Deommodore Lenoir

What it means to have Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir back in Oregon’s secondary

What it means to have Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir back in Oregon’s secondary

Let’s rewind a little over one year ago.

The Oregon Ducks were preparing for a Redbox Bowl showdown against the Michigan State Spartans when junior quarterback Justin Herbert and junior linebacker Troy Dye decided to give Ducks fans one more Christmas present: another season in a Ducks uniform. 

And it paid off. Today, the Ducks can not only call themselves Pac-12 champions but also Rose Bowl champions. 

The decision as a junior (or three-year collegiate player) to either declare for the NFL Draft or play another season in college holds a lot of weight on each end. The risk of injury; a paycheck; which round your name will be called; family opinions; etc.

Fast forward to Monday, January 13, 2020, and juniors Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir, Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu had that same decision in front of them. They have ALL decided to forgo the NFL Draft and return to Oregon for their senior season.

A big time decision with great impact on an already impressive defensive roster. In 2019, the Ducks defense (under first-year defensive coordinator Andy Avalos) lead the Pac-12 in interceptions (20), turnovers forced (23) and sacks (41), categories that Graham Jr., Lenoir, Scott and Faoliu greatly contributed in.

Now, they’re back for another year.

We decided to do this altogether because we all came into together, class of 2017. We all felt we made a change together and felt this decision needs to be made to everybody together as one. — Thomas Graham Jr. 

Let’s break down cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir’s individual impact as well as what it means for 2020.

THOMAS GRAHAM JR.

The minute Thomas Graham Jr. stepped onto the field as a freshman, you knew he was going to be great. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound corner from Rancho Cucamonga, California earned the starting corner spot his freshman year alongside senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugo Amadi. 

Graham had offers from Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma amongst others, and chose the Oregon Ducks and then Coach Willie Taggart. He chose a first-year head coach at Oregon over the stability and history that Nick Saban brings to the Crimson Tide. The reason? He wanted to come in and help change a program. Oregon was coming off a 4-8 season with no postgame bowl and hiring a brand new coaching staff when Graham committed.

Loyalty, hard work, and trust all come to mind when thinking about his career at Oregon. The junior ended this past season with 64 tackles (47 solo), five tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, ten pass breakups, and two interceptions.

With all said, for me I’d like to thank the University of Oregon for everything they’ve done for me. It’s been such a blessing. A lot of childhood dreams have come true. I always told my dad as a kid I would win the Pac-12 championship. I was able to do that. Didn’t think I was going to do it in the colors that I’m in but no less than anything, thank you Oregon. All that being said, I’d like to announce that I’m coming back for my senior year. I got one more season left to go in Autzen. Let’s see what we got to do Duck nation. — Graham Jr.

[RELATED]: Thomas Graham Jr.’s NFL test results

DEOMMODORE LENOIR

Deommodore Lenoir has shown consistent improvement throughout the years at Oregon. A four-star rated prospect out of high school by Rivals and 247Sports, the 5-foot-11, 202-pound corner from Los Angeles, California snagged a beautiful one-handed interception vs. USC and returned it 45 yards. In the 2020 Rose Bowl, he recorded six tackles and recovered one fumble. 

The junior cornerback ended this past season with 47 tackles (32 solo), two tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, seven pass breakups, and one interception.

I would like to thank the University of Oregon. I want to thank my family, friends. The relationships that we built over the years, and with that being said, I will be returning for my senior year. Thank you Oregon. — Lenoir

It’s not all about football for Lenoir. He stated that the biggest thing for him is being able to get his degree before he left Oregon.

[RELATED]: Oregon CB Deommodore Lenoir to return to Oregon for senior season

WHAT THIS MEANS

If you thought the Ducks secondary was scary in 2019, it could get even scarier in 2020. A defense that caught the eyes of Dez Bryant among others at the beginning of the season vs. Auburn ended their 2019 campaign with a 2020 Rose bowl victory and leading the Pac-12 conference in multiple team defense statistic categories.

The 2020 Ducks defense will be without linebacker Troy Dye as his career is NFL bound now, but returning starting corners Graham and Lenoir along with returners Nick Pickett, Brady Breeze (2020 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP), Jevon Holland, Verone McKinley III, Mykael Wright, Trikweze Bridges, DJ James and incoming freshmen Luke Hill and Dontae Manning.

