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Oregon 2017 Outlook - DBs: Secondary will rise if Ducks' pass rush improves

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DBs: Secondary will rise if Ducks' pass rush improves

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsTight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers

Today: Defensive backs.

Key losses: Reggie Daniels was an impact player in 2014 before falling off later in his career.   

Projected starters: Cornerbacks Arrion Springs, Sr., (5-11, 205) and Ugo Amadi, (5-10, 195). Safeties Brenden Schooler, Soph., (6-2, 190) and Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205).

Key backups: Cornerbacks - Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205), Malik Lovette, RSo., (5-11, 200) and Jihree Stewart, RSo., (6-0, 182). Safeties - Khalil Oliver, RJr., (6-0, 205), Juwaan Williams, RSr., (6-0, 200), Brady Breeze, RFr., (6-1, 205), Mattrell McGraw, RJr., (5-10, 195) and Fotu T. Leiato II, Jr., (6-1, 200). 

What we know: Oregon's secondary has gained loads of experience over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, a lot of that involved chasing wide receivers into the end zone. 

But let's be fair. While there's no doubt that the secondary was atrocious in 2015, this group did demonstrate improvement in 2016. However, they were often hung out to dry by a weak pass rush. 

The 2015 defense, led by Pac-12 defensive player of the year, defensive end DeForest Buckner, ranked second in the conference with 38 sacks. The 2016 defense, led by true freshman linebacker Troy Dye, ranked tied for seventh with 25 sacks. A feeble pass rush, coupled with a horrible run defense that made life easier for opposing passing games, adversely impacted Oregon's secondary. 

Nevertheless, the overall pass coverage in 2016 was better than it was in 2015 when a young secondary was routinely exposed. Springs, Amadi, Robinson, Williams and Oliver all should benefit from experienced gained and be ready to take the next step. Factor in the emergence of Schooler and the potential of Breeze, and others, and the secondary could actually be quite good in 2017. On the other hand, improved play by the defensive backs won't be noticed unless new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is able to increase the heat on opposing quarterbacks.

Shifting from having one position coach (John Neal) to two, with Charles Clark coaching the cornerbacks and Keith Heyward handling the safeties, could help accelerate the secondary's improvement.

What we don't know: How this secondary shakes out will be interesting.

If Robinson starts at cornerback that would mean that either Amadi or Springs failed to take that next step or that another safety emerged as a player the coaches couldn't keep off of the field.

There certainly will be plenty of options at safety that could force Robinson to cornerback. Williams and Oliver have started there in the past. Breeze has a ton of potential while Schooler will enter spring drills as a starter.

Depth won't be an issue and could be bolstered by four-star cornerback recruit Thomas Graham, who will be on campus in time for spring drills. But be leery. Most freshman defensive backs struggle no matter how highly touted they are coming out of high school. 

Final word: We would have seen dramatic improvement from the secondary last season had opposing quarterbacks not had all day in the pocket. With improved play expected from the front seven (how could it possibly be any worse than what we saw in 2016?) this secondary could finally blossom.

That said, this group needs an attitude adjustment in some areas. Stories have become legendary of some diva tendencies within this group. That must change.

Position grade: C. This unit could earn a B if it matures both physically and mentally. The talent and the depth are there.

 

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

Oregon's defense has potential, for 2017

It's tough to believe, and difficult to sell, but there is a strong chance Oregon's defense will improve greatly over the next two seasons.  

The Ducks' defense is very young and banged up. While those facts might sound like convenient excuses the reality is that nothing derails a unit more than youth and injuries. On the flip side, nothing repairs those problems like experience and healing. 

Oregon (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12) has been forced to go with youth and inexperience on defense this season because of failures in recruiting during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 cycles that left the unit void of any adequate amount of impact seniors and juniors to lead the way. 

Picking up the slack are numerous players from the 2015 and 2016 classes that are nowhere near ready to carry the load without the leadership and savvy of upperclassmen guiding the team. 

On the positive side, those younger players are gaining valuable experience that should pay off down the line, assuming they continue to develop and learn from their mistakes. The Ducks are set to return 10 starters on defense next season along with a host of others who have made spot starts or have seen extensive playing time.  

It seemed almost inconceivable that Oregon's 2016 defense could be worse than the 115th-ranked mess the Ducks put on the field in 2015. 

Yet, here they are, ranked 127th while allowing a mind-blowing 43.5 points per game.

