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Preseason Camp Preview: DB

Oct 8, 2020

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Who's back: Fortunately these position preview articles weren't written too far in advance, because things have changed quite a bit recently. Where once it looked like the Ducks would have a log-jam of talent in the secondary, some opt-out decisions by veterans have changed the dynamic quite a bit. Senior cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., senior safety Brady Breeze and junior nickel Jevon Holland each announced his decision to sit out this season and begin preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft. Initially, senior cornerback Deommodore Lenoir also decided to opt out, but he announced earlier this week that he will in fact play this season, a welcome development for the Ducks.

Other than Holland, Lenoir might have been the toughest guy to replace out of that quartet, by the nature of his skill set. Lenoir specializes in bump-and-run technique at the boundary corner position, playing to the short side of the field where traffic is congested and physicality is a requirement. Graham was his counterpart playing "to the field," out in more open space. The Ducks return up-and-comer Mykael Wright to fill that spot; the coaching staff is so confident in Wright's ability to handle the field corner position that in the spring they experimented with Graham at the nickel spot. Another rising sophomore, DJ James, has really impressed the staff with his development this offseason, after playing in 13 of 14 games last season.

At safety, Nick Pickett provides 26 career starts worth of experience to shore up the back end. He's always been a fearless hitter unafraid to come up and play the run, and he has improved in coverage year by year, breaking up three passes as a freshman, four as a sophomore and seven as a junior. Verone McKinley III is still only a sophomore but he's one of the most cerebral players in the secondary, and he can play corner, safety or nickel at this point. Jamal Hill played primarily special teams as a freshman in 2019 while serving as Holland's understudy at nickel, and Steve Stephens IV made 13 appearances as a freshman last season, which he'll try to use as a springboard to a bigger role this fall. Cornerback Jordan Adeyemi-John and safeties Lucas Noland and Max Wysocki bring experience to the developmental squad.  

Who's new: The secondary added two new faces for spring practice, JC transfer Bennett Williams and freshman JJ Greenfield. They only got four practices in before spring drills were called to a halt, but those were bankable reps from which to learn. This summer the cornerback room added another elite recruit, Dontae Manning, a five-star prospect and one of the top defensive players ever signed by Oregon — a distinction he shares, it should be noted, by a couple of his fellow 2020 recruits. And another transfer arrived just before the start of camp, safety Jordan Happle, a Portland native who played under UO defensive coordinator Andy Avalos at Boise State. A wild card on the back end is Trikweze Bridges, who at 6-foot-3 cuts a different profile than his fellow defensive backs. Bridges came to Oregon with a reputation as a ballhawking safety, but the Ducks needed him for depth at corner while redshirting last season. If Bridges can stick on the perimeter, Oregon's defense will feature length at corner that few opponents will have seen elsewhere.

ROB'S TAKE

Projected depth chart
CB: Mykael Wright, So.; Dontae Manning, Fr.; Trikweze Bridges, RFr.
CB: Deommodore Lenoir, Sr.; DJ James, So.; Jordan Adeyemi-John, So.
Nickel: Jamal Hill, So.; Verone McKinley III, So.; JJ Greenfield, Fr.
S: Verone McKinley III, So.; Steve Stephens IV, So.; Jordan Happle, Sr.; Max Wysocki, RFr.
S: Nick Pickett, Sr.; Bennett Williams, Jr.; Lucas Noland, So.; Marko Vidackovic, Fr.

What to watch: The secondary was always going to be a fun position to track when camp opens, because of all the talent back, and all the various ways the staff could mix and match. Even though Graham, Breeze and Holland are gone, there is still sorting out to do in the defensive backfield. Wright and Lenoir seem like safe bets at the two corner spots, but the nickel spot in particular will be intriguing. Does Hill simply slide up with the ones? Is McKinley a factor there, opening up a safety spot alongside Pickett for someone like Stephens or Williams? Questions like that are what make this time of year fun, and we'll start to find out some answers Friday.