I’m a competitive person also. So having great players in one room, it just brings out the best version in everybody. — Lenoir.

What’s in store for the Ducks secondary in 2020? With the return of Graham Jr., and Lenoir, the sky is the limit.

A main thought for all of us is just being dominant. The only way you can be dominant is to be consistent. — Graham Jr.

Sorry Pac-12, they’re back.

Keeping up with the Johnsons: Best friends with a serious competition

Keeping up with the Johnsons: Best friends with a serious competition

Oregon’s wide receiver room has been in flux this season with injuries and transfers. That instability could have led to an unhealthy unit but instead it’s fashioned life long bonds and healthy, serious competition.

The Friendship

It would have been easy for Oregon junior reciever Johnny Johnson III to not like Juwan Johnson.

When Juwan transferred from Penn State to Oregon to help bolster a group that lost their top receiver to the NFL, Johnny wasn’t threatened by Juwan's 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame or his one more season of experience. No, instead, when Juwan messaged Johnny on Instagram to introduce himself before moving to Eugene, Johnny welcomed him, becoming Juwan's first friend on the Duck football team.

The two Johnsons started sending film back and forth, building a bond and making a bet (more on that later).

They’ve come a long way: sweating through Oregon’s spring and summer workouts; building in fall camp; winning nine-straight games together; and securing a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game as North Division champions, all with a bigger goal in mind.

Johnny’s vision: “Me and (Juwan) holding that trophy in the air at the end of the year. I’m not going to say which trophy, but, you know.”

The Competition

What’s the bet and the payout?

“That’s something that’ll stay sacred. Me and Johnny just try to battle it out on who can get the most yards every game,” Juwan said. “That’s what it’s been all year. We had a little bet and obviously he’s winning right now. He has a couple games ahead of me.”

The reference there is that Johnny leads the team in receiving yards (485) on 35 catches in 10 games, while Juwan has 299 yards on 18 catches in six games.

Johnny and Juwan both grabbed career long touchdown catches in Oregon’s win over Arizona. Is there a competition for longest touchdown?

“If there is, I need to find out. I hope so,” said Offensive Coordinator Marcus Arroyo. “That’s a great competition to have. Both of those guys did a great job on both of those plays. It was exciting to see and good for Justin [Herbert] to hit a couple good, deep balls.”

The Plays

At the start of the 2019 football season, junior cornerback Deommodore Lenoir tabbed Johnny and Juwan as Oregon’s most physical receivers. Their toughness has been evident. Both have different skillsets, but both provided major highlights in Oregon’s win over Arizona, marking the first time Oregon connected on multiple 50-plus yard touchdown passes since 2016.

On the second play of the game, quarterback Justin Herbert launched a 73-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Johnson III, the longest pass play of the season. A wide-open Johnny slipped behind defenders and bolted to the end zone.   

Then, a little trickery to the delight of Oregon fans. A reverse flea flicker 53-yard touchdown toss from Herbert to an extended Juwan Johnson, worthy of a SportsCenter Top 10 nod.

The Future

The Johnsons are in a groove and it could get ugly for Arizona State (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. (PT) The Sun Devils are allowing almost 300 passing yards per game in Pac-12 play, ranking ninth in the conference.

It’s a prime occasion for Herbert to air it out. It’s a substantial opportunity for the Johnsons to continue their battle for most yards.

The veteran receiver best friends could be the weapons Oregon needs to close out the regular season and conquer No. 7 Utah in the Pac-12 title game. After that? It’s a fight for that trophy Johnny dreamt of.

Why a healthy Deommodore Lenoir is crucial for Oregon vs. Washington State

Why a healthy Deommodore Lenoir is crucial for Oregon vs. Washington State

Oregon starting cornerback Deommodore Lenoir is on this week's depth chart and has been cleared to play against Washington State on Saturday, according to Mario Cristobal.

“(Lenoir) looks good,” Cristobal said. “We feel like he’s ready to go and will be ready to go (against Washington State)."

Lenoir, who has started 20 straight games, suffered an injury in the Ducks’ comeback win at Washington while making a tackle with teammate Nick Pickett. Lenoir left for the locker room, did not return to the game and true freshman DJ James filled in.

Cristobal also added that senior linebacker Troy Dye, who broke his thumb vs. the Huskies, will be monitored, but he already played through the injury on Saturday and is expected to play against the Cougars.

