Top players to watch this spring: No. 3

The first day of Oregon’s spring practices is April 1 (no, we aren’t fooling you), which means we’ve got about three weeks until the Ducks take the field again. Last week we counted down the top-five Oregon recruiting classes, and this week we’re taking a look at the top five players to keep track of during spring ball.

No. 3: DL Alex Balducci

2013 statistics: 18 tackles | 1 PBU | 1 PD | 2 FR

Why to watch him: The Ducks’ defensive line is in a year of transition, losing key contributors and starters from last season. The reps and minutes are there to be filled, and Balducci is in a prime spot to step into the starting role at nose tackle.

The Ducks' run defense struggled last season, allowing 165.5 yards per game (No. 6 in the Pac 12, No. 66 nationally). Stopping the run this season is going to be a huge point of emphasis, so players such as Balducci are going to need to step up, stop the run and force opposing teams into negative plays.

Only 100 times did the Oregon defense stop opponent rushes for no gain or negative yardage. That statistic ranks last in the Pac-12, 51 behind first-place Arizona State, and is one that will need to be alleviated and greatly improved next season, as the Ducks rarely finish last in any category in the Pac-12.

The Ducks only allowed 51 rushes of 10 or more yards (T-19th nationally) which means that the linebackers and the defensive backs were able to get their jobs done. That also means too many runs broke through the first level of defense. DeForest Buckner returns at defensive end, but in the middle Balducci is going to need to play much better than he did last season if the Ducks' defense wants to be better than it was. The ceiling for where this team can get is going to get lower and lower if the D-line underachieves, and a big part of whether or not that happens is if Balducci can clog up the middle. Watch him this spring to get an idea of whether or not he’ll be able to do that next fall.

The countdown: