On signing day in 2007, Oregon appeared set at defensive tackle. Highlighting a heralded class of recruits were two four-star, US Army All-Americans, defensive tackles Simi Fili and Miles Wade.
Unfortunately both failed to qualify academically.
Adding insult to injury, after filling its slots for defensive tackle, the coaches informed Fenuki Tupou's younger brother Christian that they no longer had a scholarship available for him... Christian now starts at d-tackle for the USC Trojans.
Then in 2008, Oregon signed five star defensive tackle, Justin Thompson, unfortunately, he too failed to meet the academic requirements for enrollment at the University of Oregon.
These recruiting failures contributed to Chip Kelly's decision not to retain defensive line coach Michael Gray, instead hiring former Marshall d-line coach Jerry Azzinaro.
Coach Azzinaro got rave reviews from players after spring practices. The players love his high energy approach as well as the practical application of his coaching drills. The d-line play was by far the surprise of spring practice, easing a lot of fan concern for the upcoming season.
Headlining the d-line this year is All-American candidate, defensive end Will Tukuafu. The 6'4", 272 pound senior from Salt Lake City has started for the Ducks for the past two seasons.
The 25 year old (two year LDS mission from 2002-2004) Tukuafu has shown a combination of toughness and quickness, that makes him an offensive lineman's nightmare. Last season he recorded 17.5 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks.
With Nick Reed off to the NFL, the Ducks will have to find someone to replace him at the other defensive tackle position. His backup for the past two seasons, Kenny Rowe, appears to be the favorite going into fall camp.
Rowe, a former 4-star recruit from Long Beach Poly, is undersized by defensive line standards (6'3", 230) and coaches flirted with moving him to linebacker, but decided to keep him at defensive end. Due to several blowout victories, he has seen extensive playing time and has performed adequately.
Rowe's biggest challenge at the end position could come from Zac Clark. Clark is a 6'2", 256 pound junior who transferred to the University of Oregon last winter from Butler C.C., where he was a key player in their NJCAA National Championship team.
Other players who figure to challenge for playing time at end are Tyrell Irvin, Terrell Turner and Mike DiVincenzo.
Irvin was former 4-star recruit at outside linebacker and like Rowe will be more of a hybred defensive end. Turner appeared in three games last season before being injured and DiVincenzo returned an interception for a touchdown in the 2007 Sun Bowl.
For the third straight season, the Ducks must replace both of their starting defensive tackles. Ra'Shon Harris was last seasons most improved player, as he parlayed his excellent senior season into an NFL draft pick.
The Ducks are hoping that Simi Toeaina and Blake Ferras follow Harris' example and step it up for their senior seasons. Both have decent size (Toeaina 6'4", 318; Ferras 6'6", 290), strength and agility. Ferras would appear to have the upper hand based on game experience, but Toeaina was excellent during the spring.
The breakout player during spring practices, however, was Brandon Bair.
Many questioned whether Bair would be tough enough to handle the pounding on the inside, but he simply made plays all spring. The 6'7", 250, junior is not your prototypical defensive tackle. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with quickness and technique.
Like Tukuafu, Bair also will also turn 25 this season after choosing to serve an LDS mission before enrolling at the UofO. Expect to see Brandon line up at all positions on the line, depending on the situation.
Another player who could factor as a starter at defensive tackle is Terrance Montgomery. Montgomery, the 6'2", 295 pound junior from Pittsburgh transferred to Oregon last winter from Reedley C.C. and had four tackles during the Spring Game.
Montgomery served in the Army right after high school and will turn 24 years old this September, and also like Bair and Tukuafu is already married.
Newcomers this fall at defensive tackle include JC transfer Andrew Iupati and true freshmen Wade Keliikipi and Justin Brown. All have decent size and could work their way into the rotation.
Like a lot of things in the nation this year, this is a year of change at the defensive line for the Oregon Ducks. While the spring drills showed great promise, the performance of this unit could have the greatest factor in how this season turns out.