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UO football: Defense rules spring

Alonso suspension muddles linebacker plans
by: STEVE DYKES Ricky Heimuli, knocking down a pass by Washington's Keith Price during the 2010 season, could lead the Oregon Ducks' defensive line in 2011.

EUGENE - The Oregon Ducks, two-time Pac-10 champs and a national championship finalist last season, had a good month of spring football practice.

Quarterback Darron Thomas, running back LaMichael James and others took up leadership roles.

Offensive and defensive linemen, who will be key players in the 2012 season, got in the work they needed.

The defense ruled the spring, consistently outperforming coach Chip Kelly's offense.

And, certain players made big impressions, none more than middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.

"Kiko Alonso ... I don't want to take anything away from (fellow middle linebacker) Dewitt Stuckey, but ...," defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said last week, "he's 6-3, 6-4, 235-240 pounds, runs very well, very physical, strong. When he gets the knowledge that (ex-Duck Casey) Matthews had - you never like to compare - but I'm going to be honest like I always am, if that comes to fruition, he'll play on Sundays."

But now, the question is whether Alonso will ever play on Saturdays for the Ducks?

After sitting out the 2010 season in the wake of a drunk-driving arrest, Alonso, who had rehabilitated from knee surgery, found himself on the wrong end of the law again hours after the Ducks concluded spring practice with their spring game at Autzen Stadium.

In the early morning hours Sunday, police arrested Alonso on burglary and trespassing charges.

Kelly then indefinitely suspended the junior-to-be from Los Gatos, Calif.

So, as Aliotti met with defensive players this week to talk about offseason training and the mentoring of young players, Alonso's role with the team remained up the air, pending legal proceedings and further team disciplinary action.

The middle linebacker position, vacated by Matthews, a fourth-round NFL draft pick of Philadelphia, appears that it may fall to the 5-11, 220 Stuckey for the time being.

The thing is, the Ducks have a lot of depth and talent on defense, and it showed up in spring ball.

With possibly Alonso and Stuckey in the middle, Michael Clay and Derrick Malone at the inside position and Josh Kaddu and Boseko Lokombo on the outside, the Ducks have a solid core of linebackers, although Aliotti anticipates that some of the five incoming freshmen will challenge to play for depth purposes.

Sophomore tackle Ricky Heimuli led the retooled defensive line, minus three departed starters, during spring ball, and he will likely start along with Wade Keliikipi at tackle and Dion Jordan and Terrell Turner at end. The other four D-linemen are expected to be Brandon Hanna, Taylor Hart, Jared Ebert and Isaac Remington.

"Our defensive line was able to get work done, and coach (Jerry Azzinaro) was pushing us to work harder and faster and never be satisfied," says Heimuli, who decided to forgo a Mormon mission to remain with the Ducks. "We kept pushing ourselves."

The defensive line excelled.

"Ricky and Wade," says James, offering praise, "if (our offensive line) can block them, they can block anybody. Anybody will have trouble with those two guys."

The 6-4, 320 Heimuli could be the breakout star on the defensive line. Some followers have compared him to ex-Duck/current NFL star Haloti Ngata.

"I'm doing my best to get up there," he says.

John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant return at safety positions, and the Ducks have narrowed the cornerback candidates down to star Cliff Harris, Anthony Gildon, Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill.

"I've got four guys who have solidified themselves," says secondary coach John Neal, who moved corner Avery Patterson to backup rover behind Pleasant, "but we've also got Dior (Mathis) and Scott (Grady), who did some good things. We hope we can have at least six corners going into the season."

Aliotti was very excited about his defense.

"I'm not bragging, I thought we had a really good spring," he says. "We got a lot of things accomplished. I feel really good where we are right now."

Of course, that was before Alonso's transgression.

On offense, Thomas, a little thicker at 6-3 and 215 pounds, worked on his footwork and accuracy this spring, as well as his leadership. At the same time, he had to work with new centers in Hroniss Grasu and Karrington Armstrong, who are replacing graduated leader Jordan Holmes.

"Jordan was a step ahead of me - now I'm a step ahead of my center," Thomas says.

"He's improved as a player," offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says, of Thomas. "He's been a lot more accurate, and his expansion and knowledge of the offense has been good."

Helfrich says he also has confidence in backup Bryan Bennett.

James and Kenjon Barner got in their spring work, with Lache Seastrunk expected to challenge for playing time at running back in August training camp. James has gained weight to tip the scales at 192 pounds. He set a simple goal to improve on play fakes.

With Holmes and two others gone, the offensive line remains the team's biggest question mark. Tackles Darrion Weems and Mark Asper and guard Carson York return, and the likes of Nick Cody, Ryan Clanton and Ramsen Golpashin, as well as the centers, have worked into the mix. The O-line is key, because the Ducks have earned their reputation with the running game, and with a lack of current depth at receiver, it appears the offense needs the running game more than ever.

It could be a similar situation to 2008, when the offensive line struggled in the opener at Boise State and then gradually improved. The Ducks will play LSU at Dallas in their Sept. 3 opener.

"They have to get better," James says. "We're getting better. You're not going to go out with three new starters and be a great offensive front. We'll have growing pains."

But, he adds of the running game, which could include more of Thomas toting the ball, "I think it'll be just as good as last year. I don't think we'll miss a beat."

Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff return at receiver, although Huff missed some practices with a knee injury. Justin Hoffman also has run with the first unit. Clearly, the Ducks need some of the four incoming receivers to compete to play. But the Ducks will also spread their talent around, as Barner and James can play the slot, or "TAZR" position, and incoming freshman D'Anthony Thomas, a five-star recruit from Los Angeles, wants to play offense.

"We're lacking a little bit of (receiver) speed right now," Thomas says.

Says Helfrich: "There's no question we need some competition there, if to do nothing else than make the guys here sit up straight and be prepared and ready to go this summer."

The Ducks also count their tight ends as receivers, and returning starter David Paulson, backup Brandon Williams and true freshman Colt Lyerla have been and will be factors.

"Colt, once he figures (things) out, he's going to be good, golden," Thomas adds, of the Hillsboro High product. "He's going to have a big improvement from spring camp to fall."

Punter Jackson Rice and kicker Rob Beard, each backed up by Alejandro Maldonado, return as experienced starters.

And the Ducks won't lack for returners, with Harris (he of the four punts returned for TDs last season) and Barner handling punts, and Barner and James and others fielding the kicks.