By Rob Moseley
There have been no more impressive, nor more physically imposing, players in Oregon’s preseason camp so far this August than defensive ends DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Each is at least 6-foot-7 and approaches 300 pounds, and they’ve been virtually unblockable in passing situations this month, while wreaking havoc in the backfield on run plays.
Not to be overlooked is the man between them. Alex Balducci, like the other projected starters a junior, stands a comparatively short 6-4, while tipping the scales a shade over 300 pounds. By the nature of his nose guard position, he tends to get lost a bit between Buckner and Armstead. But his contributions for the Ducks this fall will be no less significant.
“If I don’t do my job correctly, I’ve got offensive linemen on linebackers, and that screws up the whole defense,” said Balducci, a Portland native. “I’ve got to do that, and make plays behind the line of scrimmage as often as possible.”
Balducci faces the tough task of replacing departed starter Wade Keliikipi, an underrated cog in the middle of the UO defense the last few years. Balducci is bigger and quicker, but Keliikipi’s knowledge of schemes and physical toughness won’t easily be replaced.
But Balducci worked hard this offseason to improve his lower body strength, and has been coached up on using his hands by position coach Ron Aiken. During position drills, Oregon’s defensive linemen do a drill in which they drive into and under a blocking sled, lift it into the air and then cast it aside, and nobody on the team sends it tumbling harder and faster than Balducci.
“Having seen the way he worked in the weight room, it’s really shown on the field,” said UO center Hroniss Grasu, Balducci’s lifting partner this offseason and combatant in the trenches during practice. “From last year he’s definitely more explosive, and his hand placement is much better.”
Balducci’s hands were mentioned by several teammates as his most improved trait this fall. In two-gap schemes, which Balducci calls “the meat and potatoes” of Oregon’s defense, he needs to get his hands to a blocker’s chest and then extend his arms so he can see into the backfield and diagnose a play.
The job combines analytical thinking – breaking down what Balducci sees, what might happen next based on film study and how Balducci should react within the defense Oregon has called – while engaged in a fist fight at the line of scrimmage. In a way, hands are everything.
“You’ve got to be able to get separation, be able to throw off blocks and get to the backs,” Balducci said. “If you’ve got good hands, it takes care of a lot.”
Balducci’s quickness helps him maneuver into position to attack a gap, then explode through it. And increasingly, he’s choosing the right gaps (the Ducks also run one-gap schemes, in which that quickness helps Balducci attack his assignment as well).
Knowledge of the system was Keliikipi’s forte, and Balducci is demonstrating that he learned well from his mentor.
“He’s gotten a lot smarter and more mature about what he needs to do,” said Rodney Hardrick, the next man up in the middle of the defense at inside linebacker. “A lot better overall.”
“At some point he has to disengage from his guy and go one direction or another,” UO defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “If I do it a second too soon, the back goes the other direction; if I do it too late, he’s by me. It’s a lot of detailed thinking, detailed technique.”
Though nose tackle isn’t the most stat-friendly position – Balducci had 18 tackles in 13 games last season – he aims to contribute sacks and tackles for loss to the Ducks’ bottom line, while more generally “keeping the offense out of rhythm.”
Teammates say Balducci’s work this offseason has him poised to do just that in 2014.
“He’s real tough – tough like Wade was,” linebacker Derrick Malone Jr. said. “He’s come a long way, and he’s really going to take flight.”