by Rob Moseley
Friend will be foe Saturday. Although Arik Armstead will only take that so far.
Thus, it will be a collegial reunion in Husky Stadium when Armstead and the No. 2 Ducks face No. 16 Washington and its star linebacker, Shaq Thompson.
"I don't let rivalries get in the way of friendships," said Armstead, Oregon's sophomore defensive tackle.
Less then two years ago, Armstead and Thompson were the two top prospects out of Sacramento, Calif. They bonded during the recruiting process, even taking official visits on the same weekends to California and Notre Dame.
Since signing with Northwest rivals Oregon and Washington, they've followed remarkably similar paths. Each was a key member of the rotation as a true freshman, Armstead in the Ducks' defensive line group and Thompson as the Huskies' nickelback.
This season, each blossomed into a starter. Armstead replaced Isaac Remington as Oregon's starting defensive tackle, the end on the three-man line who typically plays "to the boundary," or the side of the field closest to the sideline, depending on where the ball is placed between the hashmarks. Thompson has moved down to linebacker, where he too has started each game this season.
It's hard enough for one guy to bloom so early in his career. But two guys, two close friends from the same hometown? Not likely.
"That was our plan," Armstead said. "Being Sacramento guys, we've got a chip on our shoulder and want to put on for our city. We talk about that all the time, trying to get up out of 'Sac' and give our city a name."
Armstead played at Pleasant Grove High School, and Thompson went to Grant High. Each was a Parade all-American, and was invited to the U.S. Army All-America game.
Each also excels at a second sport — Thompson is talented enough to have played minor-league baseball, and Armstead redshirted with the Oregon men's basketball team last season.
"So that's even more impressive," UO coach Mark Helfrich said.
Armstead was considered perhaps the top recruit in the country in 2012, as an offensive tackle. His prospects on the defensive line were less certain, but he was an immediate contributor for the Ducks.
As a freshman, Armstead played in all 13 games and had 26 tackles. This season he has six tackles; Oregon's two-gap system doesn't allow for linemen to make many plays on their own, instead requiring them to tie up linemen, helping dictate the flow of a play and keeping linebackers free to make tackles.
"I know he has the size, but to play as a freshman at this level is something special, especially with the way we two-gap with our defensive linemen," UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "He's mentally sharp, he's a hard worker — sometimes freshmen don't know how to deal with our tempo, and the way we practice — but this kid came in sharp."
As a sophomore, Armstead has become a more physical player, which Aliotti said came with experience.
"He learned what it takes to play at this level," Aliotti said. "He's given us some great downs, last season in kind of a backup role and this season. He's been really good."
The same could be said for Thompson. He had 74 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks last season. As a linebacker this fall, Thompson is second on the UW defense with 35 tackles entering Saturday's game.
"He's playing really well," Helfrich said. "They're using him a bunch of ways — pressure stuff, coverage stuff — just moving him around. A guy like that is a versatile weapon on defense."
Since enrolling at rival schools, Armstead and Thompson have maintained their friendship. They text regularly, Armstead said, and that didn't change just because their teams face off Saturday.
"We were talking about how excited we are for the game," Armstead said. "It's going to be fun."
Fun for the friendly rivals, and fun for fans who get to watch two of the best young players in the Pac-12 Conference.