With zero conferences losses, No. 11 Oregon (6-1, 4-0 Pac-12) has control atop the Pac-12 North Division. While the Cougars (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) are coming off their first conference win on Saturday, defeating Colorado 41-10 in a strong offensive showing.

Coach Mike Leach’s air raid offense is different than anything UO Defensive Coordinator Andy Avalos and the Ducks have competed against thus far this season.

However, Lenoir knows the Cougars all too well and has never beaten them in his Oregon career. WSU has beaten Oregon four-consecutive times. The health of the upperclassman is vital to stopping WSU.

Lenoir, who was recently named a mid-season All-American by Pro Football Focus, is allowing less than half the balls targeted in his direction to be caught, the best coverage grade in the Pac-12 and one of the best percentages in the nation.

That excellent coverage will be needed against WSU who spreads the field with their receivers. WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon threw four touchdown passes against Colorado, his fourth game with four or more touchdowns in a game this season.

“We have not done a good enough job against Washington State for the past four years,” Crisotbal said.
The Duck defense has dominated at home so far this season, giving up just 19 points in four home games this season while forcing 19 three-and-outs in 53 drives. The Ducks have nine different players with an interception, led by sophomore safety Jevon Holland who leads the nation with three picks.

Off to a 4-0 start in Pac-12 play for the first time since 2013, Lenoir and the Ducks look to avoid a letdown game and snap the four-game losing streak against Washington State on Saturday, October 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Five electrifying options for Oregon's return roles

Five electrifying options for Oregon's return roles

Oregon’s special team battles are waging through fall camp. Starting role decisions have not been made for kicker, punter and both return duties. The return game is wide open and the group of contenders is impressive and potentially electrifying.

Who on the roster is best fitted to replace Ugochukwu Amadi and Tony Brooks-James? Is this the season that Oregon’s special teams thrill once again like the days of Cliff Harris and De’Anthony Thomas?

“It’s up for grabs right now,” said Oregon safety Jevon Holland. The sophomore named running back Travis Dye, wide receivers Jaylon Redd and Mycah Pittman as top return competitors. Then, he couldn’t help but throw his name in the hat.

“You can throw me in the mix too,” Holland said. “I had 10 returns in high school, I’m just putting that out there.”

Return duties have become such a coveted job that leading rusher CJ Verdell also made a case for himself to be considered.
After all the running the receivers, running backs and defensive backs do, you’d think the last thing they’d want is to add an extra duty. However, the Ducks see it as a bonus- as an extra opportunity to touch the ball and effect the game.

Injury is always a concern. Oregon has history with injuries to returners: Thomas Tyner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury versus Washington in 2014 and Devon Allen suffered two season-ending knee injuries as a specialist.

Wide receiver Brenden Schooler is already out, at least for four to six weeks, after suffering a foot injury during practice. Currently, it appears the shifty Dye is leading return man, as he’s been taking the first reps. The sophomore’s breakaway speed and agility make him a solid selection. Four other realistic options for the depth chart are: Redd, Pittman, Holland and cornerback Deommodoire Lenoir.

Redd is dynamic and flashed his deadly speed while true freshman Pittman may be the most hyped new UO receiver and his sure hands make him an interesting option. Defensive playmakers, Holland lead the team last season with five picks and Lenoir totaled three.

“Jevon (Holland) looks really good at catching punts,” said Oregon wide receiver Juwan Johnson. “Jaylon Redd is also a guy who’s very critical in our special teams.”

Last season, the Ducks topped the Pac-12 Conference in punt returns and ranked sixth in kickoff returns. Oregon’s 2018 averages in kick and punt coverage and returns slipped a bit from 2017.

Oregon hopes to better sort the depth chart after scrimmaging this week. With five potentially electrifying options, it appears the Ducks have a good problem on their hands.

Mykael Wright: "Silent assassin" true freshman pushing Oregon's secondary

Mykael Wright: "Silent assassin" true freshman pushing Oregon's secondary

While it’s highly unlikely true freshman Mykael Wright will usurp a starting role, his undeniable talent and drive is pushing Oregon’s aggressive secondary to a new depth from the inside.

2019’s top-ranked cornerback in the nation by ESPN has earned the nickname “silent assassin” on the Oregon football team. His quiet demeanor and superstar type skills are drawing comparisons to Kawhi Leonard (also both wear the number two) from fellow cornerback teammate Verone McKinley III. More on that later.

