tyree robinson

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

Oregon at ASU won't reveal much unless Ducks lose

Oregon at ASU won't reveal much unless Ducks lose

The No. 24 Oregon Ducks enter Pac-12 play under Willie Taggart as a mystery team. That probably won't change much come late Saturday night. 

For the first time this season UO will face an opponent capable of putting up numbers on offense and getting after the quarterback on defense when the Ducks (3-0) play at Arizona State (1-2) Saturday night in Sun Devil's Stadium. When the game is over, Oregon should be 4-0 and by Sunday morning ranked as high as No. 20.  Yet, this game probably won't reveal much about what these Ducks are really all about. That is, unless, of course, they were to lose. 

How could that happen?

For starters, unlike previous opponents, Nebraska and Wyoming, the Sun Devils have some pop on offense and they will spread that talent out across the formation seeking mismatches. UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said facing such a team loaded with speed on the outside and at running back will be a challenge for UO. 

"We haven't seen athletes like these guys, yet," he said. 

Oregon redshirt senior safety Tyree Robinson said he believes ASU, averaging 412 yards and 34 points per game, will try to establish the run with 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior running back Kalen Ballage, who runs with power and speed.

"We have to gang tackle," Robinson said.

Maybe. Then again, ASU is averaging a weak 97 rushing yards per game on 2.5 per carry.

ASU, according to Robinson, will use a lot of formations and motions in an attempt to catch Oregon's defense napping. 

"We just have to do a good job of communicating and being in the right place," Robinson said. 

Surely tested will be true freshmen defensive backs Nick Picket and Thomas Graham Jr. They have performed very well so far but have yet to see a wave of plays and athletes coming at them over and over like they will on Saturday.  ASU quarterback Many Wilkins is a threat to run and will certainly extend plays better than Wyoming's Josh Allen did last week. Wilkins has thrown seven touchdown passes with zero interceptions. He is certainly a threat to make some plays on Saturday. Enough to win? Probably not. 

Oregon's defense might allow its share of points but the Ducks certainly won't get run through like many teams did to them last season. More importantly, Oregon's offense should have its way with ASU's defense, which has allowed 37.7 points and 505.3 yards per game.  

For that reason alone, UO should leave the state of Arizona with a win. Only a flow of turnovers could derail Oregon. Yes, the Sun Devils lead the conference with 13 sacks. And yes, they will throw heavy pressure at UO sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. It simply won't matter. Herbert gets rid of the ball too quickly, which will lead to big plays against pressure. Plus, let's not forget, that last year he tied a program record with 489 yards passing against ASU in one of his only two victories as a starter last season. 

The Ducks will score a ton of points and win. They might even score a nice chunk of those points in the second half, which would be a departure from the previous two weeks. 

Maybe the most significant fact that will come out of a win Saturday is that Oregon would have matched last season's win total (4-8) four games into the season. By any measure, that's great progress. We just won't know if the Ducks are very good, or simply better than the mediocre competition they would have faced to date. 

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Oregon at Arizona State

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 14 1/2.

Records: Oregon (3-0), Arizona State (1-2).

Last week: The Sun Devils lost 52-45 at Texas Tech. Oregon won 49-13 at Wyoming. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-45, 3-0 at Oregon); Sun Devils' Todd Graham (89-57, 40-28 at ASU).

Sun Devils' impact players: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a pretty hot start, averaging 308 yards passing with seven touchdown tosses and has yet to throw an interception. He has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Wilkins, a redshirt junior, was the No. 6-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation when he came out of high school in 2014.

"This will be the first time we've had a good mobile quarterback that we've had to go against," Taggart said. 

Senior running back Kalen Ballage has rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. 

Sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is Wilkins' top target. The 6-foot-4 Harry has caught 24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. 

ASU's defense is led statistically by two freshmen. Defensive end Jojo Wicker has three sacks on the season and linebacker D.J. Calhoun is averaging 10.3 tackles per game. 

Linebacker Koron Crump (knee), who leads the conference with four sacks, is out for ASU. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5.  It's a road game. It's a conference game. It's against what will be by far the best offense the Ducks will have faced this season. There's a lot to be worried about for Oregon. However, ASU is about as bad on defense as the Ducks were last season. If the Ducks take care of the football they would once again surpass 40 points. We will know after this game if UO's defense truly has bite if it can keep the Sun Devils in check. 

Final pick: Oregon, 47-33. 

