NT Scott, DE Faoliu and CBs Graham, Lenoir are all coming back in 2020
Cyrus Habibi-Likio entered the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex moments after Monday’s press conference had wrapped.
“They’re all staying,” the Oregon running back said. “Whew!”
Four draft-eligible players — nose tackle Jordon Scott, defensive end Austin Faoliu and cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir — announced together their decision to return for their senior seasons instead of leaving to pursue NFL dreams.
Finishing degrees, improving specific aspects of their play and spending another year together were common themes in the decision.
"You know you’re never going to get this time back with your teammates and the friends you’ve made,” Faoliu said. “I know if I left early, I would never get these moments back with my brothers. I love all of them dearly. Coming back and playing with them one more time is the best for me.”’
When the 2017 recruiting class arrived on campus, Oregon was coming off a 4-8 season in which the defense ranked 126th out 128 FBS teams in points allowed (41.4 per game) and yards allowed (518.4 per game).
Last season the Ducks finished ninth in points allowed (16.5 per game) and 22nd in yards allowed (329.1 per game) during a 12-2 finished capped with the 28-27 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
On paper, the unit should be even better in Andy Avalos’ second season as defensive coordinator.
“The main thought for all of us is being dominant,” Graham said. “And the main way you can be dominant is to be consistent.”
The NFL Draft Advisory Board did not give any of the four players a first- or second-round grade, which is essentially a recommendation to return to school.
Graham, Lenoir and Faoliu are all on track to finish their degrees.
Scott has already earned a degree in ethnic studies with a minor in journalism at UO. The 6-foot-1, 322-pound anchor of the defensive line said he just wants to enjoy his senior year after graduating high school early, while also developing his skills as a pass rusher.
“Once I found out my brothers were coming back, I felt it would be the right thing to go one more time,” Scott said. “The biggest goals for me, on and off the field, are to take my life more seriously in terms of football. I’m going to look into some master’s classes.”
The returning foursome will help fill the leadership void created with the graduation of Justin Herbert and Troy Dye.
Watching the star quarterback and linebacker put the NFL on hold a year ago, and then enjoy a magical ride with their classmates as seniors, had an influence on Monday’s announcement.
“I definitely feel like they set an example coming back,” Faoliu said. “I’ve heard a bunch of stories, some guys leave early and it wasn’t the right time. For me, I feel like it’s all God’s timing and you don’t have to rush anything. One more year for anybody won’t hurt them.
“I take that as an advantage. You come back and work on all the things you need to work on so you can possibly go higher in the draft.”
The possibility of suffering a career-ending injury exists on every football snap. Herbert was not asked to run the ball much until the postseason and stayed relatively healthy, and Dye played through a broken thumb.
The group obviously felt the reward of another year in college outweighed the physical risks.
“These are hard decisions now, whether you’re a guy that’s positioned or postured to be an early-round pick or to be a little bit later in the draft,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “Those are great opportunities. There’s a lot to weigh because football sometimes can be very unforgiving and career paths are set or unsettled with decisions like this.”
Scott will enter his senior season with 95 career tackles (11 for losses, three sacks) in 40 games. Faoliu has 103 career tackles (9.5 losses, five sacks) in 36 career games.
Graham (64 tackles, two interceptions) and Lenoir (47 tackles, one interception) had solid junior seasons while establishing themselves as one of the Pac-12’s best cornerback tandems.
Cristobal remembers arriving at the same time as the 2017 recruiting class as Willie Taggart’s offensive line coach.
And also seeing the 6-foot-6 quarterback swat the new head coach’s shot during a coaches versus players basketball scrimmage at Matthew Knight Arena.
“I didn’t really play, I just watched Justin Herbert just like slap away coaches taking shots over at the arena,” Cristobal said. “I also remember meeting Jordon for the first time at the cafeteria and he’s like, ‘You’re that guy at Alabama.’ And I go, ‘You’re that guy from Florida.’ …
“It’s kind of neat being on a ride that just saw a bunch of seniors move on to the next step and a bunch of guys that came in to that class take that final step.”
These four starters recommitting to the program stabilizes a defense loaded with talent.
Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and safety Verone McKinley were named to the Football Writers Association of America freshman all-American team on Monday.
Thibodeaux had 35 tackles with 14 for losses and nine sacks as a true freshman. McKinley had 46 tackles with four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.
Rising stars Jevon Holland, Brady Breeze, Isaac Slade-Matautia and Mase Funa also return on a defense that adds five-star linebacker prospects Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell.
“It’s just amazing to have other people in the room to where you know if you mess up in practice, you’re getting taken out and somebody else is going in and you have to pull yourself right back up,” Graham said. “It’s just a competition. For me, I love competition and I’m never running from it.”
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