Standing in the gap their big thing
- jason vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Heimuli, Keliikipi only part of Ducks’ mix in defensive line
Before the season, Ricky Heimuli heard all the comparisons. There was only one Haloti Ngata, but Heimuli pretty much had everything in common with the former great Oregon Duck and current NFL player: He was a big, good defensive tackle from Salt Lake City, a young man of Tongan descent and a member of the Mormon church. The pressure of the comparison affected Heimuli. “I didn’t really want to let anybody down,” he says. So, the 6-4, 320-pounder, who started the season with an injured ankle, suffered through a sophomore slump of sorts. He wasn’t very impressive until the second half of the season. He goes into the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl 22 total tackles, including one-half for a loss. He had a quarterback hurry. That was pretty much the extent of his statistics, except for the fact that he played in all 13 games and took up his share of blockers. The coaches asked Heimuli and fellow sophomore Wade Keliikipi to use their big bodies to take up blockers and free up other defensive players. Heimuli says his strategy is to “cover the two ‘A’ gaps, so they’ll double- and triple-team me. As long as we keep winning, it’s fine with me. I don’t mind getting stats, but I give up my body for the team, so we can win.” Keliikipi had a big game at Washington, with 1 1/2 sacks. But, he, too, had to take on the taking-up-blockers role. It’s not very glamorous, but Ngata has done his share of the same thing. During his UO career, Ngata had some stellar tackles games as well, and he has become one of the NFL’s great defensive tackles during his six seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Part of Heimuli’s story exists off the field. He helps his parents in Salt Lake City by sending them part of his financial aid. Such “outside influences,” as Oregon coach Chip Kelly calls them, are not uncommon for college football players. Heimuli recently contacted Ngata, after repeated attempts, and the former Duck gave the youngster some great advice: Mind your school and football. Even though he played during his true freshman season, Heimuli says he was homesick, a feeling that extended into this season. “The biggest advice (Ngata) gave me was, ‘Don’t worry about what’s going on at home and on the outside — it’ll affect both your school and football. Focus on what you have here.’ “ Heimuli says. “He was more than glad to help me out. We talked for a good 20 minutes. It was really good. (Ngata’s) been through everything I’ve been through.” Heimuli and the 6-3, 300-pound Keliikipi had the Ducks enthused about their defensive line entering the season, and the play of others heightened the excitement. Tackle Taylor Hart, from Tualatin, had a great year. End Dion Jordan became a terrific playmaker. Ends Terrell Turner and Brandon Hanna gave sound leadership. Isaac Remington provided some depth inside. Tony Washington overcame injuries to add spark on the outside. “I’m really proud of our D-line,” Heimuli says. “We’re able to have fun, and at the same time know when we have to do business.” Keliikipi and Heimuli room together during away games. Keliikipi has 20 total tackles. “I love that kid, man,” Heimuli says. “He’s really good to work with. I’m honored to play with him.” Keliikipi dealt with his own injury, a hamstring pull, in training camp. “As the season progressed, like everyone on the D-line and football team, I got better,” he says. Everything came together at Washington, as he created havoc early and often — “I was reading the running back and how he lined up, and I knew when there’d be a pass play,” he adds. Both players want to be more consistent and better next season. For Heimuli to start living up to the comparisons to Ngata, he needs to get better at one of the basics. “I need to work on shedding blocks,” he says. “I feel like I have everything else.