjustly maligned D-line of 2013, which would have been welcomed, and more interesting. The D line essentially got the blame that should have been heaped on the line backers when it came to not holding up against run heavy offenses.

    No, instead you hammer home the homer, in an attempt to pacify fans disappointed in Oregon’s many failed attempts to land a true D tackle. Regardless of your fluff piece, it has been a concern. Additionally, both stats and the ol’ eye-ball test will tell you that the three D linemen you build up in your piece – Buckner, Balducci, and Armstead – did not continue on the trajectory they promised in ’12.

    I assume that your readers here are grown men who enjoy football talk, but who are also mature enough to acknowledge disappointment. I, for one, don’t need a cheerleader telling me some version of “we didn’t actually want any of those D linemen we’ve been whiffing on these past few years (See Ellis McCarthy, Eddie Vanderdoes, from the last couple of years, Cal’s entire starting D line from a few years back, and Trey, Poona an this year.