Wright enrolled at Oregon early to get a jump-start on adjusting to defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ defense. He’s gained 10 pounds from weight room offseason workouts, doesn’t shy away from contact and excels at stripping the ball. UO’s spring game offered a perfect display of his strengths; he shined with five tackles, three pass breakups and an interception. 

“Mykael Wright, he’s been pushing me for reps,” said junior cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. “And I want him to do that, I want him to get reps because at the end of the day I want him to get in games. I feel he will be a freshman All-American.”
Entering their third seasons, starting cornerbacks Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir emote confidence and swagger with a desire to prove that they are the best in the nation.

The tandem had a break out game against Arizona State's passing attack last season. Graham Jr. covered one of the best wide receivers in the nation, ASU’s N'Keal Harry, most of the night and recorded a career-high six pass breakups. Lenoir also had three pass breakups, two of which came while defending the New England Patiort’s first round 2019 draft selection.

Last season, Graham’s 18 pass breakups finished second in the Pac-12 Conference and tied for third nationally. Lenoir had three interceptions and finished second on the team with nine pass breakups.

Safe to say, Wright has an opportunity to learn from two highly- skilled cornerbacks.

Contrary to most players who play in the secondary, “silent assassin” Wright doesn’t talk much. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback’s humble confidence has turned heads and earned the respect from his teammates. He is noticeably pushing himself in the weight room, asking questions at practice and taking mental reps when another group is in.

“One thing I’ve noticed is he’s not really vocal, he likes to put his head down and work,” said junior defensive tackle Austin Faoliu. “He shows up through his actions and I really like that about him… He’s going to be one of the great ones.”

Oregon star linebacker and “quarterback of the defense” Troy Dye picked Wright as a Duck that will surprise fans this season. He described the California-native as intelligent, hard working, quiet and “a dog”.

Wright is also making an impression from the other side of the ball.

“I’ve studied him a lot,” true freshman wide receiver Mycah Pittman said. “I see that he likes to sit and when you weave inside, he moves with you. He’s not a guy who jumps, he’s patient. I think he will be a factor now. He will be able to play now.”

Pittman also highlighted Wright’s offensive background and catching ability as a strength that helps him come down with 50-50 balls. 

At his two seasons at Valencia high school in California, Wright had nine interceptions and 25 tackles on defense. On offense, he picked up 1,986 receiving yards in addition to 26 touchdowns.

“He’s running faster, he’s more explosive and more comfortable with the scheme,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “We see a huge future for Mykael and a tremendously impactful season out of him as well.”

Having Wright No.3 on the outside is already elevating the play of Graham Jr. and Lenoir while also providing an opportunity for more rest for the juniors this season.

Wright’s part in the 2019 season may not be starter but it is certainly going to be significant.

[READ: Veteran Ducks impressed by “how smart the freshman class is”]

Oregon football; Defensive Back University?

Oregon football; Defensive Back University?

Oregon football, also known as; Nike University, Running Back University and Defensive Back University?

The Ducks’ highest-rated recruiting class in program history received another major addition; the highest-rated defensive back commitment in program history, Chris Steele.

Steele, the nation’s No. 3 cornerback and No. 19 overall prospect in the class of 2019, transferred from Florida after spring football.

According to the Gainesville Sun, in late January, Steele asked the Florida coaching staff for new roommate assignment, away from quarterback Jalon Jones, expressing concerns about Jones' behavior. In April, Jones was accused of sexual battery by two Florida students. The Florida Staff declined to act and postponed his request until summer and Steele decided to enter the transfer portal.

The 6-foot, 175-pound athlete, out of St. John Bosco High School (Bellflower, California) returned to the west coast via Oregon.

"Coach Donte. Our relationship is known." Steele told 247sports of Oregon coach Donte Williams. "Me and that dude, he’s like a big brother to me. The opportunity to play for somebody who is going to care about me off the field but at the same time is going to develop me better than other people, it’s a win-win situation." 

Had Steele signed with Oregon before National Signing Day, the Ducks’ 2019 class would have been ranked at No. 5 overall, their first top five finish ever. Oregon finished No. 7 without the signing of Steele. 

A few notes on what adding another five-star piece means…

Can Steele play next season?

Steele enrolled at Florida, so it's unclear if he will be eligible for the 2019 season, but he can apply for a waiver to play immediately.