To put that into perspective, Washington and Stanford are each allowing 17.9 points per game. Oregon's 2014 team that reached the national championship game allowed 23.6 points per game.  

Last year, a young secondary let down a solid front seven. This season, a somewhat improved secondary has played behind an inexperienced front seven that generates little pass rush while also offering weak resistance to opposing running games. 

Next year? Well, the entire secondary returns and six of the regular front-seven starters. For the first time in three years the Ducks will have enough experience up and down the defense to expect improvement. 

How much improvement? Well, let's not get carried away. We're not talking about a run to the top 20 in the nation here. But even a defense ranked in the top 80 while allowing south of 30 points per game would give the Ducks a chance to turn things around in a hurry because the offense, ranked 22nd in the country with a freshman quarterback and four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen, will certainly be stacked. 

Experience leads to better play in most situations, and Oregon's defense should be no different. 

What do the Ducks have to work with moving forward? Let's take a look:

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This group hasn't been as bad as it might seem. A lack of a consistent pass rush in a league loaded with good passing teams has put the secondary in bad spots. Plus, the lack of a run defense has resulted in a relatively low number of strong down-and-distance situations for the secondary to operate under.

That all said, this group certainly has plenty to work on.  

The good news is that everyone playing will return next season other than redshirt senior safety Reggie Daniels, who fell out of favor this season to primarily become a backup.  

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Cornerback: Ugo Amadi, Jr., Tyree Robinson, RSr., Arrion Springs, Sr. and Malik Lovette, RSoph., Mattrell McGraw, RJr., Ty Griffin, Sr. 

Safety: Brendan Schooler, Soph., Khalil Oliver, RJr., Juwaan Williams, RJr., Fotu Leiato II, Jr., and Brady Breeze, RFrosh., Jihree Stewart, RSoph.

Position analysis: Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal has juggled his lineup in order to create depth and now has so much that he now has loads of budding talent to work with moving forward. UO will return seven defensive backs that saw extensive playing time this season.  On top of that, six of the top eight from 2016 will still be around in 2018.

The Ducks desperately need Amadi, a former four-star recruit, to finally reach his potential. Springs has loads of talent but can't seem to get out of his own way and stop making silly mistakes in coverage. Same goes for Robinson. If they can't get it together they could lose playing time to Lovette, and up-and-comer. 

At safety, Schooler appears to be a potential impact player. Oliver and Williams have been up and down during their careers, which could open the door for Breeze, a four-star recruit redshirting this season. 

LINEBACKERS

This position is a bit trickier than defensive back because the linebackers have been mediocre all season long, save for freshman Troy Dye. 

Oregon signed six linebackers in 2016 and will need many to rise up in order for this group to take the next step in 2017. Otherwise, it will be more of the same mediocrity next season. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Will OLB: Jonah Moi, RSr., Keith Simms, Soph., Kaulana Apelu, Jr., Eric Briscoe Jr., RFrosh. 

Mike MLB: Jimmie Swain, Sr., A.J. Hotchkins, Sr., Danny Mattingly, RSr.  

Sam OLB: Troy Dye, Soph., La'mar Winston Soph., Darrian Franklin, RFrosh. 

Position analysis: Simms and Winston, four-star recruits in 2016, have great potential. Dye, a three-star recruit, has played like a five-star recruit and future NFL draft pick. Franklin and Briscoe Jr., both former three-star recruits, are redshirting. Hotchkins, a junior college transfer, might grow after a year playing in the Pac-12. 

Most intriguing about Dye, Simms and Winston is that each is 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and either is already packing 230 pounds (Simms) or have the frame to bulk up past that weight. They could form the first trio of starting Oregon linebackers to all be in the 6-3, 235-pound range in recent memory. 

Swain, after a slow start to the season, has been among the team's leaders in tackles the past few weeks. However, total tackles can be overrated when many are made after big gains by the offense.  Moi, now playing defensive end, came to Oregon as a junior college transfer but hasn't always played like an experienced veteran. 

Dye is going to be special. Heck, he already is. But he needs help. Where this group must improve the most is with its awareness. Each week we hear from coaches how mental errors hurt the defense. 

A year or two getting destroyed might help all involve accelerates their learning curve. 

DEFENSIVE LINE

This is the area of greatest concern. The defensive line has been a mess. So much so that UO has been forced to dig deep into the depth chart to find bodies and the results haven't been pretty.

Oregon has played 11 defensive linemen this season that will return in 2017. Eight will be back in 2018. Six could still be around by 2019. That speaks to the youth of the group as well as the room that exists for growth. 

