Football Practice Report: Sept. 24
Venue: Autzen Stadium
Format: Fast Friday
Cooper Shults arrived at Oregon in 2020 hoping eventually to be the next man up for the Ducks at tight end. He had no idea how soon that day would come.
A freshman from Sacramento, Shults passed up an FCS offer to walk on with the Oregon football team last season. At first assuming he'd spend his initial period in the program developing behind the scenes, Shults instead appeared in the first two games of last season, due to the effects of injuries on the tight end depth chart.
After two games as the second tight end in goal-line formations, Shults had time to catch his breath. But three games into the 2021 season he's back on the bubble for playing time, with Oregon's depth at tight end again being stressed.
As Shults' experience last season demonstrated, everyone on the roster needs to be ready when called upon.
"We have a next-man-up mentality here, and I was the guy in that circumstance that needed to come in and step up," Shults said Friday, after the Ducks' final practice before hosting Arizona on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN). "Yeah, it was crazy getting out there on the field; there were no fans of course, but still just the environment and everything was amazing. It was a great experience, and I think it helped a lot for my confidence going into the future."
As overwhelming as that experience might have been, Shults said it only took a play or two to realize that Oregon's coaches had prepared him for the moment.
"Just striking the guy at the line of scrimmage, I was like 'wow – this is just like practice,' " Shults said. "It's a fast tempo and everything. But we practice like that all the time, and it came naturally."
When Shults rejoined the developmental squad late last season, providing scout-team looks for Oregon's defense, he was back where he had expected to be for his first year in college. But he had proven something with his cameo appearances in 2020, not only to himself but to his teammates – whenever he catches a pass in practice, cries of "Coooooooooooop!" ring out from the sidelines.
This offseason, the Ducks' tight end group welcomed Cam McCormick back from injury, and added two talented freshmen in Terrance Ferguson and Moliki Matavao. But in preseason camp the depth took a hit when Patrick Herbert was injured, and then McCormick was hurt at Ohio State. Then, injuries on defense pressed tight end DJ Johnson into two-way action as an edge rusher.
Add all of that up, and Shults is back in the mix for playing time at tight end this season, while also getting reps with the kickoff return unit. He's still working with the developmental squad against the defense in practice, but he's keeping his head in Oregon's own playbook, too.
"It's challenging, but the coaches do a great job of balancing it and having us go back and forth to stay on top of it," Shults said. "So yeah, I feel prepared. Going into last week I knew all the plays and everything, so it was good. It worked out."
Shults said he "bet on himself" by opting to walk on at Oregon rather than play at a lower level. He intends to continue doing so, and see where his career with the Ducks can take him.
"I've just been trusting the process every week, and things have worked out," he said. "The coaches here have developed me more than I would have anywhere, that I could even imagine. I'll just keep doing what I'm doing, and hopefully the opportunities will continue to come."
Developmental-squad scrimmage highlights: Shults' fellow tight end on the scout team, Tyler Nanney, perhaps had the play of the day during Friday's weekly 10-minute scrimmage for that group. Nanney, who has a huge frame at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds, reached out with one of his long arms and made a one-handed catch before fending off a defender for a nice gain. … That reception was on a pass from Bradley Yaffe, who had another efficient scrimmage period throwing the ball. …
One Yaffe attempt that didn't hit the mark only missed because of a nice breakup by cornerback Devin Morrow. … Jaylin Davies also broke up a pass, leaping in the air while matched up with Tevin Jeannis and breaking up a ball thrown into the end zone. … Jaylen Smith and Miguel Nevarez stopped run plays near the line, and Max Wysocki and Terrell Tilmon teamed up on a tackle for loss.