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Off to a flying start

Ducks' freshmen D-linemen pass first test


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - True freshman Arik Armstead has moved into the starting lineup already as a defensive lineman with the Oregon Ducks.EUGENE — Following in the tradition of Brandon Bair, Taylor Hart and Dion Jordan, the Oregon Ducks’ true freshmen defensive linemen pass the eye test.

Armstead is 6-8, 295 pounds. Buckner is 6-7, 230. Having worked into the rotation on one of the best teams in the country, they will be counted on to contribute.

For Armstead, the highly recruited D-lineman from Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove, Calif., such an impact was expected. He was one of the top prep recruits, coveted by programs from coast to coast.

Buckner came with his own set of credentials from Punahou High in Honolulu, but because Armstead had shown up at spring ball and the Ducks had several returnees on the defensive line, Buckner’s playing status wasn’t known until the Sept. 1 win over Arkansas State.

There was No. 44 serving backup duty, clearly a guy who had impressed in training camp.

“It was my first game, I was a bit nervous, but after the first play I was good,” Buckner says. “I’m new to the game. I’ve just got to keep working hard in practice, and hopefully I’ll get better.”

Armstead, looking humongous in a No. 9 jersey (usually D-linemen don double digits), also was happy with his first game.

“It felt awesome,” he says. “It sounds cliche, but our practices are definitely harder than the games. But we were having fun out there, running around, trying to make plays.”

Armstead and Buckner are likely to be stalwarts, if not stars, for the Ducks for three or four seasons. They’ve clicked, a friendship rooted in competition. They talked about the Arkansas State game — and ensuing games, including Saturday’s home tilt against Fresno State — as being their proving grounds, to the team and to each other.

“Me and Arik, we’re cool,” Buckner says. “He was one of the first guys I met, and we’ve just been competing with each other, and trying to get to the quarterback first.”

Adds Armstead: “Having competition between us, it’s going to make us better players. That’s why I came here, to be surrounded by excellent players. Our relationship will continue to build.”

Armstead, who plans to play for the UO basketball team, says that Buckner one-ups him in the athleticism department.

“He’s more athletic than me. He can get after the quarterback,” Armstead says. “He’s real big and physical.”

It’s mutual admiration.

“He’s good,” Buckner says. “But, we both need a lot of work.”

Both say understanding the defense and playing at UO’s tempo in practice have been challenges. Armstead said it best, after the opener: “I just listened to what coach Az (Jerry Azzinaro) wants us to do. ... And vets like Isaac (Remington), Wade (Keliikipi) and Taylor, they’re there for me to learn from. They have more knowledge and experience. I’m trying to soak it all in.”

Armstead practiced and played pick-up ball with the UO basketball players during the summer in Eugene, and says he held his own. He’s on the UO roster.

“I’m a big body down low, and I’m pretty skilled to step out and shoot a little,” he says. “Playing basketball helps me be more athletic on the football field; playing football makes me more physical in basketball. ... I play the 4 and 5 (basketball positions), but I’ll probably play the 4 here.

“I’m pretty comfortable with (the UO players). It’s going to be a big transition after this (football) season is over.”

He’s full-go on trying to play both sports. But how much impact could he make in basketball? If the Ducks play in another BCS game, it’s unlikely Armstead would be able to engross himself in basketball until mid-January — the middle of the Pac-12 season.

Armstead says he has the blessing of football coach Chip Kelly to play basketball. Talking about his future, Armstead says it’s “an equal opportunity” for both sports, meaning he sees himself being a pro in either one.

“I’m trying to play both as long as I can,” he says. “Anywhere I went (for college), I was going to play both sports.”

Keanon Lowe’s first four career catches came as part of Oregon’s 50-point explosion in the first 23 minutes of the Arkansas State game. The 5-9, 180 speedy sophomore from Jesuit High started the game, earning the nod in offseason and camp, and was one of 14 Ducks who caught at least one pass in the 57-34 opening victory.

Are Lowe and others auditioning to be part of UO’s receiving rotation come Pac-12 play?

“I wouldn’t call it an audition,” he says. “We’ve just got a lot of guys who can play and play well.”

Lowe’s confidence continues to soar, after being successful in something other than special teams play (which he did last season).

“I’ve been telling myself that we’ve got some pretty good corners on our team, also,” he says. “I’ve been playing against them every day since I’ve been here. That’s prepared me well. I’ve got a lot more confidence now, and I’m going to keep growing as a receiver.”

Lowe says consistency is what earned him the starting role. Getting on the field as a receiver means that Lowe also has leveled a few decent blocks in practice. Blocking is paramount in the UO run game because of cutback abilities of Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff. Lowe credits Jesuit coach Ken Potter for emphasizing blocking. “I had a lot of fun with that in high school, especially with crackbacks,” he says, of hitting somebody who doesn’t expect to get hit.”

As far as being an in-state player on a winning Oregon football team, he adds: “It feels great. I’m getting a lot of love from people at Jesuit and that community as well.”

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