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February 14, 2010
Azzinaro heading down right path
Going into the 2009 season, the Oregon Ducks had a few questions to answer. On both lines, the Ducks graduated big numbers. The offensive line lost six players off the 2008 nine-deep, the defensive line three of four starters, sending two to the NFL. Nonetheless, one of the early bright spots for the Ducks last season was the surprising play of the defensive line. Given the attrition from previous recruiting classes, the feat was all the more noteworthy.
A 'bare cupboard' would not exactly be accurate. But in his first year with the Oregon Ducks, Coach Jerry Azzinaro had few returning players with experience or hype. Will Tukuafu and Brandon Bair certainly were established players, but aside from them the group was untested. Junior College transfer senior Blake Ferras landed in one DT slot; converted defensive end Bair the other. For depth inside, Azzinaro had journeyman senior Simi Toeaina and another JC transfer, Zac Clark.
Azzinaro got more out of his unit than most expected in 2009, but in two of Oregon's losses the lack of depth at the point of attack was evident. Stanford's well-run power game and Ohio State's big day of offensive execution in the Rose Bowl both ached for a couple more stout bodies to rotate into the middle. The first-year defensive line coach simply did not have them to put in the game, and some of those big fellas played some big minutes.
The defensive tackle depth situation was something that fell into Azzinaro's lap. Looking back at the prior three recruiting classes helps shed some light on the root of the problem.
The Class of 2007 was solid as a team. Ranked #11 in the country as an overall group, many of those players are still in Eugene contributing. Not so the DT signees, the first class recruited by Michael Gray who was hired in 2005. Tonio Celotto was the only player out of three in that class to play for awhile, but he was gone before Azzinaro was hired. The other two, Simi Fili and Myles Wade never enrolled at Oregon.
The next year, the Class of 2008 around that same level of success at defensive tackle. The Ducks signed two JC transfers, Blake Ferras and Justin Thompson. Ferras didn't play much as a junior but did get extensive playing time and starts in 2009 as a senior. Thompson never made it into school.
The prior two classes were disappointing at defensive tackle for Coach Gray, and things are also not boding well for his last. The Ducks signed four true defensive tackles in 2009; Wade Keliikipi is the only one still enrolled. Justin Brown never made it in, Andrew Iupati struggled one year then left, and Terrance Montgomery ended up leaving the program.
Going into the 2010 season, that is the scholarship situation Azzinaro inherited. Out of the nine defensive tackles signed in the prior three years, only one is still on the team.
This in turn brings us to the importance of Azzinaro's first class. Keeping with the overall theme of Chip Kelly's first group, both defensive tackle signees are solid students and quality young men. In Isaac Remington, the Ducks have a ready-to-go defensive tackle who is already enrolled in classes at Oregon and will have two camps under his belt by the Ducks' first game. Very similar to Brandon Bair in length, Remington is a powerful young man able to stiffen the line at the point of attack.
The other Azzinaro DT signee is blue-chip lineman Ricky Heimuli, one of those coveted prep recruits with the game to have an immediate and legitimate chance at the two-deep or better. Like Haloti Ngata, Heimuli has expressed an interest in taking his Mission after a year. Oregon has taken numerous Mission aspirants in the past, with some taking theirs during college, others deferring until afterward. Even if it does turn out to be a year now and three more later, Heimuli will likely be a contributor in 2010.
One of the things no national rating service can take into account in its rankings is the fit and importance of each recruit to a program. When looking solely at the qualifications of the two DT signees, the Ducks get a good mark. Taking into account the Oregon depth chart and the likelihood the signees actually play, the grade gets much better. With Bair and Zac Clark the only returning interior defensemen with experience, gap-filling bodies like Remington and Heimuli will be crucial against certain teams in 2010.
Depth of any unit isn't created overnight. It is recruited and developed over years. Having watched Azzinaro coach for the past 18 months, it would be foolish to question whether he can develop players. Assuming Heimuli and Remington contribute as anticipated, he has also started Duck defensive tackle recruiting down recovery road.