Oregon’s 2019 secondary is locked and loaded with talent.

Juniors Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir have depth and talent behind them. If Steele is granted a waiver to play immediately, Oregon will have two star freshmen cornerbacks in Steele and Mykael Wright, plus redshirt freshman safety Steve Stephens. The pair of safeties, Nick Pickett and Jevon Holland, will also return. 

Lenoir often tweets "TMC," which stands for "The Marathon Continues." It's a reference to the sixth official mixtape by American rapper Nipsey Hussle, but it means something more to the Ducks secondary. "This journey has only begun to become the best secondary," said Lenoir. "It's a marathon not a race. We will prove a lot this year."

The #CaliFlock is real.

The Ducks scored three of the top six ranked players in the state of California in the 2019 class. All three are defensive players; including Steele (No. 5), Wright (No. 4) and Kayvon Thibodeaux (No. 1). A total of seven of California’s top 21 2019 prospects are at Oregon.

The veterans are hyped.

When Steele transferred from Florida, a few Gator wide receivers tweeted pictures of themselves making catches over Steele. When Steele joined the Ducks, he was met with a different feeling on Twitter from Oregon football.

The ripple effect.

Now the defensive backs are rolling in. Four-star safety Jared Greenfield (class of 2020) has included Oregon in his final five. The coveted 6-foot, 180-pound defensive back out of Narbonne High School (Harbor City, California), is expected to having Oregon as his heavy favorite.

Does the good outweigh the bad in Oregon's victory over ASU?

Does the good outweigh the bad in Oregon's victory over ASU?

Did the good outweigh the bad in Oregon’s 31-29 victory over Arizona State in its home finale? You be the judge.

BEST

Seven wins: With two games remaining, Oregon’s victory over ASU matched its 2017 win total with its seventh victory. The Ducks improved to 7-4 overall and 4-4 in Pac-12 conference play.

First half success: After a month of slow starts, Oregon’s offense hit the ground running. The Ducks scored on a 78-yard opening drive, 74 of those yards came on the ground. UO’s 28 first-half points were the most scored by the Ducks since their second nonconference game vs. Portland State. Oregon’s 364 total yards of total offense in the first half were its most in a half this season.

Come at me, bro: The Sun Devils went at Oregon's young cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir all game long. Graham Jr. covered one of the best wide receivers in the nation, ASU’s N'Keal Harry, most of the night and recorded a career-high six pass breakups. Lenoir also had three pass breakups, two of which came while defending Harry.

Gus comes up big: Oregon defensive lineman Gus Cumberlander had a huge impact on the game. He recorded a career high two sacks, the first Oregon player with two or more sacks in a game this season. He also recovered a fumble after when outside linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. strip-sacked ASU QB Manny Wilkins on ASU’s final drive to seal the win.

Hello record books: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell broke tackles and made Sun Devils miss in space to reach 103 receiving yards, averaging 26 yards per catch. The junior’s six 100-yard game ties Oregon’s single-season record (Josh Huff 2013).

Freshmen shouldering a big load: CJ Verdell played Mr. Versatile. Verdell scored a rushing and receiving touchdown, his first touchdown catch of his career. Travis Dye showed off his cuts and spin moves to lead the Ducks on the ground, averaging 5.8 yards per carry, totaling 105 yards on 18 carries.

WORST

Second half blunder: Oregon’s offense couldn’t move the ball in the last 30 minutes, almost causing the Ducks to lose the game. Herbert passed for only 13 yards in the half, the team only gained 85 overall yards, and scored three points.

Turnovers: 17 of ASU’s 29 points came off of Oregon’s four turnovers: Herbert threw two interceptions, Ugo Amadi mishandled a punt return and Tony Brooks-James fumbled.

Injuries: According to Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, CJ Verdell is good to go after taking a "shot to the rib area" that took him out vs. ASU. Kano Dillon is "probable" after missing last week with strained ab. Steve Jones (concussion protocol) will be cleared or not on Tuesday. Penei Sewell (ankle) will not return for Saturday but could be cleared for the bowl game.  

Ready or not, it’s Civil War week! Oregon faces the Oregon State (2-9, 1-7) in Corvallis on Friday, Nov. 23 at 1 p.m. 

Five Ducks that must rise if UO is to contend

Five Ducks that must rise if UO is to contend

Oregon began fall camp on Friday with a team that should win eight games without breathing hard this season providing that quarterback Justin Herbert remains healthy. 

