Replacing a four-year starter is never easy and that’s what Popo Aumavae will be asked to do for Oregon football.
Fortunately, this wasn’t a plan hatched over a few months or via the transfer portal. The Ducks have loaded up the interior of their defensive line over the years in order to be ready to replace Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu and others and Aumavae was among the early additions.
He’s had multiple years to play as the No. 2 nose tackle, closing 2019 strong and getting limited action last season.
As important as Aumavae’s readiness for the increased rep count will be at the top of the depth chart, the rotation behind him will be nearly as critical as several players vying to be on the two-deep have little game experience.
“These guys are truly competing,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said.
“We really have a real high competition going on within our defensive front room but it needs to be for us to grow and get to the level that we know we can be. That’s the only way. Those guys have embraced that and they’re helping each other, they’re challenging each other.”
Aumavae had 10 tackles in just five games last season but there’s not as much to make of his play in the short year until the last couple of weeks.
He showed flashes of the kind of impact he can make as a starter during the 2019 season, when he had 15 stops with five for loss, including 3.5 sacks.
“I think (Aumavae) understands the responsibility of being that presence in the middle now with the amount of reps and I think a renewed sense of health,” Salave’a said.
“He’s been nicked up in the last few seasons but so far he’s truly playing up to what we’ve always known all along. He’s a big body that has good athleticism, but man, heavy-hand striker.”
A true nose tackle is going to do less glamorous work, plug lanes and rarely top 40-45 tackles in a season. But if Aumavae has brought anything resembling consistent pass rush to the interior it would be a welcome change to a group that sorely lacked in that category the past several years.
“I think Popo’s someone who’s not talked about enough,” right guard Ryan Walk said. “He missed the first couple of games with contact tracing and got lost in the shuffle a little bit. I think Popo and Brandon (Dorlus) on the inside have taken good steps as players. Then Keyon (Ware-Hudson) and Kristian Williams too, all those guys, that 2019 defensive line class, they’ve taken a lot of steps and I think they’re going to contribute a lot this season.”
Sua’ava Poti redshirted in 2019 and didn’t play last season, but is the most experienced player vying for the backup role.
“He’s another young athlete that’s really developing a good pass rush, but he’s also a technician,” Salave’a said.
Should he be the No. 2 nose tackle, even on paper, Poti can be in a rotation and work his way into a role.