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.