- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Oregon defensive line is breaking it down to the basics this spring with a new slogan for the position group, one that goes all the way back to when most players first started learning the position and were given the most basic of commands on the defensive line.
It’s simple. Knock the offensive line back off the line of scrimmage. Knock the ball carriers back. Knock the quarterbacks back. Knock back. It’s also something the group didn’t do a lot of last season as it allowed 3.8 yards per rush (No. 37 nationally) and accounted for just 29 sacks (No. 45 nationally).
Fixing those issues has certainly been their focus this spring, but the slogan has encompassed the goals of this group as it works to fix its problems.
“Our mentality is definitely going to change,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “Last year put kind of a bad taste in most of our mouths. We want to play with a different attitude.”
The defensive line lost Ricky Havili-Heimuli, Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart, who accounted for 134 tackles including 16.5 for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Those three losses are all significant, so not only are the Ducks looking for new starters, they’re also looking for depth.
Alex Balducci and DeForest Buckner will be names to watch as possible starters this spring game, but Sam Kamp and Stetzon Bair could be nipping at their heels. Junior college transfer Tui Talia could have a jump on other players just because of his experience at Diablo Valley College, where he was ranked the top defensive end in the ESPN Junior College 50.
“We’ve got some younger guys who haven’t played much and then we have some guys who’ve played in a lot of games who are still young and continue to get better,” Armstead said. “[We’re] just getting the guys with less experience more opportunities to get out there and play more and [we’re] also getting the guys who do have that experience to learn more.”
And that skill of knocking back is going to be the most crucial of all.
Though the 3.8 yards per rush was worrisome for the defense, it was on critical rush plays where the defense struggled the most.
On third-down runs, the defense allowed a 65.5 percent conversion rate. There were only three defenses in the nation that had a worse conversion rate (Memphis, Purdue and New Mexico). On fourth-down runs, Oregon’s defense allowed a 66.7 percent conversion rate. The Ducks jumped to 73rd nationally in that category, but they still trail eight teams in the Pac-12. Those are critical situations in which Oregon must knock back in 2014.
Armstead said that the key to improvement in those categories goes back to the new mentality.
“It just came down to those situations that [other teams] made plays and we didn’t make plays,” Armstead said. “Making plays is a mentality -- just digging down deep and getting those stops in crucial moments when we need them.”