EUGENE – Last week Oregon was mindful of Virginia’s defensive line during a 59-10 at the Cavaliers.
This week, the No. 2 Ducks (2-0) have reasons to be concerned with both sides of the line of scrimmage when Tennessee (2-0) visits Autzen Stadium on Saturday.
But of the Volunteers’ two lines, it’s the offensive line that would appear to be the most troublesome for the Ducks.
So much so that Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti rates the group that returns four starters as one of the best Oregon will have faced in some time.
“They’re a veteran crew,” Aliotti said. “They’re big. They’re strong. They’re physical.”
They are also the lifeblood of Tennessee’s offense, which ranks 23rd in the nation in rushing at 277.5 yards per game.
Junior left tackle Antonio Richardson (6-foot-6, 332 pounds) is rated as a potential first-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. Senior right tackle Ju'Wuan James (6-6, 324) is a potential third-round pick. Senior center James Stone (6-3, 302) is projected to be a fifth-round pick. Senior right guard Zach Fulton should end up in an NFL camp. The only new starter is junior guard Marcus Jackson (6-2, 307).
“They’re huge,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “They’re athletic. They’re well coached. They’ve got a great scheme. It’s a challenge.”
Oregon ranks 30th in the nation against the run, allowing 105.5 yards per game.
Probably the best offensive lines Oregon faced the previous two seasons belonged to Stanford and Wisconsin. Both use massive, mauling lines to power their offense.
Aliotti said Tennessee’s line falls short of the Cardinal and Badgers lines Oregon has faced. But it’s close.
“The thing that we’ve got to remember is that this is an SEC team that’s a good football team with good athletes,” Aliotti said.
That said, Tennessee is coming off of back-to-back 4-7 seasons and hasn’t won a bowl game since the 2007 season. Oregon defeated Tennessee 48-13 in 2010 on the road.
“I think they’ve been down a little bit,” Aliotti said. “But they do have really good athletes.”
But will Tennessee’s style play well against Oregon’s.
The best way to beat the Ducks is to run the ball well, eat some clock and make sure points are scored.
Tennessee has two solid running backs working behind its line, senior Rajion Neal (215 yards and four touchdowns) and junior Marlin Lane (135 yards, three touchdowns).
Oregon’s defensive front will have its hands full controlling Tennessee’s blockers so they don’t get to Oregon’s linebackers.
“Good thing we have a good defensive line,” Aliotti said. “It ought to be a good battle in the trenches.”
Sophomore linebacker Rodney Hardrick said Oregon’s line has done a good job so far this season of freeing up the linebacker to make plays. He said he prefers facing large linemen over the smaller, quicker guys Oregon uses because they are easier to navigate around.
Sophomore defensive end Arik Armstead said he doesn’t care which type of line he faces.
“It’s just a different style and you have to be prepared for it all,” Armstead said.
He said the running plays he sees in practice from Oregon’s offense are similar to those he’s watched Tennessee execute on game tape. They just are run at a different pace.
“They run a lot of the same schemes as our offense, just obviously a slower tempo and different body types,” Armstead said. “But they use a zone run game. It will be a big test for our defense.”