SANTA CLARA -- Alex Balducci arrived at the University of Oregon in 2012 with fellow highly recruited defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.
Now, all three are reunited in the NFL with the coaches who recruited them -- Chip Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro.
While Armstead and Buckner came to the 49ers as the organization’s first-round draft picks of the past two seasons, Balducci’s route was not as direct or obvious.
After Balducci went undrafted, he chose to sign with the 49ers as a free agent and commence a project that would entail a position switch to become an offensive lineman.
“Alex is kind of built like a prototypical offensive lineman,” Kelly said. “I think he’s got really good feet and is very athletic, so I think it was a natural maneuver.”
Balducci played offensive and defensive line in high school, but he settled in along the defensive line during his four-year career at Oregon. He concluded his college career with 28 consecutive starts as an interior lineman. As a senior, he recorded 40 tackles, including six tackles for loss, and was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
Yet, approximately half of the NFL teams in which he came in contact, did not envision a run-stuffing defensive lineman during draft workouts. It all made sense to Balducci when one NFL coach pulled him aside and explained the thought process, he said.
“Now that college football is going to spread offenses, it’s vastly different than what NFL teams want from their offensive linemen,” Balducci said. “So in a sense, they have to re-teach the college offensive linemen how to play offensive line. So sometimes their thought process is to get defensive linemen, who are more athletic and more aggressive, to move over on that side of the ball.”
The Seattle Seahawks have implemented the concept more than any team in the league. Last season, the Seahawks’ Week 1 starting lineup consisted of two offensive linemen who solely played defensive line in college. One of those players, guard J.R. Sweezy, signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason.
“I don’t know him as a defensive lineman, but I saw film of him when he worked out at his pro day as an offensive lineman,” 49ers offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said. “What I saw was a guy who has very good strength, good leverage and good balance. Now he has to learn how to use his hands and get his feet in the proper position.”
Azzinaro, who was his college position coach for one season in Eugene before moving with Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles, saw the logic in the position switch.
“We saw a high-character guy who really loves football and knows a lot about football,” Azzinaro said. “It’s just a matter of where you want to place him.
“There are a lot of similarities in both of those jobs. Why not see if we can think outside the box a little bit with a guy like that? We know what he’s going to do, as far as the love of the game. We know what he’s going to do in the classroom, and the off-the-field issues are non-existent with him. Why not? It’s a good investment. The risk-reward was pretty high.”
Balducci (6 foot 3 5/8, 315 pounds) lined up at center and right guard during the 49ers’ offseason program. And while there were the typical number of shot-gun snaps off the mark, Balducci was pleasantly surprised with the early results of the conversion and his work with Flaherty and assistant offensive line coach Eric Wolford.
“I honestly thought it was going to be a train wreck,” Balducci said. “But I’ve been able to pick things up quicker than I expected.”
Said veteran left tackle Joe Staley, “I never would’ve known that he came from the D-line. I actually didn’t know until a week after he was here. (Moving from) defensive line to offensive line is so different, in terms of footwork. Offensive line is such a technical position. He had a lot of that stuff down from Day 1.”
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the move is that Balducci immediately began lining up across the ball from Buckner, his college teammate for four years, during practices.
“It’s pretty cool,” Balducci said. “It’s kind of weird. You’re playing alongside a guy and now all of a sudden, you’re going against him. He’s got some pretty good moves.”
And Buckner said he is impressed with what he sees from Balducci, too.
“He’s been on my side the past four years. Going against him when he’s at guard, it’s different,” Buckner said. “I can’t let up because he’s my friend. It’s still competition. He makes me better and I make him better every day.
“He’s looking like a natural at guard. He’s working every day at his craft. For the short period of time he’s been playing O-line, he’s looking good.”