The D-Line Healthier and Getting Better

EUGENE, Ore. - Though most of the talk around the University of Oregon football program has centered on the quarterback battle taking place between Marcus Mariota and Brian Bennett, the defense has received more attention than in recent years as they look to be one of the more anticipated defensive units in recent school history.

While defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was hesitant to point out one portion of the defense that stood out to him, he did say that if he had to choose one position group that stood out it would be the defensive line because of the depth they have at the position.

"I would probably say our D-line has the most depth of all the positions so I would say overall with our depth there that would probably be our strongest unit right now," referencing a quote from Saturday's practice camp.

With returners such as Taylor Hart, Dion Jordan, Ricky Heimuli, Isaac Remington and Tony Washington, to name a few, it is easy to see the validation behind coach Aliotti's claim.

In charge of these monsters of the trenches is defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro.

Coming to the program in 2009 after a brief stint at Marshall University as defensive line coach, "Coach Azz" has quickly established himself as one of the best coaches in the business. His defensive lines have imposed themselves upon Pac-12 foes and put up great numbers both in run-defense and getting to the quarterback.

Talking about Coach Azzinaro, Ricky Heimuli, a third year player for the Ducks at defensive tackle, had had some thought on his position coach.

"He plays a big roll (in getting to where the players need to be)," Heimuli said of Azzinaro. "Everybody listens to him because he knows the game very well. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it across."

One of the louder voices on the field, Coach Azzinaro knows what it takes to build a successful defensive line. When asked about the influx of height and general size that is evidenced by the recruits in recent years, Coach Azzinaro did not specify that any change of philosophy for Oregon recruiting had occurred.

"We just like to have good players," said Azzinaro.

Short, to the point, and it gets the job done. Why fix something that isn't broke, especially when that something is yielding such impressive statistics like the Oregon defensive line has?

A big reason for Oregon's success on the defensive line has been Dion Jordan, who is entering his fifth and final year at the university and has received quite a few accolades heading into the season. He is on the watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Rotary Lombardi Award, Bronko Nagurski Award, and Ted Hendricks Award.

The expectations are clearly high for Jordan this year, expectations that he is looking to fulfill after an offseason of preparation.

"During the offseason I worked a lot in the weight room and also the film room," said Jordan when he was asked what he was trying to build upon. "Being able to understand offenses and understand (my) role."

And yet, despite all the preparation in the offseason to help his on-field play, Jordan knows that he also must fulfill rolls off the field as well.

"It's kind of my role to make sure that my guys, every day they practice, they are pushing it," related Jordan. "Being a senior, my leadership isn't just for the defense. It's also for the guys on the offensive side and everybody that plays special teams also. I try to stay on the guys about working hard and showing up to work ready to compete day in and day out."

Jordan's leadership role, coupled with the leadership of other returning players such Ricky Heimuli, Isaac Remington, and Taylor Hart will be crucial in educating the young influx of talent Oregon has been receiving on the defensive line.

"We got a lot of (young) guys here, a lot of smart guys, and a lot of athletic guys also," said Jordan about the new faces. "Alex Balducci, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner..all those guys are very good but they're also very smart...it's fun to be around those guys and get them to reach that (next) level."

Coach Azzinaro was a little bit more humble when talking about his prized recruits.

"They're young guys," said Azzinaro of the incoming freshmen. "They're not ready to be inducted into the college football hall of fame yet, they're learning their way around. The good news is that they're really good kids, they practice really well and they are good learners."

While no specific player was highlighted by the coaches or players, it is encouraging to see that Coach Azzinaro seems to keep bringing guys into the system that he knows can flourish under him.

Two players that Coach Azz brought into the Oregon system were Tony Washington and Heimuli.

For Washington, this offseason has been about change. Though he will still be playing defensive end, the standout from Ranchoi Cucamonga, California has been moved to the drop-end position on the Oregon defensive line.

"At first I was kind of uncomfortable," said Washington when talking about the move. "The more reps I get the more comfortable I am feeling with it."

Part of the rumored changes Washington for making the switch to drop-end was his loss in weight.

"I'm about 245 (pounds) right now," said Washington in reference to his weight. "I don't really think the weight loss was so I could play the position better, it's just my body fat was out of control."

And, for the competition at the position ahead of him, Washington is only concerned about his play.

"Main competition is myself," confessed Washington. "I'm just fighting (me)."

It is clear though Washington is confident in his abilities and his health.

Another player that the Ducks hope to be in better health this season is Heimuli. Though he appeared in 14 games last season, Heimuli's contributions were limited due to health issues surrounding him throughout the season. What can Oregon fans expect from a healthier, fitter Ricky Heimuli?

"Someone who goes after it more," explained Heimuli. "More physical; more aggressive; not giving a care to take care of something. Just going out there and running around like a freak, I guess, like a freak of nature."

A healthier Heimuli appears to be yielding a more confident Heimuli. And where does this new player see himself needing to make improvements still?

"Everything I can work with I try and improve," said Heimuli, "There's always room for improvement; on technique, on skills, on working to see where the back is during play. In every aspect of the game you can always improve."

With this outlook on his game, expect to see Ricky to develop into an even more well-rounded player on the defensive line. And, apparently a more well-rounded Heimuli also comes complete with a new beard.

When asked about the new beard he was sporting, Heimuli gave hint to that it may not make the cut for the season.

"I wanted to try something different," said Heimuli when talking about the beard, "I said till January, till the end of the season. But I don't know, it's getting kind of irritating so it might come off soon."

As long as it doesn't affect Heimuli plays the way his potential leads people to believe the way he can play, whether or not this versatile defensive lineman's beard makes the cut does not really matter.

One last thing that was touched on with the defensive line today was whether or not there was any unfinished business to accomplish.

"Nah, no unfinished business," Jordan said with a laugh as to the legacy he wants to leave behind. " The goal is to win and that is a week-to-week thing. That's all I'm going to worry about, being able to stay healthy and being able to show up to every week and motivate these guys. Honestly, that's what I feel like is my biggest thing, being able to motivate my teammates to make sure that they will be able to follow because these are the guys that are going to be here when I leave so I want to make sure I leave something for these guys."

As for what is already there, Jordan and company can be rest assured that Coach Azzinaro is preparing them to be one of the best defensive lines in the Pac-12 this coming season.

The Oregon defensive line will face its first opponent and test of the 2012 season on September 1st against the Arkansas State Red Wolves.


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