A healthy Pagano will help UO in Pac-12 play, beginning with ASU

A healthy Pagano will help UO in Pac-12 play, beginning with ASU

Oregon graduate transfer Scott Pagano has returned to action just in time to help the No. 24 Ducks take on the high-scoring teams in the Pac-12 Conference. 

Pagano, who missed the first two games after undergoing foot surgery to repair a broken bone, saw minimal playing time on Saturday during Oregon's 49-13 win at Wisconsin. He did not record a tackle. 

“He did alright the times that I did see him," UO coach Willie Taggart said following the game. "We knew there was going to be some rust to get off. But it’s good to get him to get some game experience before we get into Pac-12 play.”

Oregon's defense is off to a strong start. But the addition of Pagano as a graduate transfer from Clemson, which won last season's national title, was met with glee for a reason. He is the best defensive lineman on the team. Having him healthy for Pac-12 play will be a must if the Ducks' defense is going to stand up to the test of facing strong offenses on a weekly basis. 

A fully healthy Pagano, however, could be weeks away for Oregon (3-0).

“I’m still not where I want to be right now,” Pagano said following Saturday's game.

Pagano estimated that is foot was at about 75 to 80 percent healthy. The plan is for him to play as much as he can without hindering the healing progress. When his foot begins to bother him, Pagano said, he would scale back his reps. 

Senior safety Tyree Robinson said Pagano's mere presence has been a boost to the team given that all of the Ducks players know where he has been and what he can do. Taggart said that Pagano still must get into football shape and that UO hopes to increase his repetitions each week.

For Pagano, transferring from Clemson to Oregon, which played so poorly on defense last season, was helped along by the presence of the new coaching staff under Taggart. He called Joe Salave'a the best defensive line coach in the country and said that he saw signs of things looking up while watching a spring practice. Pagano said he could tell that the team was buying into what new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was selling.

The Duck are allowing just 23 points per game after surrendering 41.7 last year. 

“I knew we were going to have a great defense,” Pagano said. “I knew I wanted to play with a team like this."

Next up for Oregon is Arizona State (1-2). The Sun Devils are off to a slow start but have far more speed and weapons on offense than every opponent Oregon has faced this season. 

"This is going to be the most athletic team we've faced so far, by far," Taggart said. 

Here is a quick look at the matchup:

Oregon at Arizona State

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: Oregon minus 14 1/2.

Records: Oregon (3-0), Arizona State (1-2).

Last week: The Sun Devils lost 52-45 at Texas Tech. Oregon won 49-13 at Wyoming. 

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (43-45, 3-0 at Oregon); Sun Devils' Todd Graham (89-57, 40-28 at ASU).

Sun Devils' impact players: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a pretty hot start, averaging 308 yards passing with seven touchdown tosses and has yet to throw an interception. He has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. Wilkins, a redshirt junior, was the No. 6-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation when he came out of high school in 2014.

"This will be the first time we've had a good mobile quarterback that we've had to go against," Taggart said. 

Senior running back Kalen Ballage has rushed for 179 yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. 

Sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is Wilkins' top target. The 6-foot-4 Harry has caught 24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. 

ASU's defense is led statistically by two freshmen. Defensive end Jojo Wicker has three sacks on the season and linebacker D.J. Calhoun is averaging 10.3 tackles per game. 

Fear factor (five-point scale): 3.5.  It's a road game. It's a conference game. It's against what will be by far the best offense the Ducks have faced this season. There's a lot to be worried about for Oregon. However, ASU is about as bad on defense as the Ducks were last season. If the Ducks take care of the football they would once again surpass 40 points. We will know after this game if UO's defense truly has bite if it can keep the Sun Devils in check. 

Early pick: Oregon, 47-33. Oregon's defense will be challenged but it won't give up enough points to waste what should be a strong showing by the Ducks' offense. 

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Whenever the down marker flips to "3" on opposing offenses, Oregon's punt return team jumps to attention and the offense becomes antsy. It's becoming a pavlovian response.

That's because 79 percent of the time this season, the Ducks' defense has stopped opposing teams from converting on third down, a dramatic shift from last season. And it all starts with attitude and desire. Oregon senior safety Tyree Robinson said he urges the defense on every third down to dig deep for that extra burst of energy that allows them to play harder so they can get off the field. 

“I think guys have really bought into that , which kind of makes us a special defense right now,” Robinson said. 

According to Oregon sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tirelessly preaches the importance of making plays on third down, or, the "money down," as he calls it. 

