Oregon Football — What’s the ‘BIG’ Deal?


A great man is always willing to be little. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Zach Okun isn’t the future of Oregon football — he’s the now. All 6’4″, 315 pounds of him. The Newbury Park, California, high school junior decided to end his recruitment process almost a year in advance of national signing day for the Class of 2015. In the time it took him to reach the Eugene airport, once he’d made the announcement on Twitter that he was going to Oregon, more than 40 college coaches lit up his smartphone, trying to change his mind. Schools that include USC, Notre Dame, Miami, Arizona, and Mississippi State are apparently out of luck.

Zach Okun is big. Very big. And he's a Duck.

Zach Okun is big. Very big. And he’s a Duck.

Young Okun’s commitment to the Ducks is a sign of what is quietly happening at the moment in Eugene, as well as a harbinger of things to come. The inescapable fact seen is that the Ducks’ brain-trust is not, as some critical fans would have it, brain-dead. They understand that to get over that final hump, to take those last few steps onto the lofty summit that is a national championship, they need to stay faster and stronger than the college competition — and get a little bigger.

I give you Zach Okun.

Scary-good defensive end, Rivals No. 1 player in the Class of 2015, Byron Cowart

Scary-good defensive end, Rivals No. 1 player in the Class of 2015, Byron Cowart.

Or, maybe, just maybe, the player Rivals rank as the No. 1 kid in the nation’s 2015 class, defensive end Byron Cowart, said to also be leaning toward becoming a Duck. As a junior, the Armwood, Florida, product racked up 72 tackles and 13 sacks, either blowing past or bowling over opposing linemen with frightening ease.

If Cowart does become a Duck (keep your eyes peeled on Nike’s ”The Opening” this week, where Cowart will be strutting his stuff and checking out what it feels like to play in something less than 100% humidity), he’ll have left the Alabamas, Floridas, and Clemsons of the collegiate football world at the altar.

“OK, whatever,” you may be thinking. Fact is the Ducks are, in the end, all about fast and slick. When push comes to shove — or in games against the likes of big, beefy teams like ‘Bama, Stanford, or Michigan State, when push comes to stuff — the smaller Ducks are inevitably worn down to a frazzle, analogous to the seemingly uncatchable roadrunner finally beaned by a bulky boulder.

Well, that was, for the sake of argument, then. So back to now. For the sheer fun of it, I decided to do a bit of highly unscientific data collecting. I zeroed in on the official 2014 rosters of the Ducks, the Alabama Crimson Tide, and the Michigan State Spartans. I specifically looked at each team’s respective offensive and defensive lines. I made no attempt to separate first- from third-stringers. Nor did I include defensive ends, tight ends, linebackers or defensive backs. Just guards, tackles, and centers on offense and interior DLs.

What I found is fascinating. On the offensive line, Michigan State lists 10 players, the largest of whom, Benny McGowan, tips the scales at 319 pounds. As a group, the Spartans weigh in at 3,852 pounds. Alabama’s roster features 13 offensive linemen, led (at least at the dinner table) by the gargantuan Brandon Hill — all 385 pounds of him. Collectively, the Crimson Tide total 4,081 pounds, roughly the weight of a stripped down Ford F-150 pickup.

They admittedly make 'em big in the SEC...

They admittedly make ’em big in the SEC …

Then we have the Ducks. As you know, the Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich/Scott Frost approach to offensive football makes perfect sense, given that they’re coaching in a town officially branded as Track Town USA. One of their freshmen wide receivers, Devon Allen, just won the national championship in the 110-meter hurdles. The guy who won the 2013 world championship finished third. Remember, Allen’s a freshman.

Obviously an offense that features players such as Allen, fleet-footed Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota, and hyper-speed running backs such as Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner had better have some linemen that can get up and run a bit themselves. So goodbye enormous, SEC-style paunches, and hello relatively lean muscle mass. Just to be safe, it’s probably a good idea to have enough bodies on hand so they can be platooned during a game, coming at the opposition in fresh waves. Ever been to the Oregon coast? Who’s winning, the sand dunes or the Pacific Ocean?

