Before the 2020 Rose Bowl victory, before the 12-win season and before the national recruiting hype, there were some dark days for Oregon Football.
We aren’t just talking about the sun setting early at or the constant overcast grey skies in Eugene, Oregon, but the times where it was gloomy and wins were heard to come by.
Grab a beverage and keep reading.
On December 7, 2016, the Oregon Football program hired its 33rd head coach: Willie Taggart.
For someone who coined the infamous ‘Do Something’ slogan at Oregon, he didn’t do much. He was supposed to be the saving grace after former head coach Mark Helfrich and the Ducks failed to reach a postseason bowl after posting a 4-8 record in 2016.
Well, the brighter days that were to come ended up being dim: a 7-6 record in 2017 and Taggart fleeing for his ‘dream job’ at Florida State before the season ended.
[Listen to the latest Talkin’ Ducks Podcast with host Jordan Kent and special guest former Oregon football running back LeGarrette Blount].
Here is something to be grateful for during that short, unnerving year under Taggart: the 2017 signing class and anointing former offensive line coach Mario Cristobal into the head coach’s chair.
Let’s just focus on the 2017 signing class for now.
According to 247Sports, Oregon held the No. 19 nationally ranked recruiting class and No. 3 in the Pac-12 conference that featured two defensive studs that would go on to make an legacy in Eugene.
Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir.
Two four-star cornerbacks from the state of California.
Graham went on to be a four-year starter and entered his senior season as the FBS active leader in passes defended (40) and pass breakups (32). Lenoir, who ended up recommitting from Oregon after the Helfrich firing and recommitted to Taggart, became a three-year starter and limited opponents to a 54.1 completion percentage (40 completions) while being targeted a team-high 74 times according to Pro Football Focus.
The two will go down as one of the great corner duos to dawn the green and yellow.
So yeah, we guess thank you Wille Taggart for bringing them to Oregon.
But their development into the players and potential Sunday talent they are today is from Cristobal and former corners coach Donte Williams (now at USC).
Both Graham Jr. and Lenoir - along with Austin Faoliu and Jordan Scott - decided to return to Oregon for their senior seasons. It was gearing up to be one for the history books as the defense would only lose one starter (linebacker Troy Dye) in 2020-2021. Cristobal went out and got two five-star linebackers to commit to the Ducks as a part of the 2020 class (Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell).
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic hit and forced the sports world into chaos. The Pac-12 conference still doesn’t have a clear and concrete plan in place and some players are taking matters into their own hands.
Both Graham Jr. and Lenoir have officially declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Their last game in an Oregon uniform is in the books.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR THE OREGON SECONDARY
Expectations for the Oregon defense were about as high as ever before. Now that the Ducks starting corners will no longer be in the secondary, here is what may be in store:
Sophomore Mykael Wright played in all 14 games as a true freshman, recorded one interception and allowed just eight receptions on 23 targets according to Pro Football Focus. Wright was also electric on special teams returning two kickoffs to the house becoming just the third player in program history to return two kickoffs for a TD in a single season. His ceiling is high.
Graham and Lenoir’s departure will also make room for some familiar faces to rise to the surface: redshirt freshman Trikweze Bridges with his 6-foot-3 frame will make for an interesting case as well as sophomore DJ James, both of which spent time on special teams last season.
There are also some new faces to be excited about: five-star corner Dontae Manning and 2021 commit Jaylin Davies will arrive to Eugene in December or January.
The secondary will definitely look different next season. We see roster turnover all the time in sports, but what truly matters is the drop-off that comes with it, should there be any. That’s what teams strive for, that next-man-up mentality. With Graham and Lenoir gone, opportunity for someone else awaits.
And if there is one characteristic that coach Cristobal looks for on the recruiting trail, it’s competitive nature.