All week leading up to Oregon’s showdown with Cal on Saturday night, I wrote about two ball-hawking safeties who were going to make a difference for their team.
I was only half wrong.
Instead of Cal’s duo, as was written, it was Oregon’s combination of Ugochukwu Amadi and Jevon Holland who stole the show — combining for four interceptions in the 45-24 victory.
The rise of Holland combined with the elevated play of Amadi has given a spark to Oregon’s passing defense, something the Ducks were in desperate need of. They each bring a vastly different set of skills that have meshed extremely well together.
Amadi is clearly the leader of the defensive backs, being the only senior starter in the unit. He spent his first two years at cornerback for the Ducks but was moved to safety last year to make place for then-freshman Thomas Graham Jr.
"From what I hear, he was making sure guys were practicing the right way," Oregon defensive backs coach Keith Heyward said of Amadi during the offseason. "He was telling guys to run around — we're always on them as coaches, but it really means something when it comes from the players.”
“Ugo’s a great leader… everybody looks up to him,” linebacker Troy Dye added. “He knows the defense inside and out — I think he knows half of our offense as well.”
The move to safety completely revitalized Amadi’s stagnant career. It allowed the vocal player to see more of the field and communicate clearly with his teammates, getting the secondary on the same page. After going through a transition last year, Amadi’s growth has been evident in his play.
"I liked the switch," Amadi said. "I started making more plays, being able to be in the middle of the field and make plays left or right."
On the season, he’s got 24 tackles but has shown an ability to play in the box with 2.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also has three interceptions and five pass break-ups, numbers that reflect his improved play
Not the biggest, fastest or most physical, Amadi more than makes up for it with his knowledge of the Oregon defense and opposing offense. Making up for his 5-foot-10, 201-pound frame, Amadi understands how plays are going to unfold before they happen, allowing him to be in proper position to make plays on the ball or receiver. Because of his improved knowledge of the position, he’s reacting instantly instead of thinking and then reacting.
But, even beyond the stats and his overall play, Amadi’s biggest contribution has been his mentorship of Holland.
A true freshman, Holland stands 6-foot-1, 192-pounds. Because of his size and athleticism, Holland can play in the box and be physical with blockers and runners, or matchup with bigger pass catchers and defend them. Physically, Holland was ready for college football but to see the field as a freshman, he was going to have to prove it on the mental side.
"He’s really who I look up to in that group and who I want to model my game after — he’s really calm and patient in his coverage," Holland said of Amadi. "He’s got knowledge that I don’t have and that I want to learn from him — but I didn’t know that he would be at this level (with) all of it together… he’s really elite."
Instead of relying on his physical gifts, under the guidance of Amadi, Holland dove headfirst into the playbook as soon as he got onto campus. Because of his knowledge, Holland has drawn raves from coaches that’s allowed him to react on the field and play much faster, leading to three interceptions, tied with Amadi for the second most in the nation.
"I can’t help the team win if I don’t know the plays,” Holland said. “Whether or not I’m starting or last man, I’m still working hard to learn how to learn the plays."
Combined, these two lead the country in interceptions by a duo of safeties. Their play at the backend of Oregon’s defense is exactly what’s needed to inject confidence in a group that if improved, will help return the Ducks to national prominence.