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Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Defensive line still Ducks' biggest need?

By Brandon P. Oliver

An issue that seems to arise every year in recruiting is which players Oregon chooses to pursue and sign on the defensive line. It always seems to be a source of worry for fans and recruiting pundits alike.

While Haloti Ngata isn't walking through the tunnel at Autzen Stadium anymore, the Ducks have equipped themselves nicely with a patchwork defensive line over the past few years.

Arik Armstead
Arik Armstead, shown before the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, was a part of a solid recruiting class along the defensive line for Oregon.
The Ducks managed to put together a pretty solid group in recent years and signed a banner class in 2012. Last season, freshman Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci all gained experience in emergency situations, blowouts and close games. The experience will help in 2013 and it will really help in 2014, when the Ducks will have lost Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi from their defensive front.

This fall, the Ducks will add junior-college transfers Stetson Bair -- younger brother of former Ducks DL Brandon Bair -- and Jared Ebert to the rotation after redshirting last season. Ebert showed promise entering the 2012 season but an injury in the first game forced him to redshirt.

The Ducks will need to add a couple of talented defensive linemen if they hope to maintain a  shot at competing with the SEC stalwarts and physical teams such as Stanford. The Ducks are off to a slow start with recruiting the defensive line for the 2014 class, due in part to the recent hiring of a new coach at the position. While the late hire might be looked at as a negative by some, it was a home run when the Ducks landed Ron Aiken. Aiken spent five years coaching the position for the Arizona Cardinals and developed a reputation as someone that knows how to develop talent.

Once he identifies his targets, expect the Ducks to make a strong push for the following players.

DE Connor Humphreys (Portland, Ore./Central Catholic): The top prospect in the Ducks' home state landed an offer from USC on Monday. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Humphreys hasn't heard much from the Ducks up to this point, but Arizona State, Boise State, Cal, USC and Washington have all offered, so the Ducks will likely need to make their move sooner rather than later.

DT Nifae Lealao (Sacramento, Calif./Capital Christian): Lealao is likely the top defensive tackle on the West Coast. He has a great frame at 6-4 and 285 pounds and the strength to man the middle in any defensive scheme. The Ducks' biggest competition on the field is the biggest obstacle in their recruitment for the ESPN Watch List prospect. Stanford holds a big lead in the race for Lealao.

DE Qualen Cunningham (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton): The 6-4, 220-pound Cunningham has yet to receive much interest from the Ducks, but he is a very good athlete with star potential, similar to another former Chandler, Ariz., player by the name of Dion Jordan. Cunningham's offer list is in the double digits already, but the Ducks could get involved with their defensive line connections to the Grand Canyon State. Cunningham's father played at Texas A&M, which has already offered and is considered the favorite to land the ESPN Watch List prospect.

DL Jalen Jelks (Phoenix, Ariz./Desert Vista): Jelks is an intriguing prospect who could wind up on either side of the ball. However, his 6-5, 245-pound frame and skill set make it seem as if he is destined for the defensive line. Arizona, Oregon State, Tennessee and Wisconsin have all offered, but the Ducks are making a strong push by staying in regular contact with the versatile Jelks, who could grow into a defensive tackle or be a prototypical defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.

Spring practice and fall camp are likely to bring some position changes, where talk of a couple of the Ducks' tight ends moving to defensive end sounds like more than just speculation. If the Ducks are able to identify a couple of offensive players in the spring who are capable of making the jump to the defensive line, it would help them solidify their target number along the defensive line for this recruiting cycle.

Regardless of what happens with the current players, the Ducks will need to find a couple of impact defensive linemen in the 2014 class.