There is a lot of hope regarding the defense for the Ducks in 2012, and a lot of that has to do with the depth and talent on the defensive line. Fans have clamored for an SEC type defensive line the last couple of years without truly understanding the type of defensive front that Aliotti and Azzinaro have been trying to put together.
This is a defensive line that is built on speed, leverage, angles and depth. When your offense runs at a break neck pace and your defense sees an average of 77 plays a game, you need a line that is able to keep up the pressure and play at a high level the entire game. That takes an amazing amount of depth (by contrast Alabama's defense saw an average of 51 plays, or 26 plays less per game).
That type of depth isn't built over one year, two years, or even three years. We are now heading into year four of the Azzinaro and "Aliotti 2.0" system. After 3 consecutive BCS bowl appearances, a BCS Championship Game, and a Rose Bowl victory, Oregon finally has the talent to match the system those two have put in place.
The two starting defensive ends provide a great balance for each other. On one end is 2011 stand out Taylor Hart. Hart came on strong last year as a steady force and saw playing time in all 14 games last year behind senior Terrell Turner, even though he played a lot of time at the defensive tackle position. One thing you have to get used to in the Aliotti 2.0 system is that right tackle and left defensive end are somewhat interchangeable. Hart is perfect for that position. At 289 pounds he's strong enough to take on interior linemen but also quick enough to put pressure on the edge.
On the other side is All-Pac 12 first team player and Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year award watch list, Dion Jordan. When Jordan transitioned to the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position there were many skeptical (including me) that he would be able to pick up guys in coverage and effectively play the role. Jordan proved all the doubters wrong in 2011 when he finished 4th in the conference in sacks and 4th in tackles for a loss. Jordan is a perfect compliment to Hart on the other side of the line in that you'll never know if he's coming or going. He lines up on slot receivers, but blitzes. He puts a hand in the dirt, yet is able to stay with tight ends off the line.
The depth behind Jordan and Hart is just as intriguing. Behind Hart is All-American recruit Arik Armstead. Expect to see him get plenty of time early in the year to show his skills. He, like Hart last year, will have plenty of opportunity to move between left defensive end and right defensive tackle. If Armstead can improve on more than just his bull rush move, he'll be invaluable in giving Oregon another element on the edge to change the scheme. Behind Jordan is another transition player, Tony Washington. Washington played more left defensive end last year behind Terrell Turner. He is a little undersized for a true defensive end (especially with Hart and Armstead already manning that position) so it looks like the coaches are getting him some opportunities to fill in for Jordan. He'll have the same growing pains that Jordan had in 2010, but shouldn't be relied on too much in key situations as Jordan will undoubtedly take the lion's share of the snaps.
Oregon looks like they really have turned the corner on the 3-4 defense. Before this year, you would see 2 defensive tackles listed for the line. With Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi at the defensive tackle position there is temptation to list both at the starting position. But that just isn't the case. Keliikipi and Heimuli will man the nose tackle position and expect Oregon to not deviate too much from their 3 in, 3 out rotation. Basically, Oregon gets to tell 2 highly talented, highly skilled 300 plus pound tackles, "go as hard as you can for the next 3 plays, then we'll sub you out." It doesn't matter if Oregon is calling one-gap or two-gap technique with either of these guys, they're talented enough to play either. It doesn't matter if they're tired, because they only have to play half the game (remember the Alabama comparison? In a 77 play game each guy is basically only seeing 39 plays. That's like Alabama's best defensive tackle only playing ¾ of the game). This is the key to Oregon being better on the defensive line. Keliikipi and Heimuli each get to see ¾'s of a regular game and allow everyone around them to do what they do best. Oregon doesn't drop off in the middle when they go to their bench. Oregon's tempo and high play count the last couple of years has actually helped them get to this point.
The right defensive end/tackle position is not as solid as the other three, but there is plenty of depth to find the right combination of guys. Jared Ebert, Isaac Remington and Stetzon Bair will all get a shot to show what they can do. Given the solidness around this position, it is comforting to know that Azzinaro will have 3 talented guys to choose from to play one position. Remington should be the odds on favorite to start the season, but Ebert red-shirted last year and looks like a promising candidate, and Bair has tremendous name to live up to.
If you're counting, I just listed nine names for 4 positions on the defensive line. And the combination of those positions and players is even greater. This is the definition of depth. Depth that is needed considering the system that Oregon runs, and depth that has never been at Oregon before. There have been arguments whether this is the best defensive line that Oregon has ever put on the field. I will argue, top to bottom, yes. Sure there were better 1 through 4 players, but 1 through 9? If you're looking for Oregon to have an exceptional year defensively, the guys up front may not make a lot of statistical categories, but they'll be the ones that make everything behind them happen, and they finally have the depth and talent to do so.