The Ducks went 7-6 last season with Herbert missing five games (1-4) and this team should at least be as good. Plus, the Ducks' non-conference schedule is a joke. Home games against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State (the trio combined for four wins a year ago) will go down as one of the least interesting three-game stretches in terms of competitiveness in program history. 

Assuming Oregon wins all three - if UO doesn't then everyone on staff should be fired and every player should lose his scholarship (half joking) - all the Ducks would have to do is win four out of nine Pac-12 Conference games to reach seven victories.

That shouldn't be a problem. The trick will be winning seven conference games to reach 10 wins and potentially contend for the North Division title. Washington is the real deal and will be a tough challenge for Oregon. So will Stanford. Fortunately, both matchups will occur at Autzen Stadium where anything can happen, especially if UO develops in certain areas that appear to be question marks at the moment. 

Here are five players that must deliver at a high level in order for the Ducks to contend:

1. Running back Tony Brooks-James must be a true No. 1 back: Oregon ranked second in the conference in rushing last season with running back Royce Freeman finishing third at 1,475 yards. He is now with the Denver Broncos leaving Oregon scrambling to identify a lead back. 

That man should be Brooks-James, a redshirt senior who has bided his time while waiting for his shot. He has amassed 1,557 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns during his career. Should he put up similar numbers this season, the Ducks would be in business.

But Cristobal on Thursday stopped short of making it clear that Brooks-James is the unchallenged lead running back while also praising the work he has put in to win the position. 

"I see a lot of competitiveness (at that position)," he said. "It starts with what TBJ has done with his game. He's really elevated his game. Not only as a ballcarrier but as a blocker, as a physical presence."

Cristobal said Brooks-James has bulked up about 12 pounds. He was listed at 180 last year. Increased size to go along with Brooks-James' blazing speed certainly makes for a featured back. Brooks-James is also operating as a leader. 

"I think that when you combine all of these factors and TBJ's want-to, and the realization that this is his senior year, he has created a better running back room," Cristobal said. 

Still, competition is thick, according to Cristobal. Redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell has opened eyes with his all-around abilities. Sophomore Darrian Felix played last season. Senior Taj Griffin is back at running back after spending some time at receiver last season. In the end, it doesn't really matter how Oregon gets back over the 3,000 yard rushing mark. It could be five players each rushing for 700 yards. That said, having that veteran guy lead the way would create stability at the position and give the running game a true identity.  That guy should be Brooks-James. 

2. Deommodore Lenoir must be as good as Thomas Graham Jr. was last season: Oregon is searching for two starting defensive backs after the departure of safety Tyree Robinson and cornerback Arrion Springs. Oregon has several options at safety opposite senior Ugochukwu Amadi. Sophomore Nick Pickett made starts last season, as did redshirt senior Mattrell McGraw. Redshirt sophomore Brady Breeze could become a star. Cornerback is a bit thinner making Lenoir's development imperative. 

A highly-touted recruit last year, Lenoir earned playing time as a true freshman but now as a sophomore must at least perform as well as Graham did last year as a true freshman. Graham took his lumps at times but for the most part took to big time college football relatively easy thanks to his physical gifts and mental approach to the game. 

Lenoir, as a sophomore, must do the same. However, UO does have other potential options. Freshman Verone McKinley III is a four-star recruit who enrolled early and reportedly had a strong spring. Junior college transfer Haki Woods Jr. could also challenge. 

3. Wide receiver Johnny Johnson III must become more consistent: The sophomore made some spectacular plays last season as a true freshman and certainly looked like a future star. He started 10 games and played in all 13. However, he caught just 21 passes for 299 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers must go up by at least 150 percent. 

No. 1 receiver Dillon Mitchell, proven tight end Jacob Breeland and graduate transfer Tabari Hines (nursing a few weeks with a knee injury) will give the team three strong targets. But that's not enough.

[RELATED: Ducks transfer WR Tabari Hines missed start of all camp with knee injury]

The Ducks will need Johnson to ball out to the tune of at least 600 yards and five touchdowns. If Herbert has four viable receiving threats and a strong running game to work with, the Ducks would be able to put up massive offensive numbers on just about anyone, including Washington and Stanford. 

