By Rob Moseley
A look back at Oregon’s month of spring practices that culminated in the spring game on May 3.
Where things stood: The defensive line was hit hard by graduation, with starters Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi and reserve Ricky Havili-Heimuli moving on – and getting shots to make NFL rosters – along with reserve Jared Ebert. That said, the cupboard was far from bare. The Ducks returned starter DeForest Buckner along with two-year backups Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead, guys with ample experience in big situations. They were also among the guys who most took to heart Oregon's desire to get bigger and stronger in the trenches. The backup spots thus became question marks, though, with Sam Kamp moving inside to nose, T.J. Daniel getting a shot to make the two-deep after moving over from tight end in 2013, and Tui Talia joining the team for spring drills out of junior college.
What happened in April: For all of the movement between the end of the 2013 season and the start of spring drills, things were very stable over the course of 15 practices. Buckner, Balducci and Armstead solidified their roles with the first unit, and the trio of Daniel, Kamp and Talia held their own with the twos. Buckner brings the most starting experience into 2014, but Balducci looks like just the sort of hard-working plugger in the middle that the Ducks had in Keliikipi, and Armstead showed signs of reaching his enormous potential after leaving the basketball team mid-winter and focusing solely on preparing for the 2014 football season. He was a force in the spring game, as was Buckner, who had 2 ½ tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Along with Armstead, the breakout guy at the position group was probably Daniel. He was the defense’s scout-team player of the year last fall, preparing the offense to face some of the best pass-rushers in the country. That didn’t guarantee Daniel would smoothly make the jump into the two-deep this spring, but he sure looked the part over the course of 15 practices, showing off a scary mix of length, explosiveness off the line and athleticism. Talia also looked quite comfortable in his debut at this level, leading the “Mariasu” team in the spring game with five tackles, including a misdirection run play on which he stayed at home and tackled the ballcarrier in the backfield. Kamp was a little slower to adjust, having put on close to 30 pounds in order to move inside to nose tackle, but he felt increasingly comfortable as the month wore on. Stetzon Bair played multiple positions across the line in the spring, versatility that will serve both Bair and the Ducks well in a pinch this season.
Who to watch in August: By the time preseason camp rolls around, Kamp will have had another three months to condition his body for carrying around close to 300 pounds. It’s crucial the Ducks solidify the depth behind Balducci, and Kamp is probably in the best position to do so. That would ease the pressure on any of the freshmen to come in and make an impact right away. As Buckner, Balducci and Armstead showed, however, it’s possible for true freshmen to come in right away and play valuable roles as backups, and the new faces Oregon signed in February look like they have the size and talent to be factors early if necessary.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
DE: DeForest Buckner, Jr.; T.J. Daniel, RSo. ; Jason Sloan, RFr.; Jalen Jelks, Fr.
NG: Alex Balducci, Jr.; Sam Kamp, Jr. ; Jonathan Kenion, RFr.; Austin Maloata, Fr.
DT: Arik Armstead, Jr.; Tui Talia, Jr.; Stetzon Bair, Jr.; Henry Mondeaux, Fr.