While there are obvious upgrades coming at linebacker, defensive line is far more unsettled. Oregon has needed somebody, anybody to rise up and become a force, but nobody has. Yet, that doesn't mean someone won't. 

Former Ducks, Alex Balducci, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, all in the NFL, were not dominant as freshmen in 2012. Taylor Hart redshirted in 2009 before playing minimally as a redshirt freshman and then blossoming as a redshirt sophomore. He is now in the NFL. 

Oregon needs a couple of young defensive linemen to improve the same way. They don't have to become future first-round picks like Armstead and Buckner, but the Ducks need a few players to emerge with some semblance of NFL potential in order to put up resistance against Pac-12 offenses that right now are running wild on UO. 

The 2017 projected depth chart:

Defensive end: Henry Mondeaux, Sr., Hunter Kampmoyer, RFrosh., Gus Cumberlander, RSoph. 

Defensive tackle: Rex Manu, Jr., Wayne Tei-Kirby, Soph., Gary Baker, RSoph.

Defensive tackle: Drayton Carlberg, RSoph., Elijah George, RSr. 

Defensive end: Jalen Jelks, RJr., Justin Hollins, RJr., Bryson Young, Soph.

Position analysis: Oregon should actually be set at defensive end next season. Mondeaux (one sack) hasn't had the impact year many expected, but that's partly because he has had little help upfront. Jelks has the ability to become an elite pass rusher, but injuries have slowed him down this season. Young, a former four-star recruit, and Hollins are athletic but woefully undersized at about 235 pounds to play defensive end. They need to add bulk. So does the 245-pound Kampmoyer, another promising talent. Cumberlander is 6-6, 260 with a frame to add more pounds. 

Defensive tackle is a huge problem and one of the reasons why teams run at will on Oregon. Manu is solid, but not very disruptive. He needs to get bigger, stronger and quicker this offseason. Carlberg is intriguing as a Taylor Hart-time at 6-5, 290 pounds. Carlberg became a starter early in the season but injuries have limited him to five games.  

Tei-Kirby, a former three-star recruit, has ideal defensive tackle size at 6-3, 315 pounds. Baker, at 6-4, 315, is another potentially good defensive tackle. The Ducks need at least one, if not both, to emerge as a consistent player next season.

Right now, the best thing about this group of defensive tackles is that they are all going to be around for two or three more seasons, which means there is plenty of time for them to improve.

----

There is a possibility that all of these young players could fizzle out as did many of their predecessors from previous classes that didn't work out. But odds are against it. Oregon has received limited production from recruiting classes before but never in the past 20 years has it continued through a second set of juniors and seniors. 

Again, this season has been a disaster on defense. So was last year, save for a few games late in the season. But the byproduct is that plenty of young, talented players have received extensive playing time that will accelerate their development. 

That all could payoff as soon as 2017. 

 

 

UO game prediction: Five reasons to watch opener vs. UC Davis

UO game prediction: Five reasons to watch opener vs. UC Davis

No. 24 Oregon will obliterate UC Davis on Saturday. If not, cancel the season right now. 

So why should anyone watch? Well, let's countdown the top five reasons why watching the Ducks when the game kicks off at 2 p.m. won't be a waste of time. 

No. 5 - Don't remember the Alamo: It's opening day, and the last time fans saw the Ducks, well, they were imploding in Texas during the Alamo Bowl. What better way to help erase that horrific memory than watching Oregon look like Oregon again? The opening game for the Ducks is rarely ever about competition. It's usually more about simply celebrating the return of another season. In this case, it's also about finally starting the process of moving forward after one of the worst losses in program history. 

No. 4 - The new front seven under defensive coordinator Brady Hoke: We've heard so much about this attacking 4-3 scheme Oregon has installed and now it's time to see it in action. The Aggies, who averaged 22 points per game last season, shouldn't offer much of a challenge but that only means we should see at least 12 tackles for loss with about six sacks. Exotic blitzes, frenzied speed, mass confusion, quarterbacks fearing their safety, running backs faking injuries to exit the game.  Let's see if the Ducks can strike fear in the hearts of a vastly inferior team. Oregon has six new starters in the front seven including athletic freshman linebacker Troy Dye and maybe the next Dion Jordan in redshirt sophomore defensive end Justin Hollins.  Plus, Oregon supposedly upgraded at the middle linebacker spot with tansfer A.J. Hotchkins.  Finally, they will be turned loose. 

