Looking for a dominant defensive lineman? Try a basketball gym.
That’s where you could find Jerry Azzinaro, now the 49ers defensive-line coach, during the 2012 recruiting season.
Azzinaro, then the defensive-line coach at Oregon, first traveled to Sacramento, where he watched Arik Armstead muscle his way through the paint for Pleasant Grove High School in the Sacramento High Tournament.
Then he hopped on a plane to Hawaii and saw DeForest Buckner and his Punahou School teammates dominate a game in which Buckner had 12 points, 13 rebounds and a blocked shot.
“Oh, I remember the game,” Buckner said. “I had a couple of dunks in it, too.”
Azzinaro and then Ducks coach Chip Kelly weren’t seeking bulk that winter. They wanted athleticism, big guys who had stamina, players who used their hands well and understood leverage. Most of all, they longed for length.
“You can cover more space,” Kelly said in February about his preference for tall players. “That’s always been the philosophy I tried to recruit to in college.”
Kelly and Azzinaro landed what they were looking for in Armstead and Buckner, but the coaches had only a year to work with their prized recruits. After the 2012 season, Kelly and Azzinaro left for the Philadelphia Eagles. Two years later, Armstead entered the NFL draft, leaving behind Buckner at Oregon.
Now they’re back together in Santa Clara. The 49ers used the seventh pick in April to select Buckner, giving San Francisco a unique profile entering this season.
When struggling NFL teams reset, they usually look for a quarterback and surround him with an array of offensive weapons.
The 49ers have gone about it differently. Their top pick in the last four drafts has been a defensive player, and their two most recent, Armstead and Buckner, are near twins: 6-foot-7 defensive linemen who not only played together in college but became best friends there.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is the most accomplished and recognizable member of San Francisco’s defense. But the 49ers are betting everyone on defense – from Bowman to the edge pass rushers to the secondary – will flourish behind two skyscraping defensive linemen.
GOING BIG IS OLD SCHOOL
A two-tower line isn’t a new concept in the NFL.
In the 1960s, Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd and Buck Buchanan – 6-9 and 6-7 – played together for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ladd also had a career with the World Wide Wrestling Federation, in which he faced other giants, including Andre The Giant.
The Dallas Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” of the 1970s and ’80s featured 6-6 George Andrie, 6-9 Ed “Too Tall” Jones and 6-5 Harvey Martin.
Like Kelly and Azzinaro, the Cowboys looked for height, targeting guys such as Jones, who went to Tennessee State to play basketball, and Andrie, whose college, Marquette, dropped football before his senior year.
“We were essentially drafting a big, tall guy who was an athlete,” Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ personnel director for three decades, said of Andrie. “We drafted him and gave him something like 250 bucks and said, ‘Here, go get a membership to a health club. Start working on getting bigger and stronger.’ That’s how we did things in the old days.”
Brandt said that in 1981 – when the Cowboys’ season ended at Candlestick Park thanks largely to a certain catch by 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark – the Cowboys led the league with 37 interceptions, despite a secondary that included a 12th-round pick, two undrafted rookies and a former college wide receiver.
That ragtag group did so well because opposing quarterbacks must have felt they were throwing into an oak forest.
“I think the reason we had such good success with that group was because of the difficulty of throwing the ball over these big, tall guys,” Brandt said.
FRIENDS SINCE FRESHMAN DAYS
The 49ers are looking for a similar dynamic.
They want talented defensive lineman who can rattle opposing quarterbacks into turnovers. And they want a deep group that can handle the long minutes Kelly’s defenses often play because his rapid-fire offense is on and off the field so quickly.
Armstead and Buckner are accustomed to the pace.
When Azzinaro was recruiting Buckner and Armstead, he told them the Ducks like to rotate their defensive linemen. If they worked their way to the second string, he promised, they’d play as freshmen.
Buckner was sold.
“He said if I got into a rotation with the twos, I’d be able to get at least 30-something snaps a game,” Buckner said. “And I said, ‘Oh, man, that’d be nice. Being able to play as a true freshman? It’s a great opportunity.’ ”
The duo got more than that in 2012.
After a slew of injuries on the defensive line, Oregon relied heavily on Armstead and Buckner in a game against Cal. A week later, Armstead, Buckner and fellow freshman defensive lineman Alex Balducci started for the top-ranked Ducks in a pivotal game against No. 14 Stanford.
“We were 10-0 getting ready to play Stanford,” Azzinaro said. “If we win that game, we’re going to the national championship. I think I lost five defensive linemen the week before. So we started three true freshmen: DeForest, Balducci and Arik.”
Oregon lost 17-14 in overtime, but the shared experience forged a friendship among the three defenders. After that season, they lived together in a house off campus until Armstead left for the NFL following the 2014 season.
Now the three are back together.
Balducci, a nose tackle at Oregon, wasn’t drafted in April, but the 49ers signed him as a free agent and moved him to center. He has a good shot to end up on the 49ers’ practice squad, where he would line up against his college buddies during the week.
“It’s nuts seeing how everything came full circle,” Buckner said. “Before my first NFL game (at Levi’s Stadium), I played here twice. I played against Cal, and I played in the Pac-12 championship here. All three of us – me, Alex and Arik – were roommates throughout college. To be here with our old coaching staff – it’s crazy.”
vs. L.A. Rams
Ch. 13, NFL
vs. Tampa Bay
vs. New Orleans
vs. New England
vs. N.Y. Jets
at L.A. Rams