As season nears end, maturing defensive linemen prepare to fill vacancies
A few days before Oregon faced rival Stanford on the road, senior defensive end DeForest Buckner evaluated the progress of the freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line.
“Some of the young guys are starting to grow up,” Buckner said. “We’re definitely excited to see who stands out in this game.”
The Ducks escaped Stanford with a 38-36 upset win, due in part to Oregon’s D-line standing up to Stanford’s bigger, more physical offensive line. Sophomore Austin Malaota and freshman Rex Manu backed up Buckner’s words and played integral roles in slowing the Cardinal’s rushing attack.
To match their run-heavy sets — sometimes with seven offensive linemen — the Ducks introduced a new five-man front: Buckner, Malaota, Manu, senior Alex Balducci and sophomore Henry Mondeaux. For the most part, the five held their ground.
“To ask three guys, or even four guys, to stand up to their seven was gonna be a difficult task. The rules allow us to match their personnel. We added some more to the equation,” defensive line coach Ron Aiken said of the game plan. “Our guys were just excited to match bigs with bigs, and they were willing to take on the challenge.”
When defensive tackle Arik Armstead left Oregon for the NFL after last season, few defensive linemen besides Buckner and Balducci had extensive playing experience. Once they, along with senior defensive end Tui Talia, depart at the end of this season, the unit will have a completely different look. Mondeaux has established himself as a starter, while players like Malaota and Manu continue to mature. Only USC and Oregon State remain in the Ducks’ regular season schedule, and these games could offer a glimpse into which defensive linemen will fill the vacant spots.
“Some of the redshirts from last year came in with the attitude this year — since Arik Armstead left — that we have to be able to step up and mature,” Malaota said. “I think all the younger guys — Rex, Canton [Kaumatule], Jalen [Jelks] and Gary [Baker] — they’re all learning their way up.”
Buckner, Balducci and Armstead faced similar circumstances in 2012 when the three arrived in Eugene as freshmen. The trio was heralded as the future of the defensive line.
All three played substantial roles by the end of the 2012 season. Buckner and Armstead finished with 29 and 26 tackles respectively, while Balducci earned more playing time late in the season as a result of injuries to key linemen.
This year has been different. Outside of Buckner, Balducci, Mondeaux and Talia, no one on the D-line has more than five tackles. But younger linemen have played important roles in the last couple of games, particularly Manu and Malaota.
“In the Cal ball game, Rex grew up,” Aiken said. “It might’ve only been 10 or 12 plays, but he showed something in that game: that he would go on the field and do what’s necessary to have success.”
Malaota was content playing behind experienced linemen last season as a freshman. This year, however, Malaota entered with a new perspective.
“After experiencing the trip to the [national championship] as a freshman,” Malaota said, “it changes your whole mindset on things.”
Oregon’s D-line depth has improved throughout the season, in large part because freshmen and sophomore linemen have grown up. Aiken now feels comfortable rotating guys like Malaota and Manu into games. He recognizes the importance of getting inexperienced players on the field, especially in a year where several players will be leaving. But Aiken evaluates his players on their ability to apply practice to games — specifically pad level, locking arms and getting off blocks.
“It’s really important to get them on the field when they’re ready to do the right thing,” Aiken said. “To get on the field is one thing, but to get on the field and do it the correct way is more important than anything else. That’s what guys did this past week.”
Aiken is uncertain if Oregon will use its “jumbo” defensive line package against USC. The Ducks likely won’t face another team using seven offensive linemen the rest of the season. However, USC presents a challenge similar to Stanford.
“[USC] might be bigger,” Aiken said. “Those tackles are huge.”
USC right tackle Zach Banner, listed at 6-foot-9, 360 pounds, is arguably the biggest lineman the Ducks have seen this season.
“They’re top-heavy and have a bunch of big, physical players,” Buckner said. “We’ve got to stay low, just like this past game against Stanford.”
After the seniors depart at the end of the season, Oregon’s D-line will only have six combined starts on the unit, all coming from Mondeaux this season. It will be one of the unit’s biggest turnovers in several years. Young defensive linemen recognize their time is quickly approaching.
“Knowing that Tui, DeFo and Alex are all about to leave to the next level encourages me personally to step up and be the older brother to these guys,” Malaota said. “It makes me realize there’s no one left. Once they leave, it’s us.”
Follow Will Denner on Twitter @Will_Denner