Defense of the Family

One year ago, the Oregon defensive line was questioned. Some suggested Oregon's defensive line wasn't big enough, strong enough or fast enough to with stand the onslaught of the Pac-10 schedule. Some scoffed at the Ducks' ability to stop the run. Some wondered if the Ducks' best defense would be the high octane offense, but after the Ducks limited Colorado's running game to a mere 49-yards rushing in the Fiesta Bowl, the questions stopped. So what made the difference? The team was a family.

Oregon lost two starters from last years defensive line to graduation (Zach Freiter and Chris Tetterton) and (senior defensive end) Quinn Dorsey is forced into a medical redshirt season due to injuries. This season the Ducks return senior defensive end Seth McEwen, 6-5, 266, senior defensive end Ed Wangler, 6-4, 270, senior defensive end Darrell Wright, 6-4, 264 and senior defensive tackle Kai Smalley, 6-2, 277. Throw in a few underclassmen such as sophomore defensive tackle Igor Olshansky, 6-6, 304, sophomore defensive tackle Robby Valenzuela, 6-2, 297, red-shirt freshman defensive end Roderkus Wright, 6-4 258, and the Ducks look plenty big and strong. Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti has described Roderkus Wright as, "the best (incoming) football player he has coached." Olshansky was cited at the end of the Bowl season for his play. Also consider that the Ducks add incoming junior college transfer Junior Siavii, 6-4, 320 as a defensive tackle, junior college transfer Chris Solomona, 6-5, 267, defensive end, and a very special freshman. At 6-4, 333, Haloti Ngata was considered the top prep defensive lineman last season when he committed to the Ducks. Bellotti describes Ngata as, "the real deal."

Will the Ducks have a different look this year? Not according to Bellotti.

"We are not going to change our defense," Bellotti told the assembled press representatives at Media Day on Friday.

Why should the Ducks change? Last season the Ducks were second in the Pac-10 in rushing defense, giving up only 121.3 yards per game. Oregon was also third in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, allowing 21.8 points per game.

The strength of the defense this year could be the defensive line but upon questioning the players there was a universal comment about what the real strength of the team is. According to Wangler the team goal for the season is to become more of a family.

"We're here for each other," said Wangler. "We are a family."

Wangler's teammate Darrell Wright echoed the same sentiment when he said that the team has great unity. Wright, who sees one of his roles as a senior this year as being a model for younger players and helping the incoming players to be able to accept suggestions as a direction toward success.

"I have to step up and be more verbal," said Wright of his role for the upcoming season. "Helping the newcomers in a positive way if they don't understand something."

Wangler has placed great expectations on himself and is not shying away from the responsibility that goes along with those expectations. He believes that the core group of players that are upperclassmen are capable of getting the job done for the Ducks this season and sees the infusion of new players as a good sign of things to come. Wangler is willing to lead the way for his teammates.

"My strongest leadership role is to lead by example," said Wangler. "Have the younger guys see how I do it."

Smalley, the former walk-on from South Salem High School carried the family sentiment on as he reflected on the team and the struggles they have faced and will face in the future.

"If we didn't have the chemistry we have," said Smalley. "I don't think we'd be where we are now."

Even for the new comers the theme of family is coming through loud and clear. Freshman corner back, J.D. Nelson has already sensed the importance of being part of the family and part of the team.

"Everyone here has the family mentality," commented Nelson. "It was real important that we (incoming freshman) have it too."

Nelson was recruited out of Mountain View High School, California. He is the son of former NFL great Darrin Nelson. The younger Nelson hopes to see playing time this season and realizes the big adjustments from playing in high school to Division I. However he may have summed up the day for the all Ducks best when he said he was anxious to get started with practice on Saturday.

"I'm looking forward to Saturday and playing against these guys," said Nelson pointing to the upperclassmen, "and seeing how it really is."

He and the rest of his Duck family will find out tomorrow as fall practice for the 2002 Oregon Ducks officially begins. Will the Ducks reach those lofty goals of Pac-10 Champion and National Champion? That remains to be seen of course, but one thing that there is no doubt about is that the team has already started building and reinforcing the structure of unity that is so vital in achieving their goals.

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