“We have to go out there and make that money,” Dye said. 

Right now, the No. 24 Ducks (3-0) are filthy rich. Opposing offenses have converted just 21.3 percent of the time on third downs, best in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year Oregon allowed a 48.5 percent conversion rate, 11th in the Pac-12. 

The Ducks' defense has shown dramatic improvement over last season in every category imaginable. A low third down conversion rate for opponents and eight turnovers forced have been two of the most important areas of improvement. They lead directly to the team allowing 23 points per game, down from 41.7 a year go. 

Wyoming (1-2) on Saturday managed to convert just 4 of 15 third down attempts during Oregon's 49-13 victory. Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska converted just 2 of 14 attempts during a 42-35 loss at Autzen Stadium. 

"It's great to see those guys get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

He credits the success to the defense doing a great job of studying opponents and having an idea of what they like to do on third down. Also, they have done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Oregon already has 10 sacks after getting just 25 last season. The Ducks sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen twice on Saturday while pressuring him all evening. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Allen managed just 64 yards passing against Oregon. 

“When you can get to the quarterback, and he didn’t have time to pass the ball, that’s what usually happens," Taggart said. "And if you can get to him early, he will start looking at the rush and I thought that’s what he did.”

Dye said the defense entered this season with something to prove and a chip on its collective shoulders following such a poor season in 2016 when the Ducks ranked 128th in total defense. Robinson said the experience gained last year by so many young players forced into action has paid off this season. 

“It’s awesome to have a defense that we have so much confidence in," UO quarterback Justin Herbert said.

But will it last? Oregon hasn't exactly faced quality offenses to date. Wyoming's 14.3 points per game ranks 120th in the nation. Nebraska ranks 63rd at 31.7 points per game. Oregon won 42-35 over Nebraska on Sept. 9. The Cornhuskers (1-2) lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. 

The Ducks begin Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday at Arizona State (1-2). There are 11 teams in the conference averaging better than 31 points per game, including the Sun Devils. Most teams have great passing offenses that will challenge the Ducks' Pac-12 leading 89.7 passing defense efficiency rating. 

ASU junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is averaging 308 passing yards per game with seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

The Pac-12 is going to be a challenge, one the UO defense is looking forward to facing. 

“Oregon is not just an offensive school anymore," Dye said. "We play defense, too.”

Amadi and Winston Jr. move into starting lineup

Amadi and Winston Jr. move into starting lineup

Oregon has made changes to its depth chart prior to this week's game at Wyoming. 

At cornerback, junior Ugochukwu Amadi has moved into the starting lineup opposite freshman Thomas Graham Jr. Last week's depth chart leading up to Oregon's 42-35 home win over Nebraska on Saturday listed Graham and Amadi as co-starters with an "Or" between their names. Graham started opposite senior Arrion Springs. 

Graham, named the player of the game, had seven tackles and two interceptions. Amadi clinched the game with an interception late in the fourth quarter. Now both are clear starters but expect Springs to still see plenty of action.

The once tied battle for the nose guard spot between freshmen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu now has the latter listed as the clear starter. Faoliu actually started both of the team's first two games but rotated with Scott. We shall see how this slight change in the depth chart impacts the rotation at the nose position. 

Speaking of "Or" situations, there are none listed on the current depth chart. However, some backup positions remained slashed ("/") between second-team and third team players.  

Junior inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu is now listed as the clear starter over senior A..J. Hotchkins. And, sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr. has shed the "Or" between himself and junior Fotu T. Leiato II to become the clear starter at the outside linebacker/Duck position. 

Entering last week, freshman safety Nick Pickett was listed as a backup behind redshirt junior Mattrell McGraw. However, Picket started the Nebraska game and is now listed as the lone starter with freshman Billy Gibson as his backup. McGraw is now listed as the backup to redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who returned to action last week after missing the opener with an injury. 

Redshirt junior safety Khalil Oliver, who started the opening game, missed the Nebraska game due to injury. 

There were no changes to the offensive depth chart. 

 

Ducks' CB Arrion Springs' pick for breakout player: "myself."

Ducks' CB Arrion Springs' pick for breakout player: "myself."

EUGENE - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs, one of the more humorous players on the team, didn't hesitate when asked to name potential breakout players for 2017. 

"Myself," he said with a smile. 

Springs then quickly named junior cornerback Ugo Amadi and freshman nose tackle Jordon Scott before slipping "myself" in again and ending with sophomore linebacker Troy Dye.  

