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Ducks' platoon D-line strength runs deep

Mix of older, younger players keeps UO opponents stirred up


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Arik Armstead is one of several Oregon Ducks prepared to take turns and make an impact in the defensive line this season.EUGENE — The Oregon Ducks do not lack for depth in the defensive line. Heading into the season, the Ducks have nine or more players who can step into a game and be a force in the trenches.

“We’ve got some older guys and some young guys who played last year,” first-year defensive line coach Ron Aiken says. “We’ve just got to keep everybody rolling and working hard. That’s what they’ve been doing so far.”

The Ducks will have senior leadership at defensive tackle with Taylor Hart, Ricky Havili-Heimuli (who added Havili this year to pay tribute to his mother’s maiden name), Wade Keliikipi and Jared Ebert. Redshirt sophomore Sam Kamp can play either defensive tackle or defensive end. Junior Tony Washington will likely see time at defensive end, and true freshman Torrodney Prevot could play the “drop end” role, although he seems headed to move back to a linebacker position.

Oregon also has three sophomore defensive linemen, all of whom played as true freshmen, all of whom can play any position on the defensive line, all of whom could be poised for monster seasons: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci.

Armstead grew up in a household where his brother Aaron and his sister Alexis were not athletes. But Armstead’s other brother, Armond, was a talented football player who went to USC. Arik decided to follow in Armond’s footsteps.

“My parents are fans of us and anything that we tried to do or any path that we would have chosen, they would support us,” Arik Armstead says. “My older brother was a huge help for me. I watched him go through his recruiting process and watched him play in college. We’re kind of walking the same path.”

Armstead was a five-star recruit coming out of Pleasant Grove High in Sacramento. Expectations were high for him to come in and be a star right away. He says that didn’t bother him.

“There really wasn’t any pressure,” Armstead says. “People expected things from me, but the type of person I am, I expected more from myself. I put more pressure on myself than anybody else did. I want to be more successful than anyone else thinks I can be.”

Last season, Armstead played in all 13 games, making 26 tackles, 11 unassisted tackles and two tackles for a loss.

Armstead, 6-8, 280 pounds, also redshirted on the Oregon basketball team.

“It was a different role from football,” he says. “My contribution to the basketball team was helping them as much as I could in practice and being a good teammate.”

Armstead plans to continue playing both football and basketball while he is at Oregon.

“I love them for different reasons,” he says. “They go hand-in-hand. If I didn’t have one, I wouldn’t be good in the other. Basketball helps me in football, and football helps me in basketball. It’s a good balance for my life.”

Armstead expects to contribute even more to the football team this season than he did last year.

“I expect to be an impact player on this defense and fly around and make a lot of plays and help any way I can,” he says.

Buckner also played in all 13 games last season, making 29 tackles, 15 unassisted and 2 1/2 tackles for a loss.

The 6-7, 265-pounder from Punahou High in Waianae, Hawaii admits playing as a true freshman was challenging, but says former defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro prepared him well.

“It was a big transition for me,” Buckner says. “But, I felt like I was ready before every game because Coach Az mentally got me in that mind-set that I could compete at this level. The way we practiced helped me feel comfortable before games.”

Buckner says the playing time will help him be more natural on the field this season.

“I know my plays a lot better, and I’m more comfortable executing those plays and not worrying if I mess up,” he says. “Now, I’m able to have fun and play football.”

Balducci, a 6-4, 290-pound sophomore from Central Catholic High, also finds himself in the deep mix of Oregon defensive linemen.

He played in the final four games last season, after being inserted into the California game in an emergency situation. He doesn’t regret breaking his redshirt season for limited play.

“I gained a lot of experience out of it,” he says. “I wanted to play, even though I was redshirting, no matter the circumstances. When I got my name called, I never looked back.”

A training camp and nearly three months of practice during the season helped prepare him to play. He remembers his first days in training camp.

“I feel like a vet now, but coming into camp last year, it was kind of hectic. I was confused, didn’t know the plays,” he says. “I was that nervous, scared freshman. I got a year under my belt, got some experience in big games. I feel good now, after it seemed like everything was being thrown at me a million miles per hour last year. Everything has slowed down.”

Aiken will likely stick with a rotation, and he likes to train guys to be versatile in Oregon’s multiple front.

Balducci understands his role, it’s to hold the middle in a defensive tackle situation — when he gets on the field.

With more than enough candidates for the D-line rotation, Balducci understood the pressure to perform in training camp.

“I think we’ll keep rotating, because we have so much talent. That’ll be a key part of our success,” he says. “We’ll play to the strength of our defensive line. If you have talent, you have to use it.

“We can all move, too. That’s good — got to be agile. We don’t have any guys who are stiffs. Everyone can roll.”

Balducci has bonded with his fellow defensive linemen. He rooms with Buckner and says “me and (converted tight end) T.J. Daniel are real good friends and me and Arik are good friends.”

Typically, younger players like to hang out with guys their age, although Balducci says he talks often with Hart, Keliikipi and Havili-Heimuli.

Even with Armstead, Buckner, Balducci and many others who can play on the D-line, Aiken would like to see more players step up.

“We would like to have another guy step up and join that group,” Aiken says.