Which is why the Ducks list 20 (that’s twenty) offensive linemen on their 2014 roster, with Everett Benyard the biggest, at 305 pounds. As a group, they total a whopping 5,981 pounds. That’s 1,900 pounds more than Alabama, and a jaw-dropping 2,129 pounds more than Sparty. By the way, the Ducks also have recent signees Haniteli Louisi (OG, 295), Tyrell Crosby (OT, 290), Davis Miyashiro-Saipaia (OT, 285), and Braden Eggert (OT, 305) joining the fray this season. Add to that current 2015 verbal commitments from Brady Aiello (OT, 270), Calvin Throckmorton (OL, 270), Jake Hanson (OL, 285), and the aforementioned Okun (think these youngsters are going to shrink over the next year or two?), and the cavalry isn’t coming, folks, it has arrived.

So what about defense? Here, the Ducks are far more balanced. Having said that, because of their propensity to score quickly — and often — it would be logical to err on the side of down linemen who are above all, fit. And back them up with tough, aggressive defensive ends, linebackers and defensive backs, which the Ducks have done, and continue to do.

At 300 lbs.+, Ricky Heimuli is no "West Coast lightweight"

At 320+ lbs., Ducks lineman Ricky Heimuli is no “West Coast lightweight.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama sports nine linemen, with Darren Lake tipping the scales at 324 pounds. As a group, the Crimson Tide’s defensive linemen come in at 2,609 pounds. Michigan State also lists nine defensive linemen, topped by 308-pound Devyn Salmon. Together, the biggest of the Spartan defensive corps total 2,548 pounds. Back in Eugene, Oregon’s heaviest defensive lineman is Ricky Heimuli, at 321 pounds (that’s right, bigger than the heftiest defensive player in Tuscaloosa). Joined by seven teammates, the Ducks’ middle defensive unit totals 2,187 pounds. That’s 381 pounds lighter than their counterparts at Michigan State, and 422 pounds lighter than the ‘Bama boys. Gaps, yes, but certainly not as glaring as the ones that exist between the Oregon offensive unit, en masse, and their fellow elite gridiron adversaries.

So there you go. One man’s perhaps slightly provocative perspective on the perceived size gap between Oregon and the types of big, bad, smashmouth teams that have occasionally proved the Ducks’ undoing in the recent past. I suspect Coach Helfrich and his staff recite that Emerson quote with tongues firmly in cheek these days. When it comes to size, in a general sense at least, Oregon appears to be walking softly, while carrying an awfully big stick — one that’s getting bigger all the time.

Featured image courtesy of Zach Okun

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Randy Morse

Randy Morse

Randy Morse (Editor and Writer) is a native Oregonian, a South Eugene High and U of O grad (where he played soccer for the Ducks, waaay back in ’70-‘71). After his doctoral work at the University of Alberta he launched a writing & publishing career – that plus his love of mountaineering has taken him all over the world. An award-winning artist, musician, broadcaster, and author, he’s written 8 books – his writing on media & democracy earned him the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s 2014 Dalton Camp Award. He swears he taught LaMarcus Aldridge his patented fade-way jump shot, and is adamant that if he hadn’t left the country (and was a foot taller) he would be the owner of a prosperous chain of fast food outlets and a member of the NBA Hall of Fame by now. If there is a more rabid Ducks fan in the known universe, this would come as a major surprise to Morse’s long-suffering family. He resides in the tiny alpine village of Kaslo, British Columbia.

7 Responses

  1. DUCK RN says:

    You say that Ricky H. is heavier than the Alabama DL but 324 is more than 321. ???

  2. pdxsiskiyou says:

    At the start of the 2013 season I compared the height, weight and class of Oregon’s defensive front seven to Alabama’s. The 1st and 2nd string player’s stats were from documents released by Oregon and Alabama just prior to the first game of the season; both lists had 3 DL’s and 4 LB’s.