No. 3 - The UO debut of quarterback Dakota Prukop: The senior transfer from Montana State gets his first taste of Autzen. The savior. The next Vernon Adams Jr. The link between the Ducks and possible contention. Prukop has a chance to live up to all of those things if the dual-threat marvel out of the Big Sky Conference can adapt to the Pac-12. In 2014 he lit up the Aggies to the tune of 509 yards of total offense and six touchdowns. He could do the same on Saturday. What would it prove? Not much. However, he had a mediocre spring game and it would be nice to see if he can demonstrate some consistency within the offense that could pay off down the line in much bigger contests. 

[LISTEN: The Ducks Squad Podcast with guest senior right guard Cameron Hunt]

No. 2 - The defensive backs: Has there ever been a more maligned group of Oregon players in recent history? Probably not. They contributed heavily to the team ranking 116th in the nation last season while allowing 35 touchdown passes. All of the key players are back and they determined to make amends, and to prove that they learned from the extreme growing pains experienced last season. Again, UC Davis' offense is not a great measuring stick. But this is a secondary who looked bad last season against Georgia State. Watching them demonstrate some improved ability to play lockdown coverage and tackle consistently would be a good first step.  

No. 1 - Justin freaking Herbert:  Oh yes. Getting a chance to watch the true freshman quarterback in action will be worth the time spent watching this game simply because of the mystery surrounding the 6-foot-6 kid out of Sheldon High School. His performances in practice have had the entire team buzzing about his potential. It took him three weeks to vanquish redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen and true freshman Terry Wilson Jr., who arrived last spring. Now we will get to see Herbert in action once Prukop's work is done in a sure blowout. Figure late third quarter. All signs point to Herbert being a three-year starter after this season, and it is very likely he could see a start or two this season should Prukop go down. On Saturday fans get a sneak peak at the future of Oregon's quarterback position. 

A quick look at the game:

No. 24 Oregon vs. UC Davis. 

When: 2 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium.  

T.V.: Pac-12 Network.   

Betting line: Off

Records: Oregon went 9-4 last season while the Aggies went 2-9.

Coaches: Oregon's Mark Helfrich (33-8); UC Davis' Ron Gould, former Oregon defensive back, (9-25).

Last season: The Aggies went 2-9 for the second consecutive season to finish tied for 8th in the Big Sky Conference. 

Aggies impact players: Oregon should only concern itself with senior running back Manusamoa Luuga. Last season he rushed for 613 yards and had seven total touchdowns. 

Senior quarterback Ben Scott  when healthy is sold. Last season he passed for 1,598 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions over eight games. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): Zero. 

Prediction: Oregon, 66-13. 

Unique true freshman graces Oregon's starting lineup

Unique true freshman graces Oregon's starting lineup

EUGENE - If you're looking for an example of what Oregon's new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke is looking for in a player look no further than freshman linebacker Troy Dye

He's raw. He's inexperienced. But none of that matters right now to Hoke because Dye is also fast, fierce, aggressive and seeking to wreak havoc on every snap. 

“If I’m going to do it wrong, I’m going to do it wrong 100 percent,” Dye said. “That’s what coach Hoke really wants. If you’re going to go full speed, go full speed. If you’re not, go take a seat. It’s just that simple.”

It doesn't appear as if Dye will be doing much sitting this season. He is the only true freshman listed as a starter on the team's initial depth chart after he beat out backup, redshirt junior Jonah Moi.  

Dye will make his college debut Saturday when No. 24 Oregon hosts UC Davis at 2 p.m.

It's somewhat unusual for a freshman to enter a season as a starter for a program of Oregon's caliber. Dye, as it so happens, is an unusual player. 

Consider that a year ago he was a 6-foot-4, 195-pound safety/linebacker for Norcross High School (Norcross, Calif.). During the recruiting process, Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal and linebackers coach Don Pellum told Dye he could have a say in what position he played at Oregon. 

He arrived on campus in December after graduating early and immediately began packing on pounds. With help from strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe and the Ducks’ nutrition staff, Dye said he was able to maximize his workouts and add bulk to reach 225 by spring.

“It’s been a really good thing to have all of these people and all these assets that I’ve really taken advantage of to really help me put this weight on,” Dye said.

The extra pounds, Dye said, gave him the confidence to try linebacker where he was more needed given the team’s depth at safety. Oregon lost all four starting linebackers from last season to graduation. 

