It’s evident in Oregon’s inability to run on Auburn and LSU. Evident pretty much anytime somebody tries to function offensively against a mid-to-upper-level Southeastern Conference team.
The SEC’s defensive lines, particularly their tackles, seem to be from a world apart. They’re playing a different game from most Pac-12 teams.
LaMichael James, who on most Western stages is uncatchable, has run for his two lowest career totals in the Ducks’ last two games against SEC teams – 49 and 54 yards.
So where are these guys coming from? Is it my imagination, or does the South, as a region, simply produce more high-level defensive-line prospects, especially tackles?
Ivan Maisel, writing recently on ESPN.com, noted that of the 14 defensive tackles drafted in the first round by the NFL in the past five years, six came out of the SEC. (My original post referred more generally to “defensive linemen,” not tackles, and left out the reference to the first round . . . sorry about that).
“I have no speculation, but it’s true,” said Oregon coach Chip Kelly this week. “Auburn had a great defensive front, LSU had a great defensive front. There’s great defensive tackles that come out of that league.”
And out of that region.
Last winter, SuperPrep Magazine named 59 high school defensive linemen All-Americans. A geographic swath from North Carolina to Texas had 10 of the top 20, 22 of the top 50. Of the 59, the West – including Nevada and Hawaii – had 12.
I asked South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier about it Wednesday on the SEC coaches conference call. “The game of football, we all think is speed – run around and throw it around,” Spurrier said. “But those big dudes control up front.”
Said Nick Saban of Alabama, who coached at Michigan State in the ’90s, “I’ve always said the difference in our conference is probably two things – more dominant defensive linemen – sometimes dominant rushers, sometimes dominant interior players – and the cover people (cornerbacks) are usually a little bit better.”
Saban notes that the Oregon example is probably the extreme one; it faced a national-title defensive front in Auburn, with high draft pick Nick Fairley, and “LSU probably has as good a front four as anybody in the country.”
But Allen Wallace, editor of SuperPrep, makes a point worth considering. It relates to a contrast I wrote about in August between Oregon and USC and their NFL draftees in April. The Ducks, amazingly, had only linebacker Casey Matthews from their title-game team, while the Trojans had nine draftees. Coach Lane Kiffin has been touting their viability through probation with that pitch.
Relating it to what’s happened on the field, the Ducks’ most high-profile players the past couple of years have been at the skill positions – James, quarterback Darron Thomas, etc. On the offensive line, by contrast, while they’ve had high-achievers, they haven’t been the sort prized by the NFL. Tackle-to-tackle, they’ve had four players drafted in the past decade, the Seahawks’ Max Unger (second) the only one higher than the fifth round.
That doesn’t mean they’ve come up short in any way; to the contrary, you can make the case they’ve maximized their talents in Oregon’s system. But the NFL hasn’t been bowled over by their pro potential.
“If Oregon’s going to successfully upgrade (to an even recruiting footing with perennial powers), they’re going to have to upgrade in the offensive and defensive lines,” Wallace says.
“The surprise effect Oregon has been able to use with this very productive offense is now in the past. Teams have a better idea how to attack Oregon. In that respect, you get down to, ‘OK, you’ve got to have the horses.’ And it can’t just be at the skill positions. It’s got to be at the offensive and defensive line spots. I think a lot of these programs have better pipelines into the living rooms of the offensive and defensive linemen.”
I don’t know if teams in the Pac-12 are any better equipped to handle the Oregon speed and pace any better than they have been (which is: pretty much not at all). But it’s clear that at the highest level – a top-five national level – there are places Oregon has to get better.