    Average size of starting DL: Height the same; Oregon over 3 lbs per man heaver.
    Average size of 2nd string DL: Oregon plus 2″; Alabama 13 lbs. heaver per man.
    Average size of 1st string LB: Oregon 1″ taller; Alabama almost 12 lbs. heaver.
    Average size of 2nd string LB: Alabama 1″ taller and almost 18 lbs heaver per man.
    Oregon’s 1st and 2nd string front 7 averaged almost one additional year of experience per man.

    Avg. 1st String DL – 6’4″ 297.33 lbs.
    Avg. 2nd String DL – 6’6″ 278.33 lbs.
    Avg. 1st String LB – 6’4″ 229.50 lbs.
    Avg. 2nd String LB – 6’2″ 228.00 lbs.

    Avg. 1st String DL – 6’4″ 294.00 lbs.
    Avg. 2nd String DL – 6’4″ 291.67 lbs.
    Avg. 1st String LB – 6’3″ 241.25 lbs.
    Avg. 2nd String LB – 6’3″ 245.75 lbs.

    • Randy Morse Randy Morse says:

      Fascinating. Assume the variance in LB height and weight is a function of the two teams’ respective styles (i.e. the Ducks are looking for rangy, fast, hard-hitting types). The bottom line is the assumption that Oregon is made up of a bunch of skinny track stars is ridiculous — it’s made up of a bunch of strong, quick, and in many cases LARGE track stars!

  3. Godux says:

    The numbers are pretty much meaningless as presented, but useful in some sense. What is interesting is that the average player in the two lines Oregon has are about the same size. That puts the Oregon defense at disavantge when practicing for games with big offensive lines. Traditionally Offensive line outweigh the defense, though maybe not by as much as the Spartans do the Ducks.
    When Oregon faces off against MSU, using your numbers, they will be outweighed by about 100 pounds per man. Facing the practice squad simulating the MSU offense they have no way to ‘feel’ that presence.
    On the other hand, with that size, Michigan State defensive players are probably not going to face matched quickness with their practice squad ( or even their starters ) .
    It’s all going to break down into a battle of assignment and defensive technique.
    That could well play to a U of O advantage. When Michigan breaks though on O, it is more likely to result in a six to twelve yard gain, something Stanford proved leads to productive drives, but not many others have pulled off as consistently. When Oregon breaks though, it has a greater chance to result in an explosion play and a surer score (requiring fewer successful plays to reach pay dirt … sound familiar?) , since there are fewer players able to join the gang of tacklers defending Oregon’s runner in spread offense. To counter that the passing game, where the Ducks have an advantage anyway, has to be allowed a little more freedom by the Michigan state pass defense. Not good for them. Oregon already trusts their more experienced pass defenders, so pretty much has max dedication at first contact and general run defense so won’t change much.
    It will be interesting to see if Oregon’s concentration on size and strength will pay off in that confrontation.
    To take it a little further, and away from the intent of this article, technique, as a factor, across the d-team has to be good for each team. Oregon is built with more experience, playing roughly the same game plans they have in the past few season’s. Sparty has more new guys, replacing good players, and whom have not practiced against the speed they will face, and can’t. Technique, being a combination of quickness of interpretation and reaction, which improves with experience, is going to be the deciding factor. Oregon has more experience, less jeopardy of play result, and an O-line that may be among the best coached by Greatwood, who has always coached his players up to elite level and has an experienced group this year. MSU has size on their side.

  4. hokieduck says:

    Randy, If my third grade word problems stand me in good stead, you may want to look over your math again. If MSU has 10 players listed on the O line and together they weigh 3,852 pounds, that would mean that the average weight for the group of linemen is 385.2 pounds. Since you say the heaviest guy weighs in at 319… something seems amiss.

    Comparing the gross weights of the position groups (which have different numbers of members) simply doesn’t seem to me to provide much meaningful data, certainly not anything that would be jaw-dropping.

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