We’ve identified players who will need to step up to keep the Oregon offense running smoothly, now lets turn our attention to the other side of the ball. The Ducks will return only five starters from last year’s defense, and unproven players will have some big shoes to fill.
Defensive Line: Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair were the two most productive linemen for the Ducks last year and neither one of them will be returning. They finished 6th and 7th respectively in tackles last year and combined for 31.5 tackles for loss. Throw in DE Zac Clark who was 2nd on the team in sacks, and you’ve got some serious holes to fill. Not unlike the WR position, Oregon has a number of very capable players who may not put up huge stats, but in a rotation could be highly effective.
Ricky Heimuli 6-4/318 lbs./Sophomore: Former ESPN U top 150 recruit will be expected to be a leader on the D-line. He’s added bulk to his 6 foot 4 inch frame and is now up close to 320 pounds after reporting at 290 as a freshman. Saw playing time last year and is already comfortable assuming a starter role this season. He’s been banged up and hasn’t done much practicing lately, but is tentatively expected to play in the season opener.
Dion Jordan 6-7/230 lbs./Junior: The former WR/TE hybrid was converted last year to DE and he showed flashes of his scary athletic potential. In the spring, players and coaches were raving about his play-making ability. Jordan has the ability to play the “drop end” position that Kenny Rowe occupied as well as the more traditional DE spot. His flexibility will be a big plus and he’ll be on the field plenty regardless of position when the season kicks off.
Brandon Hanna 6-2/234 lbs./Senior: Hanna wasn’t a big time recruit and has paid his dues as a reserve the last couple seasons. This year the opportunity for playing time is there for him, but it remains to be seen what the snap count split will be between him and Dion Jordan. Hanna is an intelligent, non-stop motor type player who gets the most out of his ability. At the very least he should be a solid contributor as a rotational player.
Linebackers: Last year linebacker was one of the strongest areas on the team, but heading into 2011 it appears to be the biggest question mark. The biggest loss from a production and leadership standpoint is Casey Matthews. Spencer Paysinger and Bryson Littlejohn were also significant pieces of an OU defense that gave up its fewest ppg in 18 years. Strong-side LB Josh Kaddu is the only returning starter to what will be a revamped but inexperienced unit.
Michael Clay 5-11/225 lbs./Junior: Clay has never started in his career, but with Oregon playing up to 25 guys in rotation last year he still managed to see enough time to be the #8 tackler on the team in 2010. Clay is taking over Paysinger’s WLB spot, and with less depth at the position than in recent years he may be asked to shoulder a heavy work load.
Kiko Alonso 6-4/240 lbs./Junior: If it were solely based on talent Alonso would be a lock to man the middle against LSU Sept. 3rd. However he missed all of last season due to injury and suspension, and now finds himself suspended again thanks to a trespassing and burglary arrest in May. If he can keep his head on straight he can be a real difference maker for the Ducks D. His status for the opener is still up in the air.
Dewitt Stuckey 5-11/221 lbs./Senior: A former four star recruit that’s never been more than a reserve thanks in large part to injuries, Stuckey is now a senior with a chance for major playing time in 2011. Assuming Alonso’s suspension isn’t lifted before the first week of the season, it appears as if the Ducks will roll with Stuckey as their starting middle linebacker.
Secondary: CB Cliff Harris, FS John Boyett, and rover Eddie Pleasant all return as starters to what should be an exciting unit. Harris is suspended for the LSU game, which is a major loss and will force new players into prominent roles for potentially the biggest game of the season. Anthony Gildon is 6-1 180 lbs., has plenty of experience, and elite athleticism. He’ll assume the #1 corner spot while Harris is out.