But if the targets are limited and remain green, Oregon would be much easier to defend, limiting its chances of winning the Pac-12. 

4. Linebacker La'Mar Winston must pick up where he left off in 2017: Watch out for Mr. Winston. 

He played in all 13 games last season while making seven starts. Five of those starts came over the final six games when he delivered 31 tackles with five for loss. He finished the season with 49 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. 

Give Winston a full season as a starter and he could flirt with 80 tackles with 12 for loss. He is that talented. 

The Ducks know they have two stars at linebacker in junior Troy Dye and senior Justin Hollis. Should Winston become a regular impact player, the Ducks would have one of its more talented group of linebackers in history. Yes. In. History. 

The fourth linebacker remains a question mark, but three beasts out of four would get the job done at a championship-caliber level.

5. Kicker Adam Stack must be lights out: The kicker position might not make for a sexy topic, but when the game is on the line and a team trots out its kicker and asks him to win the game that guy had better be as mentally tough and as skilled as any other player on the roster.

Stack struggled as a punter last season (his 38.4 yard average ranked 10th in the Pac-12), but now he slides over to kicker to replace Aidan Schneider. 

If Oregon is going to sneak up on the top teams in the conference the Ducks will likely have to win some close games. That will likely require Stack to make some big field goals in pressure situations. 

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Young DBs must develop

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Young DBs must develop

Oregon's promising 2017 season ended with a wild two weeks that saw Willie Taggart depart for Florida State, coach Mario Cristobal take over the program, recruits decommit left and right and then the Ducks fall flat during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, the 2018 season could see Oregon return to Pac-12 prominence. That is, if a lot of variables play out in the Ducks' favor. We will take a position-by-position look at the team to discuss what must happen in order for Oregon to rise again in 2018. 

Other position entries: QuarterbackRunning backsReceivers/Tight endsOffensive lineDefensive backs; LinebackersDefensive line.   

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Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: A young secondary develops.

Key losses: Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson completed their careers. 

Projected 2017 starters: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., So., (5-10, 189); cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, So., (5-11, 190); safety Ugochukwu Amadi, Sr., (5-9, 197); safety Brady Breeze, RSo., (6-0, 194).

Key backups: Nick Pickett, So., (6-1, 198); Mattrell McGraw, RSr., (5-10, 193); Billy Gibson, So., (6-1, 179). 

What we know: Graham played well enough as a freshman to indicate that he has true star power. Amadi is versatile enough to start at wither cornerback or safety. Breeze, Pickett and Lenoir showed flashes but mostly performed like the young players that they were. 

What we don't know:  Breeze and Pickett both had strong moments last year but injuries and inconsistent play prevented them from having a huge impact. At least one will be needed to elevate his game to start alongside Amadi, or, should he return to cornerback, both Pickett and Breeze could end up starting. 

How that would work out is a mystery, as would be the results of starting Lenoir opposite Graham, which would give the Ducks two very young starting cornerbacks in a strong passing conference. 

The Ducks could very well be better off with Amadi back at cornerback and rolling the dice on Breeze and Pickett at safety. Both are extremely athletic and have star potential. 

McGraw shouldn't be forgotten. He began last season as the starter but ended up as a backup. At the very least, he provides veteran leadership to a defensive backfield in desperate need of experience. 

What must happen for Oregon to contend:  Graham, Lenoir, Pickett and Breeze could very well make up the starting secondary in 2019 and 2020. But they will be desperately needed to perform at a high level in 2018 if the Duck are going to contend now. 

Having an inexperienced secondary in the Pac-12 is a recipe for disaster, as we all saw in 2015 when Springs (sophomore) and Amadi (freshman) both started at cornerback. 

Some help and depth could be on the way. Freshman four-star recruits, Verone McKinley II and junior college transfer Haki Woods could push for playing time. But they shouldn't be counted on to help create a contending-caliber secondary in their first season in the Pac-12. 

That will require rapid development of the four aforementioned defensive backs that could be a year away from truly blossoming as a group.  

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 5)...: Troy Dye gets some help. 

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

EUGENE - Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was all smiles when he met with the media on Wednesday outside of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. He was also very anxious to get out to the practice field. About 90 seconds into the interview session, Leavitt moved one foot toward exiting while asking, "Anything else?"