So, Dye added weight. He's athletic. Blah, blah, blah. But could he play the game from the neck up? As it turns out, he could and then some. 

Dye said his father taught his children the intricacies of several sports while raising them. Dye’s older brother, Tony Dye played safety for UCLA and played two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.  He is the defensive coordinator at Norcross where he coached his younger brother.

Learning the details of how to play defense, study film, dissect information at a higher level than most high school players helped rapidly increase Troy Dye’s aptitude for the game.

“So when I got here it was pretty easy to transition…” Dye said. “Having those two in my corner has been really great.”

Redshirt junior safety Tyree Robinson said Dye has brought a lot of energy to the defense.

“Every single day he comes in ready to take notes," Robinson said. "He wants to get better. You don’t see that from the average freshman coming in.”

Senior linebacker Johnny Ragin III said he has been impressed with Dye's attention to detail and intensity.  

“Troy has caught on pretty quick to everything we’ve been doing and he just plays with great effort and passion so that kind of makes up for any mistakes,” Ragin said.

Hoke said he has no problem starting a freshman if he is the best player at his position. But Hoke indicated that Dye isn’t nearly a finished product.

“He’s probably a little more finesse right now than he will be a year from now,” Hoke said.

That's because Dye is still on the lighter side at 225, especially given his height. Moi is listed at 250 pounds. 

By this time next year Dye could be pushing 240. Until then, he will have to rely more on his athleticism, something that has opened eyes during practice on a daily basis. 

"I can't wait to see him play real life football because he's been awesome," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. 

According to Helfrich, several young players have "juiced the depth chart" by pushing veterans, and Dye is one of them. 

But he recognizes that his status as a starter could be tenuous. Oregon rotates its defenders. Moi will certainly have a chance to state his case on a weekly basis. That fact pushes Dye to continue improving. 

“I know that Jonah Moi or anybody else could fill in and play and do the same things I can do," Dye said. 

"So I’m always fighting everyday to keep this spot. It’s a great competition. We all hang out, we all love each other. It doesn’t matter who is going to be the starter. We’re all voting for each other at the end of the day and we’re all happy.”

So what should we expect to see from Dye on Saturdays? Plenty of electricity. 

“You’re going to see a lot of speed," he said, "a lot of physicality out of me doing my best to help the team win."

Ducks will rotate up to 10 DBs in the secondary

Ducks will rotate up to 10 DBs in the secondary

EUGENE - Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said Tuesday to expect to see a heavy rotation of defensive backs this season as he works to develop depth while keeping starters fresh in hopes of improving the overall performance of a secondary that struggled most of last season. 

"I'm going to play a lot more guys from the beginning to the end which gives me a chance to evaluate some critical guys that haven't played as much," Neal said. "If we continue that through the season with the amount of plays we play, having more guys playing is going to really help us, make us faster and better obviously in the fourth quarter."

No. 24 Oregon's season begins Saturday against UC Davis at Autzen Stadium. 

Neal said he has confidence in five cornerbacks and six safeties, which includes starting safety Tyree Robinson spending time at cornerback. 

Starting at cornerback will be sophomores Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi. They will be backed up by redshirt freshman Malik Lovette and freshman Brenden Schooler. 

Robinson, a redshirt junior, and fellow starting safety, redshirt junior Juwaan Williams, will be backed up by redshirt senior Reggie Daniels, a former two-year starter, and redshirt sophomore Khalil Oliver.  

Also potentially in the mix will be redshirt freshman safety Jhet Janis, redshirt junior corner back Ty Griffin, who played some last season, and sophomore Fotu Leiato II.

Injuries and a lack of depth hurt Oregon's secondary last season when the Ducks allowed 35 touchdown passes and ranked 116th in the nation in total defense. Former No. 1 cornerback Chris Seisay missed eight games due to injury putting more pressure on Amadi and Springs. Injuries also hit the safety position, namely Daniels, leading to wide receiver Charles Nelson moving to free safety as a starter. 

Aside from protecting against injuries, increased depth is expected to help the starters play better game to game. 

"We don't have to play like 85 snaps a game like we did last year," Springs said. "If I get tired I can ask to come out so I'm always fresh and not getting lazy and sloppy how we were last year trying to stay in the game and play a lot of snaps. I feel like if we have more depth we can play faster because we won't be as tired."

Of course, playing young players in order to keep the starters fresher can backfire if the younger players aren't ready to perform at a high level. 

"It's such a long season. to stay healthy we have to play more people," Neal said. "But they have to earn it. We have to be able to trust them to."

