After a nice run of NFL talent along the defensive front from 2002-05, the Oregon Ducks took a number of hits with recruits failing to qualify or not showing up on campus for a variety of reasons. When new defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro arrived in 2009, things began to change in Eugene. While the talent has been building in recent years, the defensive line was the one glaring weakness when comparing Oregon to the likes of SEC powers Auburn, LSU and Alabama.
The Ducks have excelled at nearly every position outside of DL in recent years. The linebackers have been key in helping the Ducks to high sack totals, but 2012 looks like the season it all comes together up front for the Ducks. The depth, size and talent are at an all-time high in Eugene, as key returners are back for another go around and a number of impact newcomers will be entering the fold.
After losing Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from the 2010 BCS runner-ups, the defensive line stepped up last year and kept the Ducks among the elite. Now that they have another year under their belts, look for Oregon's front line to make a big impact in 2012.
Sophomores: Tony Washington
Dion Jordan: The former wide receiver recruit moved to tight end before making the switch to the defensive side of the ball. It turned out to be the best decision he has ever made. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Jordan wreaked havoc all over the field with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2011. With a stronger group lined up next to him in 2012, Jordan should exceed those numbers in spite of the extra attention he is likely to receive from opponents.
Tony Washington: Washington began to emerge late in the year on the defensive line and finished with 18 tackles and a sack as a freshman. In the Pac-12 Championship Game vs. UCLA, Washington had a pass breakup and a forced fumble. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Washington should emerge as a major contributor in 2012.
Koa Ka'ai: The highly touted Hawaiian should make an impact coming off of a redshirt season. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Ka'ai is a versatile athlete who will move around and become a solid rotational player in 2012.
Arik Armstead: The mammoth Armstead is the size of a defensive tackle, but his athleticism will allow the Ducks to move him around and be a terror no matter where he is lined up. His size and talent alone should have the 6-foot-8, 297-pound Armstead on the field immediately.
DeForest Buckner: Buckner is another big, athletic end the Ducks might not be able to keep off the field in 2012. Many of the top offensive linemen from last year's elite camps commented on Buckner being the strongest defensive lineman they had faced all year. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, Buckner has the size and skill to make an immediate impact. Along with Armstead he appears to be the future of the defensive line.
Alex Balducci: The Portland native and US Army All-American looks to be a redshirt candidate but has the potential to see the field if changes arise. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Balducci has the strength and versatility to be a force anywhere along the line.
Christian French: Recruited as an athlete and expected to become a tight end, French made the switch to defense a la Dion Jordan. French has the size at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds to make a Jordan-like impact for the Ducks in the future. His athleticism will have him at the drop-end position that will allow him to drop into coverage and rush the edge from a stand-up position. French should get plenty of experience this season and be ready to take over for Jordan in 2013.
Isaac Remington: The 6-foot-6, 285-pound junior college transfer adjusted nicely to Pac-12 football with 31 tackles, two pass breakups and 1.5 sacks in 2011. The versatile Remington should be an even bigger threat in 2012.
Taylor Hart: After coming on strong in 2011, the Oregon native should be one of the Ducks most reliable defensive linemen in 2012. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound Hart can move around on the line and is one of two defensive linemen to start all 14 games last year. His development will be key for the Ducks this season.
Wade Keliikipi: The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Keliikipi came on strong in 2011 with 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for a loss while starting the last 11 games of 2011. His size and development are a key to helping maintain a steady front wall in the middle of the defense.
Ricky Heimuli: While battling nagging injuries, the highly regarded Heimuli managed 22 tackles with a pass batted down and a tackle for loss in 2011. Outside of Armstead, Heimuli is the biggest name the Ducks have signed on the defensive line since 2009. His development has been slowed by injuries and a crowded roster but sans injuries, Heimuli seems primed for a breakout season in 2012.
Jared Ebert: Another highly thought-of recruit, Ebert came to Eugene by way of Iowa Western CC in 2011. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound tackle has the size and strength to help solidify the front wall for Nick Aliotti's defense.
When going through the DL roster, the depth is what really stands out. The talent is certainly there, along with some solid experience, but potential is the key. If Heimuli, Keliikipi, Armstead, Buckner, Hart or Ebert take their game to the next level in 2012, it could key what might become Oregon's best defense ever. The versatility of the young group and Oregon's aggressive defensive scheme should turn the defensive line from a weakness into possibly the strongest unit on the Ducks roster in coming seasons.