Well, yeah. Can't get away that easily when we get you once a week and the defense is getting lit up as of late. The Ducks (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12) have given up 143 points (35.6 per game) in four Pac-12 games after allowing just 69 in three non-conference games. So, who could blame Leavitt for wanting to get the practice. Like the Ducks' offense - 17 points in the last two games - the defense has plenty of work to do.

But unlike the offense, which is operating without quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks' defense doesn't have an obvious excuse to lean on. The main 11 starters have remained mostly the same with a few depth chart changes and a couple of players missing games here and there. Only inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu has been lost for the season. 

What's happened to the defense is simple. It went from playing very average offenses to facing quarterbacks that can put points on the board. UO has allowed 12 touchdown passes in four Pac-12 games and now faces the challenge of contending with UCLA's Josh Rosen, who has thrown for 17 scoring passes this year. UCLA hosts Oregon at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Rose Bowl. 

It's bad enough giving up touchdown passes. But Oregon isn't even intercepting any to balance things out a bit. After intercepting six passes in non-conference play, the Ducks have picked off just one pass in conference. 

"We do it all of the time in practice, we've just got to translate it into the games," Robinson said.

Getting interceptions against scout team quarterbacks is not the same as facing Pac-12 starters. The quarterback foursome of Arizona State's Manny Wilkins, California's Ross Bowers, Washington State's Luke Falk and Stanford's Keller Christ have given the Ducks problems. Even Bowers, sacked seven times, managed to throw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The one interception for UO in conference came at Stanford on a dropped and tipped slant pass in the end zone that landed in the arms of freshman cornerback Deommodore Lenoir.

Maybe the most concerning problem is that those same quarterbacks have had poor games against other teams. Falk threw five interceptions in last week's 37-3 loss at Cal. Bowers threw four in a loss to USC. Wilkins threw two at Stanford. Chryst had two picked off at San Diego State. So, they've given up the ball. Just not to Oregon. 

Back to Rosen. He threw for three interceptions and zero touchdowns in a 47-30 loss last week at Arizona. He now has eight on the season, tied for the second most among conference starting quarterbacks.

He is a bit of a gunslinger that likes to take chances. So, if Oregon is going to pull off the upset, the Ducks must find a way to pluck a few of his passes out of the air. 

"We're always focused on turnovers whether that's stripping the ball out, punching it our, quarterback throwing it and get it," UO safeties coach Keith Heyward said. "We just haven't made plays."

Leavitt pointed out that the Ducks have had chances at intercepting a few more during conference play, but failed to catch the ball. 

"Those are missed opportunities," he said. 

With the offense struggling so badly, the defense can't afford to not force turnovers. The mediocre play of backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister, a true freshman, has resulted in too many short drives that result in no points. Oregon's defense was on the field for 37 minutes during its 49-7 loss at Stanford. That's too much pressure to put on a young and rebuilding defense. 

"Obvious we feel like we have to stop the opponent no matter whether the offense is playing like it was before or playing like we are now," Heyward said. "We just have to take care of our own side of the ball and get stops."

Part of the problem is some of the youth of the secondary. The Ducks are have started safety Nick Pickett and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. Lenoir has seen his playing time increase. They represent the future of the Ducks' secondary. Sometimes growing pains can be tough. 

"They're trying," Leavitt said. "They're doing the best they can. They are going to be great players. I'm really excited about them."

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Oregon at UCLA

When: 1 p.m., Saturday, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: UCLA minus 6 1/2.

Records: Ducks (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12), Bruins (3-3, 1-2).

Last week: UCLA lost 47-30 to Arizona (4-2, 2-1). Oregon lost 49-7 at No. 22 Stanford (5-2, 4-1).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-48, 4-3 at Oregon); UCLA's Jim Mora (44-27).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Oregon should run wild but unless the Ducks get some big plays from Burmeister they won't have much of a chance of keeping pace with Rosen and his fleet of receivers.

Redshirt sophomore tight end Caleb Wilson leads the Pac-12 with 7.6 receptions per game over five games. He has caught 38 passes for 489 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt senior wide receiver Darren Andrews is second at 7.3 receptions per game. He has made 44 receptions for 591 yards and seven touchdowns. Redshirt junior Jordan Lasley leads the conference in receiving yards per game (108.4) over five games while catching 54 passes for 543 yards and three touchdowns. 

Final pick: UCLA 44, Oregon 30.  Burmeister will improve enough to help the offense break 20 for the first time in three weeks but it won't be nearly enough.