It appears that someone plans to have a big year.  

“I have no choice at this point,” Springs said. “Everything has to come together.”

Putting it all together has been a problem for Springs to date. In many ways he has defined the often maddening issues the Ducks' secondary has experienced the past two seasons. At times, Springs has been brilliant, displaying strong cover skills in a Pac-12 Conference loaded with good receivers. Then there's those times when he appears to be lost and blows coverages to give up easy touchdowns. Springs is striving to increase the ups and decrease the downs. 

Senior safety Tyree Robinson said Springs has a heightened sense of urgency about him. 

"I think he has really matured knowing that this is his last go-around," Robinson said. "He's not leaving a lot of plays out there on the field that he wishes he could have had back."

Oregon coach Willie Taggart gave each player a clean slate before evaluating them and said Springs has been impressive.  

"He had a wonderful spring, especially toward the end of spring ball," Taggart said. "He's continued that throughout training camp so far. I've seen a different guy than what I saw on film last year."

When asked which loss last season hurt the most, Oregon State (34-24) or Washington (71-20), Springs answered: "Cal."

“I got scored on twice and I got pulled,” Springs said of the 51-49 overtime loss. “That was the worst day.”

Despite inconsistent play, Springs has led the team with 12 pass breakups in each of past previous two seasons. Making even more impact plays while decreasing the mental lapses is Springs' goal. 

“My mind is right,” he said. “I’m just living in the moment. I don’t have girl issues…so.”

Cornerbacks coach Charls Clark wants to see more consistency from Springs. "That's one thing we've been working on. But he's a smart kid and he understands the game. Great knowledge. He does a good job of being able to play multiple spots and get guys lined up."

Springs said he has been working on his hands. He has just one career interception, a game-clincher in the end zone during a 61-55 triple-overtime win at at Arizona State. He said he hopes that being asked to be more physical in new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's defense will improve his overall game. 

“I can press again," Springs said. "That’s a strong point of mine. I feel like that will help me out.”

Taggart and Leavitt will be relying on Springs to accentuate his strengths and improve on his weaknesses this season. Strong cornerback play will be needed if the Ducks are going to improve much upon last season's 128th-ranked defense. 

If Springs delivers, maybe a career in the NFL awaits. NFlDraftScout.com rates Springs as the No. 14 cornerback prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. There were 33 cornerbacks drafted this year. 

"Sometimes when it's your last go-around," Taggart said, "you start to put it together knowing that the end could be any time now." 

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 9 - DBs Billy Gibson and Brady Breeze

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 9 - DBs Billy Gibson and Brady Breeze

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

The safety position is going to be one of the most hotly contested this fall. As of now, it appears that redshirt senior Tyree Robinson and redshirt junior Khalil Oliver have the inside track to start. Robinson's days as a cornerback could be over with the emergence of freshman Thomas Graham, who could start opposite senior Arrion Springs while pushing junior Ugo Amadi to the No. 3 corner spot. 

Safety isn't nearly as settled, however. Sophomore Brendan Schooler saw starts last year but missed all of spring with an injury and isn't being viewed as an obvious candidate to start moving forward. 

That's where redshirt freshman Brady Breeze and freshman Billy Gibson come in. The Ducks need both to show something this fall to not only push the veterans but to provide depth and, maybe more importantly, create stability at the position entering 2018. 

Breeze, a four-star recruit in 2016, has demonstrated great ability but is also very young and likely needs much more time before he becomes starting-caliber.  Gibson, a three-star recruit signed last February,  falls into the same category but, according to coaches, showed some strong signs during spring drills that he has enough athleticism to make an immediate impact if he picks up the defense. 

Senior Juwaan Williams and junior Fotu T. Leiato II should also be in the mix. But for the present, and the future, it would benefit Oregon greatly if Breeze and Gibson could make a push up Oregon's depth chart. 

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Alex Ofodile, Malik Lovette and Darrian McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

 

 

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 1 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 1 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

No. 1: Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

At the very least, Graham will likely be the team's third cornerback behind senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugo Amadi next season. But don't be surprised if Graham becomes a starter.

Graham lived up to his billing as the No. 12-rated cornerback in the nation (Rivals.com) with a strong spring after enrolling early, enough to likely move senior safety/cornerback Tyree Robinson back to full-time safety.

