For months, it appeared as if Oregon would have one of, if not the best secondary in college football with Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham Jr., Brady Breeze, Deommodore Lenoir, Mykael Wright, Verone McKinley III, and more returning.
Then due to the coronavirus pandemic, Holland, Breeze, and Graham Jr. all opted out of the 2020 college football season to focus on the 2021 NFL Draft. That's three defensive back starters from last season's Rose Bowl-winning team all gone.
Usually, losing that type of depth would signal a rebuilding season in that part of the defense but defensive coordinator Andy Avalos doesn't see it that way given how his players are performing during fall camp.
“There’s a lot of guys who maybe didn’t get a lot of playing time last year, who are doing a great job in this camp."
Among those seizing the opportunity is sophomore Jamal Hill who appears to be the favorite to replace Holland at nickel cornerback, and is amped to do so.
“I accept the challenge fully," Hill said Tuesday. "I know my coaches and my teammates are going to prepare me each week for whatever challenges we might face. I don’t think they’d put me out there if I wasn’t ready."
Avalos has also been impressed by another cornerback from the 2019 recruiting class, DJ James.
"He’s done a good job," said Avalos. "Now it’s his consistency and [him being able] to do it day-to-day."
That doesn't go just for James. Avalos feels everyone stepping into a starting role needs to adjust to the shifted mentality needed to perform each and every day.
“When you go from being a backup to being a starter, it’s about being on every single day. There are no [off] days. You have to be your personal best every single day. That’s a huge challenge.
“Those guys are doing a great job and again it sounds very repetitive, but it’s what we’re preaching. When we’re on, we’re on. It’s about consistency and being consistently on."
However, among those stepping into starting roles, no defensive back has Ducks fans more excited than sophomore Mykael Wright, who PFF rated as the best Oregon DB in 2019 despite him being a backup. Now, he will get to live up to that evaluation as well as making another leap in his sophomore season.
“Dude is lightning fast, he can change direction like that, in the snap of a dime,” said cornerbacks coach Rod Chance Wednesday evening. "Honestly the dude has some unreal athleticism and some things that you can’t coach."
Additionally, five-star true freshman Donate Manning has turned some heads with his raw athletic ability, and perhaps he can see some playing time in 2020.
"He is different. His mobility is different. His ability to play at the line of scrimmage is different. We’re really excited," explained Avalos.
"Dontae's been a really, really pleasant surprise," added Chance. "He's a very, very smart individual. I mean, he really has some intangibles about him, people really gravitate to who he is. Sharp dude in the meeting room. Excited to get him out there to continue to see how he's growing.
With a young cornerbacks group, minus Deommodore Lenoir, there will be some growing pains but the coaching staff is working tirelessly to minimize them appearing on the field.
“We are going to play some young guys. That’s awesome. That’s college football," said the second-year Oregon defensive coordinator. "Guys go and new ones step up and get the right to play. That’s kind of the process we’re in right now. We feel very good about where we’re going."
Additionally, redshirt sophomore Verone McKinley III and Nick Pickett, who are anticipated to start at safety (or at least see a lot of time rotating through), have taken up a leadership role to help along the Ducks stepping into larger roles.
"Collectively with the culture, we’re working to build that mentality. The older guys, the leaders — the Jordon Scotts and Nick Picketts, the DeMos, and Isaac Slade, the guys who’ve been around for a while we’ve really posed the challenge to them about having a positive impact on our defense and on our team and showing these guys how we need to be consistent every single day and what does that look like," said Avalos.
As far as the secondary is concerned, Avalos seems quite pleased with the development of his defensive backs and credits Coach Chance with their developmental growth.
“The corner position in general has played really really well," he said. "We’re excited about how coach [Rod] Chance is doing with those guys and the techniques and how they’re operating out there."
"This is an exceptional group of young men, period," added Chance.
Ducks fans will get to see the new-look secondary on November 7th when Oregon hosts the Stanford Cardinal at Autzen Stadium.