Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Defensive Line – Oregon Ducks
While the defense did rank 82nd overall in the nation last year when it came to scoring against, that really had a lot more to do with the defense spending so much time on the field because of the offense’s capability to score so quickly. Taking a closer look at the numbers, Oregon’s defense was pretty strong, and the defensive line was no exception.
The unit was responsible in helping lead the team to 38 sacks (2nd in the Pac-10, tied for 8th in the country), 104.5 tackles for loss (2nd Pac-10, tied 5th in country) and giving up only 3.09 yards per carry on the ground (2nd Pac-10, 12th in country). But just like the offensive line, it is hard to use last year’s success to gauge this year’s chances, as three starters are gone, including one of the Pac-10’s all-time greats.
The losses of Ra’Shon Harris (drafted 205th overall by the Steelers) and Cole Linehan (both 13-game starters) hurt bad, but losing Nick Reed is especially difficult. Reed received both All-Pac-10 and All-American honors in 2008 and his 13 sacks ranked 4th nationally. Over his career, Reed accumulated a school-record 29.5 sacks, which ranks 4th all-time in the Pac-10.
Replacing three high-level senior starters will not be easy, but it is essential to the Ducks’ success this year. Oregon’s offense has plenty of power and can shoot out with the best of them, but time of possession will be an even bigger issue this season if the defensive line isn’t up to speed.
39 Will Tukuafu, 6-4, 272, Senior
99 Zac Clark, 6-2, 256, Junior
- While the line as a whole has plenty of question marks, Will Tukuafu will not one of them. Tukuafu was a rivals.com 4-star recruit out of Scottsdale Community College and was ranked the nation’s 7th best JuCo transfer in 2007 and he has easily lived up to the hype.
In 2007 Tukuafu stepped right in without any problems, starting in 11 of 13 games and garnering All-Pac-10 honorable mention honors. He finished 4th on the team that year in tackles for loss with 8.5 and tied for third with 4.5 sacks.
Last season Tukuafu built on his 2007 success with a fantastic junior year. He started in all 13 games and racked up 59 tackles including 17.5 for loss (5th best in the conference) and tied for eighth in the conference with 8.5 sacks, once again receiving All-Pac-10 honorable mention.
The oldest member of the team at 25 years old (he took a two-year leave for an LDS mission before starting his collegiate career), Tukuafu will provide leadership both on and off the field. Not only does he possess excellent strength and good quickness, Tukuafu perhaps most impressively just has a knack for knowing exactly where the football is going to be and exploding towards it.
Even if he didn’t take a step forward he’d still be one of the best defensive ends in the conference; but I expect him to excel in the role as leader of this unit and have a career year in 2009. His name will likely be mentioned for conference honors all year long (and national honors, too, as he was put on the watch list for the Bednarik Award), and he will be a dangerous force to opposing offenses.
JuCo transfer Zac Clark has done nothing but impress since his arrival at Oregon. The Butler Community College transfer received a 3-star rating from both rivals.com and scout.com, and ran with the second team during spring drills. When tackle Brandon Bair was out sick this fall, Clark saw a lot of reps and continued to impress. Clark’s drive, work ethic, and experience make him a valuable asset to a line in need of quality depth. He will start the season learning the playbook and learning the ropes behind one of the best in Tukuafu.
88 Brandon Bair, 6-7, 250, Junior
59 Terrance Montgomery, 6-2, 291, Junior
- After being recruited as a tight end in 2006, Brandon Bair made the transition to the defensive side of the ball during his redshirt season. He has since seen action as a reserve in every game of 2006 and 2007. He had eight tackles in 2008 along with one forced fumble against Washington State and one fumble recovery which he returned 24 yards in the Civil War against Oregon State.
With 26 games of reserve experience, including taking part in at least 10 plays in 12 of the 13 games last season, Bair has plenty of real-game experience. There is a difference between starting and coming in as a reserve of course, but Bair will likely skip the steep learning curve that most first-year starters endure.
At 6-7, Bair has an enormous wingspan that will frustrate plenty of Pac-10 quarterbacks looking for passing lanes up the middle. His strong offseason has indicated that he has worked out most of the kinks in his technique. At the very least Bair will be a serviceable tackle, but if his footwork has improved and he can keep his balance against the conference’s tougher O-Lines (USC keeps coming to mind), he could be a whole lot better than serviceable.
