Over the past four years, the once vaunted Oregon secondary have taken massive steps backwards. After losing three players to the NFL in 2013, the Ducks’ passing defense never finished above 111th in the nation over the following three years — until new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt arrived last year.
With Leavitt taking over, a shake-up in philosophy and player personnel followed. Part of Leavitt’s philosophy change was becoming more aggressive, a plan that led to 15 interceptions, six more than the year before. Likewise, Oregon gave up 31 yards less through the air, jumping from 113th to 88th in the nation.
But with four-year starters Arrion Springs and Tyree Robinson now off to the NFL, a group of young and mostly unproven players must show they’re ready to take the next step if the Ducks want to continue this upward trend.
Once of the biggest beneficiaries of Leavitt’s personnel chance was Ugochukwu Amadi. Amadi spent the first two years at cornerback for the Ducks, and even began there last year. But halfway through the season, Leavitt decided to move the 5-foot-10, 201-pound senior to safety and saw immediate results.
Amadi helped tighten the Ducks in the backend, bringing athleticism and ground coverage Oregon hasn’t had for multiple years at the position. He finished last season tying for the team lead in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, proving his knack for being around the football. He also added eight pass break-ups, showing his range and physical abilities.
With Amadi’s move to safety, it opened up a starting cornerback position that was immediately seized by then-freshman Thomas Graham Jr. Now a sophomore, Graham has shown tremendous maturity in camp after starting 12 of 13 games last year and tying for the team lead in interceptions (with Amadi) with three.
Graham has the potential to be Oregon’s newest lockdown corner, a strength the Ducks haven’t had since Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in 2013. He shows a combination of strength and athleticism despite his 5-foot-11, 191-pound frame.
Expected to start opposite Graham is sophomore Deommodore Lenoir, a highly-regarded recruit. Lenoir saw action in every game last year and finished the season with five pass break-ups. Last year, Lenoir tended to be overly-aggressive and physical, often leading himself open to double-moves and pass interference penalties.
After a great spring and even better summer, Lenoir has drawn raves from his coaches for showing his growth and maturity by becoming a much more calculated gambler on defense. Combining his size (5-foot-11, 196 pounds) with physicality and athleticism, Lenoir is the type of corner Leavitt’s covets in his scheme.
With three of the starting spots all but sealed, the competition for the final starting safety position should be a good one. Sophomore Nick Pickett started three games last year, but injuries prevented him from securing the spot all together. He also begins a bit behind his competition after missing spring camp recovering from the injuries.
Pushing Pickett will be redshirt sophomore Brady Breeze and senior Mattrell McGraw. McGraw is the most experienced, having started four of the first seven games last year while Breeze has shown flashes of being a legitimate threat in the backend.
Sophomore Billy Gibson and special teams star, junior Sean Kilpatrick, are expected to provide depth at the safety position.
The Ducks have an embarrassment of riches entering the program this year — a group that should provide competition and playing time for a unit in need.
Senior transfer Haki Woods is a physically imposing cornerback who enrolled in the January and has spent the time learning the intricacies of Leavitt’s defense. Listed at 6-foot-3, 201-pounds, Woods looks like an NFL cornerback so if he can put together all of his assets, he could push for a starting spot.
Freshmen Verone McKinley III and Kahlef Hailassie has been sparks in fall camp, picking up Leavitt’s defense rather quickly. McKinley is challenging for early playing time after enrolling in January and playing with Oregon’s defense over the past six months.
Fellow freshmen Jevon Holland and Steve Stephens have emerged as players looking to make the two-deep despite a crowded unit.
Stephens, who’s been with the Ducks since January after enrolling early, has shown a great understanding of the defense, allowing him to play faster and make plays. Holland arrived in time for fall camp but is picking up the defense at an alarming rate. Combine that with his physical gifts (6-foot-1, 192 pounds), it’s no wonder why he’s seeing reps with the second unit.
Barring an injury, the expected starters for the opener are Graham, Lenoir and Amadi. From there, the competition ramps up and I don’t expect it to be solved until the very end of camp. I give Pickett the nod to start if he’s healthy based on his play last year — but McGraw is really challenging him for that final spot.
Because the Pac-12 is such a pass-happy league, I expect the Ducks to use five defensive backs a considerable amount throughout the year.
One option would be dropping Amadi into that role, a position he’s used too, and thus opening up a spot for McGraw or one of the freshmen in Holland and Stephens. The other option would be moving Graham/Lenoir inside and giving Woods or McKinley a spot on the outside. Either way, the Ducks are loaded with depth but finding the right combination will be key.
This is a unit that lacks experience but is loaded with potential talent. If Oregon is going to make strides as a defensive unit, it will be because of the better overall play of the secondary.
Projected Starters: Sophomore CB, Thomas Graham Jr. — Senior S, Ugochukwu Amadi — Sophomore S, Nick Pickett — Sophomore CB, Deommodore Lenoir
Projected Backups: Senior CB, Haki Woods — Senior S, Mattrell McGraw — Freshman S, Jevon Holland/Freshman S, Steve Stephens — Freshman CB, Verone McKinley III