Duck fans who follow recruiting were jubilant when Ricky Heimuli signed his Letter of Intent back in February of 2010. He was a 6-4, 320-pound defensive tackle from Brighton High in Salt Lake City, a 4-star recruit, an Army All-American, one of the top 100 players in the country.
Bearing down: Ricky Havili-Heimuli chases down California's Zach Maynard October 2011. (champions.uoregon.edu photo)
All the speculation before Signing Day was that he was going to UCLA. Rivals named him the #8 defensive tackle nationally.
It was a great class. Chip Kelly signed Bryan Bennett, Lache Seastrunk and Josh Huff. But the message boards were most excited about Heimuli. He could be another Haloti Ngata, people said. A powerful Mormon strong man who could dominate in the middle.
Ricky Havili-Heimuli (he changed the name to honor his mother) is now a senior, trimmed down to an athletic 6-4, 305. He's grown a beard. He played in 36 straight games as a Duck until a knee injury against USC last year, 39 in all.
In three years, the gentle giant has one career sack.
Each season someone projects greatness for Double H. In his sophomore year, the spring of 2011, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti told John Hunt of the Oregonian, "You hate to put too much pressure on him, But he could be the closest thing to Haloti we've had in a long time.''
Aliotti continued, "He's a great kid, he's a hard worker, he's humble, he takes well to coaching, he's tough, he moves very well - I like the way he's practicing, and I like his potential,'' Aliotti said. "Ricky will be as good as Ricky wants to be.''
The powerful nose tackle decided to forgo a religious mission that winter and stay in school, partly because his family needed the money. Ricky sent his scholarship stipend home to his mother. He wanted to stay in school, take advantage of the benefit of his scholarship, maybe earn a crack at the NFL.
Guard Carson York compared his teammate to UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price, a former PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year and 2nd round draft choice.
That fall Havili-Heimuli had 22 tackles. As a junior, 18, with 1.5 tackles for loss.
The productivity has never matched the hype and potential.
Part of the reason has been injuries. He banged up an elbow his freshman year, and an ankle bothered him all through 2011. Last season, the knee. He told Rob Moseley, then with the Register-Guard, “I feel it was about 75 percent, on a good day,” Havili-Heimuli said of his ankle. “I’m just hoping to keep building.”
Another factor is the role interior linemen often play in the Duck defense. His main job is to take on blocks inside and tie up the guard and center so the linebackers can make plays. It's an unselfish role that usually results in teammates getting the glory and the big hits.
Even so, the hope has been that #90 would harness his fearsome physique and natural ability to assert himself in the Oregon defense. Fall camp is buzzing with how good Ricky looks this fall. He's been mentioned frequently by Moseley, now embedded as the Oregon Athletic Department's in-house reporter. Coaches say he looks fit, healthy and mobile. Teammates talk about how hard it is to block him.
Big guys with agility are among the most coveted prospects in pro football. Right now H-H rates as the #28 defensive tackle out of 210 seniors, according to nfldraftscout.com. He can make a move up the draft boards with an aggressive, improving senior year.
Havili-Heimuli had the best stretch of games in his career late last season. He had four tackles in the loss to Stanford, two against Oregon State including a tackle for loss, and two against Kansas State. Against KSU the coaches even played him off the ball standing up in some situations, like a linebacker, to confuse the offense and take advantage of his mobility and lateral movement.
A top high school prospect, Ricky has always had the strength and size to be a very good player. He's popular among his teammates, both because of his sense of humor and effort. If he gets an even break in the health department, this could be the season he cashes in on the hard work and persistence.
A video the Ducks shot to promote the annual fundraiser "Bowling with the Ducks," a benefit for the Kilcullen Memorial Scholarship fund, shows Keanon Lowe and #90 playfully spoofing Ricky's future. Watch him leap over Lowe to throw a strike, and stride down the alley in Fred Flinstone twinkle-toes fashion.
The PBA can wait. Havili-Heimuli has one more season of football, and he's done everything he can to prepare for his best one. If he takes a leap forward this fall, the Ducks can be a much better defense.
What the Ducks need most is an honest to God pass rushing behemoth and a sack threat, but having a giant like HH to plug the middle is a close second. It would be great if he could stay healthy and really shine this season, for more than just the sake of the team. Sending money home to mom... That is quite admirable, and I hope for a brighter future in the NFL for him.
DB, I deliberately chose those examples, to illustrate how tenuous recruiting is. In my opinion, the only thing that's held Huff back is injuries, and he seems to be 100% this year with a more relaxed, confident attitude.
The 2010 class also included Terrance Mitchell, Ryan Clanton, Isaac Remington, Hroniss Grasu (all-league center). Erick Dargan, Keanon Lowe, Isaac Remington and Derrick Malone, among others. Mitchell's part of the best cornerback tandem in the NCAA. Dargan and Malone will be key members of this year's defensive rotation. Clanton and Remington were solid contributors. Keanon Lowe was a starter at receiver and averaged 22.7 yards per kick return.
There will always be misses, because recruiting is inexact, and athletes develop in different ways. But Oregon recruiting has gotten better every year. The 2011 class included Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekrpe-Olomu, Jake Fisher, Tyler Johnstone, Colt Lyerla, and De'Anthony Thomas. That's probably the foundation of the best class in Oregon history.
@Duckbill Huff was filthy his freshman year, #4 if you remember. He's delivered in my eyes
@zduckfan Ducks are in the final seven for a 6-6, 230-lb. pass rushing defensive end from Georgia, Lorenzo Carter. They'll have to out-recruit Florida, Alabama and Georgia to get him but he is the dominating edge rusher they've never had, although they've had some good ones in Jordan, Kenny Rowe and Nick Reed.