Terrance Montgomery is another rivals.com and scout.com 3-star JuCo transfer out of Reedley Community College. He recorded four tackles in the Spring Game including one for a loss. Like Clark, Montgomery should provide solid depth while getting to know the playbook in 2009, and could prove to be a good Plan B if Bair falters in the starting role.
90 Blake Ferras, 6-6, 290, Senior
50 Simi Toeaina, 6-4, 318, Senior
- Another rivals.com 3-star JuCo (City College of San Francisco) transfer from last season, Blake Ferras appeared in seven games as a reserve in 2008 and recorded one tackle. In 2007 he recorded 25 tackles including eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 10 games at CCSF.
Battling Ferras for the position is Simi Toeaina, who saw action in five games last season recording one tackle for loss against both Washington and Washington State.
Whoever wins this spot will give the line some much needed size up the middle, and whoever doesn’t win it will be available to provide depth for both of the starting tackles.
58 Kenny Rowe, 6-3, 230, Junior
45 Terrell Turner, 6-3, 248, Sophomore
- That’s no typo; Kenny Rowe is only 230 pounds, and that’s actually after putting on 15 pounds this offseason.
Rowe was a rivals.com 4-star recruit and was rated the 7th best defensive end in the country in the 2007 class. Built more like a linebacker than a lineman, Rowe possesses great speed (his 5.04 forty time was fastest among all linemen) and can get into the backfield in a hurry. He recorded a team high three tackles for loss (two sacks) in the Spring Game.
In 2007, Rowe appeared primarily as a pass rush specialist as a true freshman. He saw action in all 13 games and recorded eight tackles; six tackles for loss including five sacks. Last season he continued his role as a passing down reserve, recording 10 tackles and seeing action in all 13 games. He was being worked at linebacker during the 2008 spring, but returned to the d-line for the season.
It’s hard to gauge how Rowe will be used in the starting role. His speed and athleticism are excellent, and there is little doubt that he will be a threat to explode into the backfield on every down. But will his size be a deterrent on running plays? Time will tell, but I’m sure Chip Kelly and his coaching staff have a plan for how they want to use Rowe in rushing situations.
Terrell Turner, a rivals.com 3-star recruit, will likely see some action as a reserve. Turner appeared in four of the first five games of the season in 2008 before suffering an injury against Washington State.
Ironically enough, the biggest issue for this year’s line was how healthy and consistent last year’s line was. With Harris, Linehan, Reed, and Tukuafu all doing an exceptional job and staying healthy for the entire season in the process, there was never any room for a guy like Bair or Ferras to fill in and get valuable starts. This unit is loaded with very capable talent, but the entire two deep with the exception of Tukuafu has no Pac-10 starting experience whatsoever. So what do we have to go on?
We do know that Will Tukuafu is going to be a stud that will provide exceptional pass rushing and run defense all season long. I’m expecting Brandon Bair to do fine at tackle; he has ample experience under his belt and the transition to full time starter shouldn’t give him too much trouble.
The other two spots worry me. Again, Ferras and Toeaina are both capable athletes, but we just don’t know what to expect from them early in the season. As for Kenny Rowe, just picturing both him and Tukuafu on the pass rush makes me cringe for quarterbacks around the conference, but as I mentioned above, what happens when the opponent runs the football? Will Rowe’s quickness and athleticism be enough to make up for his lack of size against some of the conference’s better o-lines on the inside?
I don’t mean to paint a picture of doom and gloom; as USC has proven many times, good old fashioned talent and hard work can easily overcome lack of experience. Besides that, Chip Kelly and D-Line Coach Jerry Azzinaro are going to be scheming up answers for all of the question marks us fans tend to worry about, and will likely utilize their great linebacking core to help patch some holes.
Much like the offensive line, there is little doubt in my mind that with some mixing and matching, trial and error, and valuable game experience, Chip Kelly will have himself a very capable line by the time the second half of the season rolls around.
But will it be too late by then? That all depends on how quickly this unit can learn under fire.