Seisay's departure could hurt Oregon's secondary depth

Seisay's departure could hurt Oregon's secondary depth

The departure of Oregon cornerback Chris Seisay from the football program came somewhat as a shock to defensive backs coach John Neal. 

He said Monday that he is unsure why Seisay chose to seek a transfer from the program he joined in 2014. 

"You'd have to ask him," Neal said while also adding that people could piece together the various bits of information Seisay has dropped here and there. 

CSN asked Seisay on Sunday night when he left. He said via text message that the depth chart, where he was listed as backup cornerback, did not compel him to leave. He said it goes much deeper than that but did not elaborate. 

Seisay told The Oregonian that he didn't feel happy or on good terms with Ducks program. 

According to a source, Seisay has walked off the practice field in anger during fall camp. 

Last week, Seisay told CSN that he learned a lot from last season, when he missed eight games after entering the year as the team's No. 1 cornerback, that he needed to work harder and not expect things to be given to him.

He also said: “I’m just ready to prove everybody wrong. Everybody that’s doubted me, our whole group as a DB corps, our whole team.”

Neal last week said the following about Seisay: “Right now, when he plays well, he’s one of those guys. He’s going to play. Is he going to start? I don’t know. But he adds depth. He can play nickel. He can play dime."

Maybe Seisay didn't decide to leave because it appeared he would backup junior Arrion Springs and sophomore Ugo Amadi. But it's extremely rare for a starter to transfer out of Oregon, or any other program for that matter.  

Clearly, whatever the reasons, Seisay wasn't happy at Oregon and has moved on. The talented athlete should find success wherever he lands. 

"It's kind of heartbreaking," Neal said. 

So, what does losing Seisay mean for the Ducks? Tough to say at this point. Had Seisay been at his best and still a backup, Oregon would have been set with three starting-caliber cornerbacks. The Ducks right now can't boast to having one true, proven, big time starter at cornerback given last year's mess that saw Oregon allow 35 touchdown passes. 

Seisay's departure places more pressure on Springs and Amadi to improve dramatically. Behind them are promising redshirt freshman cornerback Malik Lovette and maybe redshirt junior cornerback Ty Griffin

We could also see starting redshirt junior safety Tyree Robinson at cornerback, if needed.  Neal likes his depth at safety with former starter Reggie Daniels backing up Juwaan Williams. 

"In some cases, Tyree is going to move out there," Neal said. 

Seisay wasn't going to make or break Oregon's defensive backfield. But his departure certainly doesn't help. 

 

Oregon DBs: Smarter, better, deeper and hungrier

Oregon DBs: Smarter, better, deeper and hungrier

EUGENE - No Oregon position group - and maybe within the Pac-12 - faces more scrutiny, will be under as much pressure and has more to prove than the Ducks' secondary. 

Last season the secondary made the arts of covering and tackling appear Jedi-like in comparison to the effort it put forth on almost a weekly basis. 

The group has heard the scrutiny. They've felt the scorn.  Negativity has motivated them to respond. They feel confident that they will. But much work remains to be done. 

“I’m hoping, and I have my fingers crossed, that those guys will play at the level that we need to play at to win in this league,” Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said. 

First, a recap of the mountain they must climb to reach respectability. Oregon last season ranked 95th in the nation in passing efficiency defense (139.14) while allowing a whopping 35 touchdown passes and intercepting 13. UO’s defense ranked 116th in yards allowed per game (485.3) and 115th in scoring defense (37.5 points per game), most attributed to a poor pass defense.

The good news is that Oregon returns virtually its entire defensive secondary. Or, is that the bad news? Depends on how one chooses to view the situation. From Oregon's perspective, last year's debacle will only make a talented group mentally stronger and thus better.  

“We don’t want to look at ourselves as the underdogs anymore because we’re young," Oregon redshirt junior cornerback Chris Seisay said. "Those days are over. We have to become the players that we know we could be.”

Oregon entered last season with a relatively young secondary. Only safety Reggie Daniels was a returning full-time starter. Tyree Robinson and Seisay started a couple of games. Then-sophomore cornerback Arrion Springs made his first career start last year, as did freshman Ugo Amadi. Toss in part-time starter, redshirt freshman Glenn Ihenacho (who has since transferred), and converted receiver Charles Nelson, and you have a group that could have been expected to struggle. Although, maybe not as much as it did. 

