For the past 20 years, the Oregon Ducks have had no problem finding skill position players on both sides of the ball. The primary issue that has kept them from reaching the top of the college football world has always been a lack of size and power on the offensive and defensive lines.
Critics like to point out Oregon's relative lack of size compared to powerhouse programs from the SEC. Their point was proven with Oregon's offensive line failing to hold up against dominant defensive fronts.
That hasn't been the case with the defensive line as the Ducks have held up nicely in the trenches against much larger offensive lines. Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been very successful in recent years by utilizing different schemes with the physical limitations along the defensive line.
The Ducks knew that bulking up along the lines was the difference between being good and becoming great. Adding size, depth and talent to the defensive line became Oregon's No. 1 priority in recruiting.
Considering the recruiting slump the Ducks suffered through with defensive linemen from 2007-2010, the success they have enjoyed is remarkable. Before the bad luck began, the Ducks seemed to be building a strong tradition on the defensive line.
On the heels of their No. 2 in 2001, the Ducks were able to sign Haloti Ngata, the top high school defensive tackle prospect in the country in their 2002 recruiting class. In the same class, the Ducks signed a relative unknown junior college defensive tackle named Junior Siavii.
Matt Toeaina signed with Oregon in 2002 as a running back but later transitioned to defensive tackle and was later drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. DE Igor Olshansky had a solid NFL career after his time at Oregon.
After having four defensive linemen selected in the draft between 2004-2007, the Ducks struggled to find consistency along the defensive line. Oregon was able to sign a number of big and talented defensive linemen from 2007 through 2010, but academic issues kept them from building a dominant line.
In the class of 2005, the Ducks were unable to keep Ndamukong Suh in state, and everyone knows the impact he had at Nebraska.
In the 2007 recruiting class, the Ducks signed six defensive linemen, but only two of them ended their careers at Oregon. They signed two U.S. Army All-Americans who weighed more than 320 pounds and were going to be relied upon as the anchors in the middle for the next four years.
Three of the high school stars couldn't qualify academically and never made it into the university. Tonio Celotto, the fourth high school prospect in the class, left the program after two years despite earning significant playing time.
The following year, the Ducks signed two junior college defensive tackles to help shore up the middle of the defensive line. After being ineligible out of high school, DT Myles Wade tried to sign with the Ducks again after a year in junior college. Once again, he was unable to be admitted to the university.
Reporter John Hunt of The Oregonian wrote about highly regarded junior college DT Justin Thompson, who met the same fate as Wade after committing to the Ducks in 2008 and 2009.
The Ducks moved former tight ends Brandon Bair and Dion Jordan to the other side of the ball to help solidify the defense. The moves paid huge dividends for the Ducks, as Bair became an All Pac-10 performer as a senior. Jordan became a star as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker and was selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
In 2009, the Ducks signed eight defensive linemen to make up for the lack of bodies due to the recruiting troubles. Just one of the eight failed to make it into school, but two of the high school signees never made an impact and two of the junior college signees left the program after one year.
|Oregon defensive line starters 2011 BCS championship game|
|DE Terrell Turner||6'3"||261|
|DT Zac Clark||6'2"||270|
|DT Brandon Bair||6'7"||272|
|DE Kenny Rowe||6'3"||232|
|2011 Oregon BCS Media Guide/GoDucks.com|
Zac Clark became a huge part of the program by playing end and tackle for the Ducks over the next two years. His versatility enabled the Ducks to use different looks as they tried to confuse their opponents.
After a four years of piecing together a solid defensive line, the Ducks are building a championship-caliber unit.
In the 2010 class, Oregon had two of the top defensive ends in the country attending high school within two hours of its campus but failed to sign either one. They were able to sign three linemen who all panned out. DE Tony Washington has emerged as a star in 2013 and leads the Ducks with 6.5 sacks, according to cfbstats.com.
|Oregon's defensive line rotation in 2013|
|DE Tony Washington||6'3"||243|
|DE Christian French||6'5"||244|
|DL Sam Kamp||6'4"||258|
|DL Arik Armstead||6'8"||285|
|DL Taylor Hart||6'6"||287|
|DL DeForest Buckner||6'7"||286|
|DL Stetzon Bair||6'9"||276|
|DT Jared Ebert||6'5"||275|
|DT Alec Balducci||6'4"||297|
|DT Ricky Havili-Heimuli||6'4"||314|
|DT Wade Keliikipi||6'3"||306|
As a senior in 2013, the 6'3", 306-pound Keliikipi has emerged as the anchor of the defensive line. The versatile Hart is the relentless leader who, according to nfldraftscout.com is projected as the No. 5 DE in next year's draft. Like Clark did, Hart plays all over the line, allowing the Ducks to show a number of looks to their opponents.
There was a lot of excitement for fans when Oregon signed a prototypical defensive tackle in its 2010 recruiting class. After years of being pushed around on the defensive front, the Ducks signed one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the country in Ricky Heimuli, who now goes by Ricky Havili-Heimuli.
The 6'4", 314-pound Havili-Heimuli has been nagged by injuries for most of his career, but when healthy, he has been a very solid contributor in the middle of the defensive line.
After missing out on the top in-state lineman numerous times in previous years, the Ducks signed the state's top lineman in 2010 and 2011, Oregon signed three high school All-Americans in the 2012 recruiting class.
Each one brought a rare blend of size and athleticism the Ducks hadn't had in years. At 6'8", 295 pounds, Arik Armstead was the headliner of the group. DeForest Buckner came to Oregon at 6'7", 245 pounds but quickly added 40 pounds and will likely take over for Hart as the versatile leader in 2014.
The Ducks signed the top in-state defensive lineman when DT Alec Balducci joined Armstead and Buckner in the class. The 6'4", 297-pound Balducci earned valuable experience as a freshman and should be ready to take over one of the starting tackle positions in 2014.
The Ducks have seen a major improvement in recruiting over the past few years, and the defensive line has been the biggest beneficiary. Based on height and weight, the defensive line looks more intimidating than ever on paper.
On the field, the transformation is even more noticeable as they have performed at a high level through the first seven games of the season. Against the rush, the Ducks are allowing just 3.25 yards per carry, their lowest mark since the 2008 season, according to cfbstats.com. The linemen have 24.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks so far this season.
The size, talent, skill and depth have all improved dramatically with the recent influx of defensive linemen, and they have the opportunity to show the nation that the Ducks are more than a great offense and an elite secondary.
They now have the kind of defensive line that will allow them to compete with anyone in the country. If they show they can handle UCLA and Stanford in the next two games, the Ducks will be well on their way to having a shot to prove how far they've come in the BCS Championship Game.