The Oregon Ducks secondary is coming off a year where that position was one of the most dominant groups in all of college football.
The group gained respect and recognition from past and present NFL players, shutdown opponents and was second statistically in every defensive category in the Pac-12 Conference last season.
The defense as a whole gave up a total of 16 points (just one touchdown) through the first three conference games in 2019.
What was supposed to be another year for the history books will now be re-written in a separate chapter with an entirely different cast. Jevon Holland, a projected first-round draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has opted out of this upcoming season to prepare for the NFL stage; three-year starting corner Thomas Graham Jr. has also decided to opt-out to prepare for the draft along with the 2020 Rose Bowl Defensive MPV safety Brady Breeze.
On Friday, the Ducks opened up their first day of training camp for the shortened 2020 season that begins on November 7. The secondary has some big cleats to fill. Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal met with the media over Zoom after day one with more insight on what this Ducks secondary could look like this season.
Cristobal explained that Nick Pickett and sophomore Verone McKinley III were floating around at strong and free safety on day one.
Pickett, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior, is second on the team in career tackles (126) heading into his fourth year on the team. In 2019, he played in 14 games and recorded 45 tackles, seven pass deflections and one interception. Because of Breeze’s play late in the season, Pickett played more of a secondary role behind Breeze in the lineup.
After getting scored on with about one minute to go in week one against the Auburn Tigers last season, McKinley III finished his redshirt-freshman campaign as a Freshman All-American Second Team member and an FWAA Freshman All-America. He tied for the Pac-12 and team lead with four interceptions last season.
Cristobal also said that Steve Stephens and Bennett Williams are rotating in and out at safety as well.
Stephens is one of those players who is just waiting for his moment to come. The 6-foot, 195-pound four-star prospect out of Edison High School in Fresno, California, came into the Oregon program in 2018 along with Holland. He held offers from nearly every Pac-12 school in addition to Nebraska, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Stephens hauled in an interception last season against Nevada.
Williams was rated the top junior college safety by ESPN and Rivals after one season at the College of San Mateo. He signed with Oregon and enrolled in January. Last season, Williams recorded 45 tackles (25 solo), two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His leadership and experience should help with this young group.
Earlier this week, Oregon signed another transfer in Boise State’s Jordan Happle, who played high school ball at Jesuit in Portland, Oregon. He is eligible to play right away and Cristobal said that Happle will join the team on Saturday.
And then there is Jamal Hill, a name that has come up recently and frequently during press conferences with Cristobal.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound true sophomore saw time in all 14 games, recorded six tackles, including five solo, and was a starter on kickoff coverage and punt return. Hill could potentially fill the vacancy that Holland leaves behind.
“Jamal Hill took reps exclusively at nickel today, he will get reps on the backend as well,” said Cristobal after practice on Friday.
The Ducks received excellent news last week when Deommodore Lenoir decided to opt back into the football season ahead. After the Rose Bowl, Lenoir originally decided to return to Oregon for this senior year. Then when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the Pac-12 was uncertain of its plans, Lenoir decided to opt-out and prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Now, the two-year starter is back on the field and that’s a very good sign for this secondary.
On the other side of the field, sophomore Mykael Wright returns after a breakout freshman year, both at corner and in kickoff returns.
One of the three five-star recruits Cristobal signed in 2020 started off his Duck career with a bang, literally. Dontae Manning, who Cristobal said will be playing strictly corner this season, got a little banged up on Friday.
“Dontae Manning, he got a little nicked up in our conditioning drills, nothing that’s going to hold him out for more than one or two days, but he’ll be playing strictly corner.”
For those who are worried about so many new faces in Oregon’s secondary in 2020, Cristobal reassures that even though rosters change, the talent is there and ‘We’ll be in good shape.”
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