Poor fundamentals. Awful communication. Sloppy tackling. All contributed to the secondary's inability to make plays and prevent plays from being made. The group did improve as the season went along, peaking with strong performances during victories over California and USC.

That didn't last long. The secondary's deficiencies  were on full display against TCU in the Alamo Bowl when the Ducks blew a 31-0 halftime lead to fall 47-41 in three overtimes. 

Most of the damage to Oregon's defense was done through the air by a backup quarterback. The season, and that performance, has haunted the defensive backs the past seven months. 

“We know what we have to do," Robinson said. "We have to grind. We know what we did last year, especially as a defensive secondary. We’re just trying to be the leaders out there. We’re just trying to set the tone, especially on defense, and be the playmakers and make big plays.”

First, they must fix all that ailed them in 2015. 

For starters, better communication and trust is being established. Springs said some defensive backs didn't fully understand all of the coverage schemes last season and at times, overplayed things. That has changed. 

“I feel we’ve taken the next step in terms of being smarter,” Springs said.

Also, a lack of trust hurt the secondary because of indecisiveness and lack of communication. 

“The big plays we gave up last year were just communication," Robinson said. "So the little things can make big plays happen, so we’re just trying to limit those mistakes.”

A change in defensive approach could help. New defensive coordinator Brady Hoke promises to be more attacking up front. The Ducks last season produced 38 sacks (ninth in the nation), but at times struggled to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The goal this season is to attack relentlessly in hops of producing more turnovers through forcing quarterbacks into bad throws. 

“The quarterback is going to have to get that ball out,” Amadi said.

Oregon's secondary is excited about those prospects. 

“We know that the ball is going to be in the air," Robinson said. "When the ball is in the air, go up and be that guy. Be that playmaker. Not, when the ball is in the air be panicking.

Hoke, the defensive backs said, has brought a certainly level of authoritarianism to the defense.  He has brought an energy, and demands accountability. 

"You really can’t hide," Springs said. "He will call you out. I've been a victim. He's kind of a bully, but not really."

Finally, in order to improve the secondary simply must perform well. 

Neal said he sees a much stronger unit this fall. A group that he said is virtually three deep across the board. 

“I think this is the most competition we’ve had because we have a lot of depth,” Robinson said.

Neal said five, maybe six safeties could play, along with five cornerbacks. That's counting Robinson doubling as a potential backup corner, something he played last season. 

Having players play multiple positions, something Neal always tries to do, enhances the versatility of the secondary. 

“That creates depth,” Neal said. “I think that’s gonna make us better and more consistent. The ability to play harder.”

A lack of depth last season caused Oregon to move Nelson, a wide receiver, to safety, and it forced starters to play without much rest opposite an Oregon no-huddle offense that doesn't eat clock. 

“That caught up to us in a couple of games, especially our last two games," Neal said. "We got tired.”

Right now, Robinson and redshirt junior Juwaan Williams are the starting safeties with Daniels and Khalil Oliver as the backups. Springs and Umadi are starting at cornerback with Seisay as the third corner. He is also playing some nickel and dime back, as are others. 

All are needed, according to Neal, in order for Oregon to have success against spread teams such as Washington State and California.

“We have a chance to line up with four cover guys on their four receivers, which is something you have to have to try and slow those people down,” Neal said. 

Seisay said Neal took some unnecessary heat for the play of his group, and that the players must keep up their end of the bargain and seize the challenge before them. 

“It’s on us, as well,” Seisay said. “We’re just trying to show the country that coach Neal is a great DB coach, and we listen to him and we’re going to improve.”

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 7 - Defensive backs under fire

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 7 - Defensive backs under fire

College football is back! The Ducks begin fall camp on Monday so we're breaking down each position to determine if the Ducks, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, and their fans will be smelling roses as Pac-12 champs during a trip to the Rose Bowl, or placing bets at a roulette table prior to watching a sixth-place UO team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Each position is graded using the poker hand scale.  

Today: Defensive backs. 

Projected starters: Redshirt junior cornerback Chris Seisay (6-1, 190), junior cornerback Arrion Springs (5-11, 205), redshirt senior safety Reggie Daniels (6-1, 205) and redshirt junior safety Tyree Robinson (6-4, 205). 

Key backups: Sophomore cornerback Ugo Amadi (5-10, 185), redshirt junior safety Juwaan Williams (6-0, 195), redshirt junior cornerback Ty Griffin (6-0, 200), redshirt sophomore safety Khalil Oliver (6-0, 200) and redshirt freshman cornerback Malik Lovette (5-11, 205).