Graham is a dynamic athlete with corner skills beyond his age. Oregon coach Willie Taggart raved about Graham during spring drills, calling him a competitor and an elite playmaker.  Receivers and quarterbacks went at Graham all spring and he never backed down. His competitive nature and love for football, Taggart said, makes him a threat to be an instant impact player.

Springs and Amadi also had high praise for the four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., both stating in so many words that Graham is the real deal and ahead of where they were as freshmen. 

Oregon has started freshmen cornerbacks in the past with mixed results. Amadi was up and down in 2015. Long-time Ducks fans will remember the struggles of Aaron Gipson and Justin Phinisee back in the day. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrence Mitchell and Troy Hill all made starts in 2011 and took their lumps. 

Nevertheless, virtually all of the above - the jury remains out on Amadi - went on to have great careers at Oregon. 

The Ducks' defense, in complete rebuild mode after ranking 128th in the nation last year, improved greatly in the back end last season but received little help from a weak pass rush. That said, the defense lacked playmakers (just nine interceptions, zero from Amadi and Springs).

Graham could help change that reality while also taking a few lumps here and there.  

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

Five Ducks' spring game storylines: No. 2 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Five Ducks' spring game storylines: No. 2 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Oregon's spring game kicks off at 11 a.m. on Saturday.  Here is a look at one of the five reasons why you should care. 

No. 2: It's time to see what the hype surrounding freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. is all about. 

Oregon freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. seemingly has adjusted well to college football, at least as far as practices go. 

The 2017 recruit, rated as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation by Rivals.com, enrolled at Oregon early enough to participate in spring drills and immediately began turning heads.  

Oregon coach Willie Taggart has raved about Graham's ability to make plays and his love for the game. Junior cornerback Ugo Amadi said Graham reminded him of when he burst onto the scene as a highly-touted freshman in 2015. Senior cornerback Arrion Springs said Graham has been tremendous and is certainly better than he was as a freshman. 

Then there were these comments from senior safety/cornerback Tyree Robinson: "Thomas Graham has set himself apart form everyone else so far. He's just a competitor. Just from day one, he hasn't backed down from anybody. We just love that toughness."

We've been down this road before, however, with Oregon defensive backs. Early hype, then reality sets in. It's probably best to let Graham fly under the radar for a bit, especially in the Pac-12, typically loaded with strong passing teams. 

But while it might be wise to temper expectations for the young cornerback, it could still be fascinating to see glimpses of what his teammates and coaches have been raving about. 

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How Oregon's recruits fit in: DBs - Graham and Lenoir could push for instant playing time

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DBs - Graham and Lenoir could push for instant playing time

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsWide receivers/tight endsOffensive line, Defensive lineLinebackers

Today: Defensive backs.

New Ducks: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. (6-0, 175, Rancho Cucamonga H.S., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) and safeties Deommodore Lenoir (5-11, 183, Salesian H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.), Nick Pickett (6-1, 187, Salesian H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.) and Billy Gibson (6-1, 185, Miami Southridge H.S., Hialeah, Fla.). 

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). 

The situation: Oregon's landed two potentially elite defensive backs in Graham and Lenoir. Both should push a secondary that certainly didn't play impressive football in 2016. 

Graham, a four-star recruit rated by Rivals.com as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation, has a chance to push Springs and Amadi for a starting cornerback job. Lenoir, a four-star recruit rated as the top athlete in the nation, definitely could start at safety or be moved to cornerback.

Remember when Budda Baker got away from Oregon in 2014 and landed at Washington? Lenoir is his potential equivalent as an athletic safety. None of Oregon's returning safeties is a lock to start. Robinson, Schooler, Williams and Oliver could all be surpassed by Breeze, who redshirted last season. Add Lenoir to the mix and new safeties coach Keith Heyward will have a serious mess to sort through. 

Gibson and Pickett, both three-star recruits, don't figure to be candidates to push their way through a crowded field of safeties, but one never knows for sure until they start practicing. 

At cornerback, Springs and Amadi are the favorites to start with Robinson potentially remaining at cornerback. Experience will heavily favor the returners but none have lived up to their potential as of yet. That will open the door for Graham to make a move, especially as an early enrollee.   

The verdict: The secondary battles are going to be fun to watch. Unless Gibson or Pickett turns out to be a big surprise, both should redshirt behind a host of capable and more experienced safeties.  It would be a disappointment, however, if both Graham and Lenoir do not at least see time as backups in 2017.