Pac-12 defensive backs have to be ready for anything.
Like tackling Stanford’s Bryce Love when the Heisman Trophy candidate bursts through the line of scrimmage, finding a way to get off the field when Washington quarterback Jake Browning is in rhythm, being spread from boundary to boundary by Washington State coach Mike Leach and UCLA coach Chip Kelly, or reading the eyes of Arizona’s Khalil Tate as he decides whether to pass or run.
Oregon’s coaches are counting on Ugochukwu Amadi, a respected senior safety who took his lumps in the conference as a young cornerback, to lead a gifted but green secondary in 2018.
“He’s outstanding. He’s the quarterback of the defense, the traffic cop. He directs it all, lines guys up,” Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal said. “Some of the best things about really good defensive players are obviously understanding how a scheme works, but they also understand if a particular call is made and the offense runs a play that can expose it. They understand the weaknesses as well, and they can rally more efficiently to the football.
“That’s that next phase for a guy in the development of his game and football knowledge. Ugo is well into that. He’s a guy that keeps us on point and makes a lot of plays. He’s very instinctive and a really good team player.”
Safeties coach Keith Heyward said the competition to sort out the pecking order will continue throughout fall camp, but Amadi is a good bet to be a fixture in the starting lineup.
“In this conference there’s a lot of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), a lot of really good receivers, so we’ve got to have the best cover guys on the field,” Heyward said. “That’s what we’re going to do. It’s doesn’t matter who it is. I’m happy to have Ugo because he does that. And Tyree (Robinson) did that last year.
“We’ve still got to find that right mix of safeties and corners to make sure we have the best guys on the field.”
Fifth-year senior Mattrell McGraw entered the spring on top of the depth chart at the other safety spot, where the Ducks must replace Robinson, who had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries last season.
Redshirt sophomore Brady Breeze caught Cristobal’s eye by consistently coming up with interceptions in practice. Nick Pickett and Billy Gibson gained some experience in 2017 as true freshmen.
“It’s been back and forth with the offense and defense. We’ve been challenging each other, pushing,” McGraw said before the spring game. “Coach Cristobal has been preaching physicality, so that’s been the main emphasis of spring ball.”
Two talented sophomore cornerbacks, Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir, will enter fall camp as the projected starters.
Graham was a fixture with the first team last season, finishing with three interceptions and 62 tackles (third in the team). Lenoir will help replace Arrion Springs, who had 18 pass breakups during a solid senior season.
“Very young. It’s really one guy that’s played (college) football all that much, one guy that’s played sparingly, and everybody else is new,” Donte Williams, Oregon’s new cornerbacks coach, said of the group he inherits. “They’re learning football, I.Q.-wise. A lot of these guys are tremendous athletes, but not too many of them played corner. And in high school when you play DB, you pretty much play offense and everybody’s focused on getting the ball.
“They’re truly focusing on learning the position right now.”
Two members of the 2018 recruiting class, safety Steve Stephens and cornerback Verone McKinley, enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Four-star safety prospect Jevon Holland and three-star cornerback Kahlef Hailassie will join the team this summer.
Haki Woods, a junior college transfer, added to the competition at cornerback in the spring. Another veteran cornerback, UNLV graduate transfer Tim Hough, is planning to enroll at Oregon.
“The depth chart is always fluid,” Heyward said. “We’re going to find the right guys to play. Who knows? It could be somebody new to come in.”
Spring rewind: With a lack of depth until more freshmen and transfers arrive on campus, Amadi, McGraw, Breeze, Thomas and Lenoir had a chance to take advantage of extra reps. “All those guys worked a bunch with the first team,” Cristobal said. “We have the makings of a really good secondary.”
Fall outlook: With an improved front seven that includes immovable nose guard Jordon Scott, dynamic defensive end Jalen Jelks and Pac-12 defensive player of the year candidate Troy Dye, Oregon’s physically gifted secondary should have some of the pressure lifted from its collective shoulder pads. The Ducks expect to improve in Jim Leavitt’s second season as defensive coordinator after ranking 88th nationally in passing yards allowed (240.6 ypg) in 2017.
Projected depth chart: CB — Thomas Graham, Verone McKinley, Kahlef Hailassie; S — Mattrell McGraw or Brady Breeze, Nick Pickett, Steve Stephens; S — Ugochukwu Amadi, Brady Breeze, Jevon Holland or Billy Gibson; CB — Deommodore Lenoir, Tim Hough, Haki Woods
Sunday’s position review: Offensive line