Smelling like roses: Oregon's secondary has a lot to prove and its development will make or break the defense. The Ducks' defensive backs showed improvement late last season before the second-half collapse against TCU in the Alamo Bowl. The group contributed heavily to the team allowing an alarming 35 touchdown passes.

One could expect that a year of experience coupled with a huge helping of humble pie might lead to a dramatic growth curve. Oregon has six defensive backs competing for starting jobs, and all six have legitimate talent and experience to draw upon. Williams is in the hunt to start over Daniels, and Seisay is in a battle with Springs and Amadi to start at one of the two corner spots. That level of competition should push all involved to be the best version of themselves. 

There's too much talent here for this group to be as bad as it was last season. 

Place your bets: If the secondary does not become at least good, the Ducks' defense could be toast. The front seven is replacing six starters with a group of defensive linemen and linebackers mostly made up of question marks with upside. Couple that with the desire to be more aggressive in new defensive coordinator Brad Hoke's 4-3 defense and Oregon could be in trouble if the back end of the defense can't protect the front seven.

Odds are: The secondary will be better, but likely not good enough to carry the front seven. The good news is that most of the defensive backs will return in 2017.

Poker hand: Two pair with a card to go. That's being generous, but at least this group is comprised of mostly experienced players with elite-level talent. If the Ducks get lucky on the river, this hand could produce a full house. But that's a big if. 

Other posts: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers/Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive line; Linebackers.

Five musts for Oregon to contend: 4. Secondary must achieve lockdown mode

Five musts for Oregon to contend: 4. Secondary must achieve lockdown mode

The Oregon Ducks will enter the 2016 season with more uncertainty surrounding the program than it has seen since 2009 when former coach Chip Kelly took over for Mike Bellotti. UO went 9-4 last season, the program's worst since 2007 (9-4). This week we will take a look at five things that must go right in order for the Ducks to avoid another 9-win season (or worse), win the Pac-12 championship and contend for a national playoff berth. 

No. 4:  Secondary must achieve lockdown mode.

The situation: Hold up. Someone just scored again on Oregon's secondary and we're five months removed from the season. 

Sure, that's a cheap shot. But it fits. 

For Oregon to win the Pac-12 and contend for a playoff berth the defensive secondary must make a quantum leap in improvement. It would be next to impossible for the group not to improve on last season's swiss cheese impersonation. But simply improving won't be enough. They need to go from bad to very good in order for the Ducks defense to at least return to its 2014 form given that the front seven lost six starters. 

First, let's revisit the horrors of 2015. Oregon ranked 115th in scoring defense (37.5 points per game), 116th in total defense (485.3 yards per game) and 125th in passing yards allowed (306.5 per game). The Ducks (9-4 last season) ranked 95th in passing efficiency defense (139.14) while allowing a whopping 35 touchdown passes with a respectable 13 interceptions.  Only seven other programs allowed 30 or more touchdown passes with Rice leading the way at 36. 

In contrast, the 2014 Ducks allowed just 21 touchdown passes over 15 games. 

That defense included a veteran secondary led by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargan and Troy Hill.  Their absence in 2015 contributed mightedly to the team's struggles because the new guard proved mentally incapable of continuing their excellence. 

A year later, Oregon should expect that senior safety Reggie Daniels, redshirt junior safety Tyree Robinson, redshirt junior corner Chris Seisay (who missed much of last season due to injury), junior cornerback Arrion Springs, sophomore cornerback Ugo Amadi and others, will be much better in 2016.

The signs of improving were present during the second half of last season, especially in wins over California and USC, both armed with quarterbacks drafted in April. 

Athletically, the UO's defensive backs are very sound. Several players should end up in NFL camps. If their awareness has caught up to their physical abiliites, the Ducks could have one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12. 

Being able to trust the back end of the defense would allow the front seven to take more risks in new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke's attacking defense. This can be accomplished not only with better overall coverage to avoid allowing big plays over the top, but also with improved tackling to keep short completions as short gains.

Passes are going to be completed in a conference typically loaded with good passing offenses. However, Oregon last season made a bad habit out of allowing short passes to turn into long gains thanks to poor pursuit angles and bad tackling.  

The Ducks simply can't afford to get into many shootouts if they want to go 12-1, which is what it will take to reach the playoffs. That means the defense must do its part, as it did in 2014. 

Next up: Brady Hoke works some magic wiht the front seven.  

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