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UO D-line adapts fast to new coach

Ducks' pace wows ex-NFL assistant coach Ron Aiken


EUGENE — New University of Oregon defensive line coach Ron Aiken had watched video and heard the stories. But the first day of spring practice had him on his heels.

“Everything was fast,” he says. “Even stretch(ing) was fast.”

Aiken spent six years coaching the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive line before replacing Jerry Azzinaro at Oregon, and he says nothing compares to how the Ducks practice.

“We got more plays in that (first) practice than we got in sometimes two days in the NFL,” he says.

Aiken has settled into the routine, and he says the Ducks’ veteran leaders have made it easier for him to replace Azzinaro, who joined former UO coach Chip Kelly’s new staff with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Ducks figure to start three seniors up front — defensive end Taylor Hart and tackles Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli. According to Aiken, the trio has acted as a sounding board for him, helping to ensure that his terminology melds well with what was in place.

“We’ve been here long enough, and we know how it’s done,” says Hart, the senior from Tualatin. “Obviously, he’s going to coach us, but we can help out, too.”

Hart acknowledges, though, that the seniors have learned things from Aiken.

Technique, especially pad level, will be especially essential to blue-chip sophomores Arik Armstead and DeForrest Buckner, both taller than 6-7.

Aiken has experience working with taller defensive linemen, most notably 6-8 standout Calais Campbell, who spent five years under Aiken’s tutelage in Arizona.

“I’ve mentioned to Arik that he’s got long arms like Calais Campell,” Aiken says. “He can use that to his advantage.”

Aiken has included certain technique work specific to “long-armed” players, he says.

The coaching change has been difficult on the defensive line, especially for Buckner and Armstead, who expected to play under Azzinaro for more than one year.

“(Azzinaro) motivated me to come here, and I wanted to play for him,” Buckner says. “Every day, I wanted to go out to practice (for him) to get better.”

Hart says Azzinaro “wasn’t just a coach, he was a great friend. We had quite a bond.”

But Buckner says he’s taken a page from his old coach in trying to embrace the new.

“It’s hard to trust somebody right away, but you can respect them right away,” Buckner says. “We all respect coach Aiken and what he’s trying to do. Throughout the season, we’re going to put our trust in him.”