When Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir announced they would return for their senior seasons, Oregon seemed poised to field arguably the best secondary in school history in 2020.
Then, due to the coronavirus pandemic, both starting senior cornerbacks, nickel cornerback Jevon Holland, and safety Brady Breeze all opted out of the 2020 college football season.
However, with the Pac-12 set to begin its 2020 college football season on November 7th, Lenoir opted back in on Monday morning to play out his senior season in an Oregon uniform.
Here's our projected starting secondary along with who will rotate in and out of the lineup.
FCB No. 1: Deommodore Lenoir
As a freshman, Lenoir played in all 13 games (299 total snaps) and finished with 25 tackles, five pass breakups and one interception. Then as a starter, Lenoir balled out with 52 tackles and three interceptions as a sophomore and 47 tackles, an interception, fumble recovery and forced fumble.
Pro Football Focus rated Lenoir as the nation's 30th best returning cornerback in January 2020 following his decision to stay in school, with the opportunity to play himself into a first-round caliber cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft.
BCB No. 2: Mykael Wright (True Sophomore)
Wright will no longer need to wait a season before stepping into a starting role. Despite Lenoir and Graham Jr. being multi-year starters, PFF actually rated Wright the best cornerback on the Ducks roster despite him being just a true freshman. Additionally, ESPN rated Wright as the fifth best cornerback in the county back in May, a list that included Holland ahead of him.
His most notable defensive play last season was when he forced a fourth-down incompletion in Seattle, WA to clinch Oregon's victory over rival Washington.
But, everyone remembers his 100-yard kickoff return against USC to close out the first half.
With Holland opting out, perhaps Wright can return punts next season as well?
Free Safety: Verone McKinley III (Redshirt Sophomore)
In base packages, expect McKinley to play safety and then rotating over to nickel cornerback in nickel packages. When McKinley drops down to play the nickel position, then either Nick Pickett or Bennett Williams can replace him at free safety.
After redshirting his freshman season, McKinley immediately made an impact on the field grabbing four interceptions, good for best in the Pac-12. He's also plenty experienced having played 501 snaps in pass coverage (second among FBS freshman in 2019) and made 46 tackles (29 solo), one tackle-for-loss, and two pass breakups.
Boundary Safety: Nick Pickett (Safety, Senior)
The three-year starter got supplanted as the boundary safety by Breeze last season but still saw significant playing time which will be repeated this season. Heading into the 2020 season, he'll lead Oregon with 126 career tackles.
Other potential impact players:
Bennett Williams (Safety, Junior)
Originally an Illinois signee, Williams was an ESPN Freshman All-American recording 64 tackles, including 34 solo, with 1.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions. He then would transfer to the College of San Mateo and became the top-rated JUCO safety in the 2019 recruiting class by ESPN and Rivals, recording 45 tackles (25 solo), two interceptions and two forced fumbles before enrolling in Eugene last January.
Jordan Happle (Safety, Redshirt Senior, Graduate Transfer)
Following Lenoir's decision to opt-in to the 2020 college football season, former Boise State Bronco and Jesuit Crusader Jordan Happle announced his intent to transfer to Oregon for the upcoming season. Having played for Andy Avalos before, expect him to play right away in the secondary, perhaps replacing McKinley at safety when the sophomore moves to the slot.
DJ James (True Sophomore)
The starting cornerback spot across from Wright will be up for grabs during fall camp with the leading candidates appearing to be either sophomore DJ James or true freshman five-star Dontae Manning.
James did appear in all 13 games last season but for only 85 total snaps, recording 10 tackles (7 solo) and one pass breakup. That his coaches got him on the field given how deep the Ducks secondary was is a good sign.
Dontae Manning (True Freshman)
Manning was one of the Crown Jewels of the 2020 recruiting class for Oregon: a five-star cornerback ranked as the 4th best at his position nationally and projected first-round NFL Draft pick.
After Holland made his decision, Manning announced he's ready to continue what he started.
Jamal Hill (Sophomore, Safety)
As a true freshman, the consensus three-star recruit played in all 14 games making six tackles. He primarily played on kickoff and punt return but maybe he can see more playing time on defense this season.
Steve Stephens IV (Redshirt Sophomore, Safety)
The 2018 four-star prospect redshirted as a freshman before playing in 13 games last year, recording seven tackles and getting one interception against Nevada.
Trikweze Bridges (Redshirt Freshman, Cornerback)
Bridges signed with Oregon during the 2019 class as a four-star prospect but redshirted his freshman season. He chose Oregon over Alabama, Duke, Florida, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Penn State, Southern Miss, Tennessee, Troy, UCF and others.
One thing's for sure. Rod Chance and Andy Avalos will have their players ready to go the first week of November.