Oregon Football Recruiting: DT Position Continues to Be an Issue for Ducks

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Oregon Football Recruiting: DT Position Continues to Be an Issue for Ducks
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Oregon has to get creative to stop the run because of the lack of a dominant presence in the middle.

You've probably heard this before.

The Oregon Ducks have a serious issue when it comes to the defensive tackle position.

Another signing day has come and gone without the signature of a prototypical defensive tackle coming through the fax machines of Oregon's swanky football facilities. The time has come for Oregon to change the way it recruits the most important and elusive position to its championship dreams.

The program known for making changes at a blistering pace needs to make a couple more of them. Oregon's approach to defensive tackle recruiting needs a complete makeover.

The Ducks did sign five defensive linemen, but none of them weigh more than 270 pounds. Losing their top three interior defenders after the 2013 season put an even greater emphasis on the defensive tackle position for the 2014 recruiting class.

Austin Maloata, Henry Mondeaux, Tui Talia and Justin Hollins are all defensive ends, while Jalen Jelks is listed as a defensive tackle. At 6'7", 253 pounds, Jelks has a huge frame, but he is cut from the same cloth as many recent defensive linemen at Oregon. 

Aside from Hollins, the other four could all eventually wind up at 280 pounds or more, but none of them have the true feel of a gap-controlling run-stopper. 

Maloata is the most likely of the group to end up as a force in the middle. He is a physical and nasty defender who can rush off the edge or fight off double-teams on the inside. 

The defensive tackle position is always a primary target for all programs, but even more so for the Ducks. Unfortunately for Oregon fans the perceived lack of urgency by the staff doesn't always make that appear to be the case.

The way the game has changed, it would be fair to say that there is no such thing as a prototype at any position. While that is close to the truth, it isn't the whole truth.

It has been proven by championship teams every year. It has also been proven in Oregon's nine losses over the past five seasons.

The Ducks have the kind of talent, speed and skill that allows them to win the majority of their games by simply showing up. There are only a handful of teams that can match what the Ducks have in terms of offensive weapons and playmakers in the secondary. On the edges, Oregon is among college football's elite.

The interior is a completely different story. 

The Ducks have been repeatedly exposed when facing off against physical teams like Stanford, Auburn and LSU.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Oregon has used creativity and athleticism to compete with physical teams but that isn't enough.

Defensive tackles are a rare breed, and the challenge of finding a difference-maker at the position is on par with trying to find a program-changing quarterback.

So why is it that the Ducks continue to struggle with the concept of aggressively pursuing elite defensive tackles out of the gate? 

Oregon has made a habit of making late, seemingly desperate attempts at wooing elite defensive tackles. The Ducks did offer 11 defensive tackles in the 2014 recruiting cycle, which is actually a large number for a specialized position.

The problem lies with the approach and timing of the offers. 

The Ducks were aggressive early by offering four tackles before the 2013 season and two more during the season. Once the staff realized it wasn't getting anywhere with the original prospects, the Ducks offered five more at the position over the final six weeks of the recruiting cycle.

To be fair, the Ducks did jump all over three big-time tackles as soon as they decommitted from schools that lost their coaches in the weeks following the season.

But why not offer them months prior? Oregon hasn't made a habit of offering or pursuing players committed to other programs. It's probably time for it to start.

That's how recruiting works. Other programs offer Oregon commits all the time and with decommitments becoming more commonplace, they are smart in doing so. Recruiting starts earlier with each passing year, and schools that get on the ball first have a big advantage.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Ricky Heimuli battled injuries throughout his career and never became the force the Ducks were hoping for.

After years of suffering through some lean years of patchwork defensive lines, it's time for the Ducks to change their approach.

All things considered, the Ducks have actually done a masterful job of piecing together defensive lines over the past few seasons. Making it work is nice, but the defensive line of a championship team does more than make it work. It makes a difference.

The Ducks suffered massive losses on the defensive line after the 2013 season, including two prototypical run-stopping tackles in the middle. Ricky Heimuli is the last elite high school prospect the Ducks have signed who had the typical makeup of a star defensive tackle.

The previous year they signed Wade Keliikipi, who was just a 2-star recruit, but also came in with the kind of frame coaches look for. Heimuli struggled with injuries throughout his career and never lived up to the considerable hype he received during his recruitment.

Keliikipi eventually developed into a solid interior player, but together the pair wasn't good enough to stop the bleeding against power-running teams.

It used to be that the Ducks were considered too small along the defensive line, but they have taken care of that with massive bodies like Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and more.

So the real blame might fall on the style of play.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Arik Armstead has size and skill but needs to step up in 2014.

UCLA freshman standout Eddie Vanderdoes was a 5-star defensive tackle in 2013 who had Oregon as a favorite early in the recruiting process.

Oregon offered the Sacramento, Calif., area star fairly early in the process, but the June offer was months after SEC powers Alabama and LSU had offered. Once they did offer, the Ducks seemingly got complacent and let him slip away.

After dropping Oregon from his list of favorites during the season, Vanderdoes told me that he went weeks at a time without hearing from his recruiters at Oregon. Maybe the Ducks thought they had him, but he was obviously turned off by the lack of contact.

His other big complaint doesn't get talked about as much, but the scheme utilized by the Ducks on the defensive front isn't very desirable for nasty and aggressive defenders. According to Vanderdoes, the Ducks wanted him to be a "punching bag" in the middle by drawing blockers toward him instead of attacking the line.

Vanderdoes told me that the idea of a read-and-react scheme didn't appeal to him at all. He is a rare breed who can play on the outside as an elite pass-rusher that can hold the edge in the run game and also disrupt the offense's rhythm in the middle.  

For the same reason that many offensive linemen never really consider Oregon, the defensive line scheme is a turn off for many defensive players.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Oregon's defensive scheme was a big turn off for UCLA freshman Eddie Vanderdoes.

Offensive lineman like to run block more than pass block. Why? Because in the run game, they are the aggressor. They get to drive off the ball and punish defenders.

Defensive linemen are the same way. They want to attack the backfield by running stunts, bull-rushing or getting through the gap by splitting blockers with a quick first step. At Oregon, the role of the defensive front has been much different in recent years.

Watch other teams play and their defensive linemen are on the balls of their feet with their weight leaning forward. At Oregon, the defensive line looks very non-threatening before the snap by staying balanced with their weight staying back in order to quickly rise up and react to the offense's movements.

Against a team like Stanford, it can be painful for Oregon fans to watch.

It has worked for the Ducks to some extent, but it doesn't get the job done against the big boys. The relative lack of bulk eventually becomes too much for them to overcome.

The Ducks should become more aggressive and try to beat more physical teams off the ball in order to gain penetration. In doing so, the Ducks might be able to earn a reputation as a physical team, which is attractive to interior defenders.

With Nick Aliotti now retired, Don Pellum taking over his spot at defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ron Aiken entering his second season in Eugene, Ore., things could certainly change in 2014 and beyond.

For the sake of its championship dreams Oregon needs to adapt to what its failures have told it and finally adopt a new philosophy. 

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