The 2012 recruiting class for college football was full of stellar defensive line prospects that had big dreams and huge hopes of becoming the next legend for the school that each prospect signed to play for. DeForest Buckner (DeFo) was not an exception when the 6-foot-7 inch Hawaiian declared to play at the University of Oregon. He had many options to play for a program more storied, but something made Eugene more like home for the next four years.
Buckner was not an under-the-radar type of player that Oregon often recruits. He graduated from high school as a 4-star athlete. According to scout.com, Buckner was the No. 126 overall prep player and No. 17 defensive end in 2012. Not only was he recognized by recruiting services but also had a big chip on his shoulder and a huge heart to prove who he could become, which motivated him to show his tremendous work ethic.
Oregon seemed the least likely to boost Buckner to the NFL. Oregon is not the school that clearly dominates at signing the most highly touted linemen. Buckner gave the Ducks a chance, and it has paid off. When Oregon can get a good-to-great lineman, the outcome after three to four years for that athlete has shown a very high level of over achievement and an ability to make an impact in the NFL.
Buckner and his excellent character, talent and heart fit right in with what Oregon is trying to establish as the norm. Leading into the 2015 season – before Buckner started his first game as a senior – he was touted by Phil Steele in his preseason magazine. Buckner was listed in the top defensive ends with only four other players ahead of him.
The sole junior in that top four group is Joey Bosa out of Ohio State. His stellar career has been very impressive despite the uber talent blanketing the Buckeyes’ defense. Bosa was ranked at the top by Steele, who had Shawn Oakman from Baylor and Shilique Calhoun of Michigan State ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
Oakman is a freak of an athlete that was slowed down by getting kicked off Penn State’s squad in 2011 and sat out a year at Baylor because of transfer rules. 2014 was Oakman’s breakout year, but even today he is dealing with legal issues.
Calhoun is a solid DE that was part of one of the top rushing defenses in the country, in large part due to him. Spartan fans are calling Calhoun a “safe” pick in the draft, in reference to his consistency and lack of off-field issues.
DeFo had a great senior year and improved his stock for the NFL to as high as the first or second DE projected to be picked – along with Bosa who decided to forgo his senior year. In fact, Buckner was selected as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and 1st-team all-American by USA Today for 2015 and has visited several NFL teams already, leading up to Draft Day on April 28. Other honors can be found on goducks.com.
I went back to the 2012 class on scout.com and researched all 16 defensive ends that were rated higher than Buckner coming out of high school. Of those 16, four of them opted to skip their senior year for the NFL.
First is No. 1, 5-star Mario Edwards, who played at Florida State and was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders, as the 35th overall selection for 2015.
Second is No. 10, Dante Fowler (cool last name), a 4-star who played for Florida and was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the first round as the 3rd overall pick (although he did not play due to a knee injury in mini camp before the season).
Third is No. 13, 4-star defensive tackle Leonard Williams from USC, where he dominated offensive lines and was snatched up in the first round by the New York Jets as the 6th overall selection.
Finally, No. 14, Danielle Hunter, who played as a 4-star at LSU and was taken by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round, with the 88th pick overall.
Also looking back, were several top defensive ends who didn’t work out and ended up transferring.
The No. 2 guy, Noah Spence was a 5-star who signed with Ohio State but failed drug tests in 2013 and wound up at Eastern Kentucky; however, he may still get drafted within the top ten picks.
A 4-star who was recruited with Spence, No. 9 Se’Von Pittman, injured his knee in the spring of 2012 and finally ended up transferring to Akron.
Michigan signed No. 12, 4-star Tom Strobel, who tallied six tackles in three years on the field and found himself playing for the Ohio University Bobcats.
No. 16 Devonte Fields, who played as an outside linebacker for TCU and was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a true freshman. The fame must have gone straight to his head, because he was dismissed from the team before the 2014 season for assault and decided to transfer to Louisville.
Being ranked so high may not treat all people equally. Some know how to deal with the pressures put upon them from media and fans while others not so much. Yet another Ohio State signee, No. 3, Adolphus Washington showed much potential at defensive tackle, but the 5-star ended up getting suspended after an arrest in a prostitution sting.
Unfortunately, football is a physical sport and people can get hurt, and just because you are a top 150 prospect doesn’t make you immune to injury. Such is the case with No. 6, 5-star Darius Hamilton, who suffered a season-ending injury early 2015 after being named a captain for Rutgers a year prior.
Then, No. 7 Chris Casher who was recruited with Edwards, had difficulty as another 5-star for FSU that had a season-ending injury in his freshman year and another prior to the 2015 season (not to mention all the off-field incidents and misfortunes with the troubled Jameis Winston).
There is a mental aspect of football that only serious, hard-working players experience that helps define one’s toughness. Baylor signed the No. 11, 4-star DE in 2012 named Javonte Magee, who played for one year then left football entirely for undisclosed family issues.
Also, No. 15 Jelani Hamilton, who signed with Miami as a 4-star prospect with great expectations, suffered three knee injuries resulting in three surgeries in three years, which proved to be too much to bear and ultimately left Miami.
Some actually stayed and, especially compared to DeFo, underachieved greatly.
Three SEC 5-star blue chippers were deemed for greatness and targeted to become top-5 picks in the NFL draft some day. The No. 4, Jonathan Bullard, with Florida and No. 5 Jordan Jenkins, who played outside linebacker for Georgia, were each successful and opted to stay for their senior year but have not gotten the attention that Buckner had.
Finally, the last 5-star of the class of defensive ends in 2012, No. 8, Channing Ward was never a starter at Ole Miss until his four starts his senior year this past season. That’s incredible!
So, what was it that got DeForest Buckner to rise so high in his evaluations as a defensive lineman over the last four years? Was it the great coaching at Oregon? Was it the top-notch facilities on campus? Was it the full-time dietician and trainer that made Buckner work his tail off between seasons? Was it his determination and motivation to be the best? Was it his desire to prove to his family and friends back home in Hawaii that he can become something great? A combination of a few or all of these?
Haloti Ngata was the start of offensive-line destroyers drafted in 2006. Since then, two more defensive linemen from Oregon have been drafted in the first round. Dion Jordan in 2013 and Arik Armstead last year. Buckner will be the fourth that Oregon can tout heading into the NFL draft that will undoubtedly make an immediate impact on the team that hands him the reigns.
Buckner’s pathway to the NFL has been less than ordinary, with his development in Eugene when others chose “more successful” schools. The seven defensive studs that signed with the three schools Ohio State, Florida State and Florida combined to have two guys selected within the first 10 picks last year and potentially only one this year (Spence from Eastern Kentucky now). Buckner definitely appears to be the smartest one of the bunch and may start a youth movement for those who work hard and want a school that will not let them fail.
Buckner’s future is uncertain, but the present is bright and full of optimism. His hard work has gotten him this far and the Oregon coaches have harnessed his power through the past four years to prepare him for his next step in life as an NFL player. He could go No. 1 or No. 5 in the first round, but one thing is certain, he did Oregon fans proud and we look forward to following his success from here on out.
Good luck, DeFo!
Top photo by John Sperry
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