The Ducks entered the season with a lot of confidence in the returning front seven.
Entering No. 17 Oregon’s pivotal Pac-12 North Division game against No. 7 Washington on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (12:30 p.m., ABC), defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt also has a reliable safety net.
Senior Ugo Amadi and true freshman Jevon Holland have three interceptions each through five games, which has them tied for second nationally. The Ducks lead the Pac-12 with eight interceptions this season.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said the turnover production from the team’s top two free safeties is not an accident.
“They spend an enormous amount of time watching film. They do,” Cristobal said after Wednesday’s practice. “So they understand the route distribution, they understand the timing of the passing game, they understand quarterbacks and how certain quarterbacks will lead you, others will juke you a little bit and mislead you. …
“They’re pretty talented guys, too. We’re glad they’re here.”
The Ducks’ young secondary will face a balanced Washington offense, which features the school’s all-time leading passer (Jake Browning) and all-time leading rusher (Myles Gaskin).
Huskies wide receiver Aaron Fuller is second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards (95.7 per game) behind Colorado sensation Lavis Shenault (141.6 per game).
“I don’t want to say I know him well, but I know what he’s capable of. I know his ability on the field,” Amadi said of Browning, who he will be facing for the fourth time Saturday. “They have a great system. He knows where he’s going pre-snap. That’s one thing he’s really good at, and not too many quarterbacks are able to do that, especially at this level.”
During Oregon’s 42-24 win on Sept. 29 at then-No. 24 California, Amadi sealed the program’s first conference road victory in two years by returning his second interception of the game for a 32-yard touchdown.
Holland also had two interceptions in Berkeley.
“What I see is him getting with Ugo in there studying and watching film,” safeties coach Keith Heyward said of Holland. “He’s following that lead and he’s taking a lot of that and focusing on technique and fundamentals. He has great ball skills, which allowed him to get those interceptions a couple weeks ago.”
After taking his lumps at cornerback on some bad defenses during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Amadi is now a respected elder statesman in the program, along with standout defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins.
“There comes a point in time as a senior you realize, what’s my legacy going to be? When I leave here, what’s that locker room going to say about me?” Cristobal said. "(Amadi) and Justin Hollins and Jelks and all these guys that are seniors, that means a lot to them.
“So they’ve taken accountability and they’ve taken ownership of leading others and becoming a great mentor and teaching others.”
Amadi has started every game this season alongside three sophomores — cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir and strong safety Nick Pickett.
Holland has emerged as a key member of the rotation, which isn’t a surprise to teammates who have been raving about him since the summer.
“Jevon has stepped up big time. We knew it from the first day he stepped in on seven-on-seven (workouts),” junior linebacker Troy Dye said. “He knew the plays pretty well for a freshman coming in. He’s done a tremendous job and having depth back there is big time so guys can get some rest.”
Three years ago as a true freshman, Amadi intercepted K.J. Carta-Samuels, who replaced an injured Browning in the final minutes, with 24 seconds left to seal Oregon’s 26-20 win in Seattle.
After suffering lopsided back-to-back losses to the Huskies, Amadi will have some additional help from Holland against a healthy Browning.
In the last meeting between the rivals at Autzen, Browning passed for 304 yards and six touchdowns and ran for two more touchdowns during a 70-21 win for the Huskies.
Oregon will have Justin Herbert, who missed last year’s 38-3 loss at Husky Stadium, this time.
But the Ducks may need their safeties to net an interception or two to upset the Pac-12 favorite.
“Just get the extra possessions for our offense, get the ball back in Herbert’s hands, that’s the key thing,” Amadi said. “Extra possessions are really helpful going against great teams.”