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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. 

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Ducks midseason report card: Defense & special teams

Previous post: Offensive report card

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The most impressive aspect of Oregon's season thus far has been the dramatic turnaround of the defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Last year, Oregon ushered offenses into the end zone while ranking 126th in the nation in total defense (518.4 yards allowed per game) during a 4-8 season. So far this year, the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 PAC-12) rank 29th in total defense (338.3) and 10th in rushing defense (93.7). 

The Ducks lead the conference in sacks (24) and are tops in third-down conversion defense (24.5 percent) after ranking 11th last year (48.5). 

The Ducks are by no means dominant on defense but have shown flashes of heading in that direction. It's still a very young group with just four senior starters and is playing a lot of young players as starters and backups. 

Here are a position-by-position grades for both the defense and special teams:

DEFENSE

Defensive line - B-plus: The improvement of the Ducks' defensive line, which has benefited from the shift back to the 3-4 scheme, is the biggest key to the unit's turnaround. In addition to being stout against the run, the defensive line has been instrumental in the team's improved pass rush. The line has produced 10 1/2 of the team's 24 sacks while helping to create sack opportunities for linebackers. 

Redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks is tied for the team lead with 4 1/2 sacks, including three at Arizona State. His .75 sacks per game ranks tied for second in the PAC-12. Senior defensive end Henry Mondeaux has rebounded from a down year in 2016. He has four sacks to already matching last year's total. He had 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

Sacks aren't everything, of course. Jelks leads the team with eight tackles for loss and his 1.33 per game ranks second in the conference. 

The return to the 3-4 could have been a disaster if Oregon weren't receiving quality play from freshmen nose tackles Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu. Scott has added two sacks.

Neither is capable of dominating a game or playing every down. However, as a duo, they have been strong enough in the middle to help protect the inside linebackers, and both appear to have the skills to become very good in the future. 

Linebackers - B-minus: Sophomore inside linebacker Troy Dye and redshirt junior outside linebacker Justin Hollins have been nothing short of steller. Both use their size, speed and athleticism to be extremely disruptive on every down. Piti the quarterback that has both coming after him at the same time.

Dye ranks fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.7) and is tied with Hollins for fifth in tackles for loss per game (1.2). Each has seven. 

Hollins has forced three fumbles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Dye has three sacks. Their size and athleticism have made the 3-4 defense scary from all angles. 

However, play at inside linebacker next to Dye has been inconsistent. Kaulana Apelu, out for the season with a foot injury, played hard and fast but his lack of size at 200 pounds didn't play well at that position. Senior A.J. Hotchkins has been in and out of the lineup and the very inexperienced redshirt sophomore Blake Rugraff has been underwhelming when filling in, thus far. 

The outside linebacker spot opposite Hollins (the Duck position) has been manned by junior Fotu T Leiato II and sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr.  Winston lately has been solid with 17 tackles, three for loss. Senior backup linebacker Jonah Moi has been the team's best reserve linebacker with 14 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. 

Defensive backs - C-plus: Gone are the days of woefully blown coverages and mass confusion. The secondary has been solid in coverage and has proven to be good tacklers in space, most of the time.

Senior Arrion Springs, who struggled with catching interceptions, has still been great in pass coverage. His 10 passes defended are tied for second in the conference. 

Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who has a shot at being named a freshman All-American, and junior Ugowchukwu. Both are tied for 8th in the conference with six passes defended, including two interceptions. 

Helping make the secondary hum is redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who has taken a leadership role. That's helped with the maturation of freshman safety Nick Pickett, who surprisingly took over as a starter and has performed well. 

Still, there is room for improvement. Oregon has allowed 11 touchdown passes, tied for ninth most in the conference. The Ducks have allowed nine touchdown passes. Oregon's seven interceptions puts it well on pace to surpass the nine the team had all of last year. However, six of the seven came within the first two games with four against Nebraska. Oregon has not intercepted a pass in three PAC-12 games while allowing nine touchdown passes. For these reasons the secondary fall short of receiving a B grade. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Return game B-plus: Redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Utah. He is averaging 28 yards on 10 returns but that's not enough attempts to qualify to be ranked among the conference leaders. Otherwise, he would be ranked first. Oregon's 24.9 yards per return ranks second. 

Oregon's 7.6 yard average per punt return ranks seventh. This unit has been hindered by the ankle injury suffered by Charles Nelson. He is averaging 17.8 yards per return, which would rank third in the PAC-12 if he had enough returns to qualify. Nelson's replacement, Dillon Mitchell, is averaging a solid 11 yards per return. 

Place kicking - B: Senior kicker Aidan Schneider is once again being used very little. He has attempted just three field goals, making two. He has, however, made all 36 of his extra point attempts and that leads the conference. He ranks ninth in the conference in scoring at seven points per game. The one miss in three attempts prevents Schneider from receiving an "A" grade. But we all know that he is an "A"-level kicker. 

Punting - C-minus: Freshman punter Sam Stack, who has shown great promise, ranks 12th in the conference in punting average (38.3) but has placed nine of his 30 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Again, he's only a freshman. 

Coverage teams B-minus : Oregon's net punting average is 10th in the conference (34.7) thanks mainly to the poor average pe punt. The 1.3 return yards allowed per punt ranks 7th.  The kickoff coverage team has fared much better ranking second in net average at 41.8 yards. 

Amadi and Winston Jr. move into starting lineup

Amadi and Winston Jr. move into starting lineup

Oregon has made changes to its depth chart prior to this week's game at Wyoming. 

At cornerback, junior Ugochukwu Amadi has moved into the starting lineup opposite freshman Thomas Graham Jr. Last week's depth chart leading up to Oregon's 42-35 home win over Nebraska on Saturday listed Graham and Amadi as co-starters with an "Or" between their names. Graham started opposite senior Arrion Springs. 

Graham, named the player of the game, had seven tackles and two interceptions. Amadi clinched the game with an interception late in the fourth quarter. Now both are clear starters but expect Springs to still see plenty of action.

The once tied battle for the nose guard spot between freshmen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu now has the latter listed as the clear starter. Faoliu actually started both of the team's first two games but rotated with Scott. We shall see how this slight change in the depth chart impacts the rotation at the nose position. 

Speaking of "Or" situations, there are none listed on the current depth chart. However, some backup positions remained slashed ("/") between second-team and third team players.  

Junior inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu is now listed as the clear starter over senior A..J. Hotchkins. And, sophomore La'Mar Winston Jr. has shed the "Or" between himself and junior Fotu T. Leiato II to become the clear starter at the outside linebacker/Duck position. 

Entering last week, freshman safety Nick Pickett was listed as a backup behind redshirt junior Mattrell McGraw. However, Picket started the Nebraska game and is now listed as the lone starter with freshman Billy Gibson as his backup. McGraw is now listed as the backup to redshirt senior Tyree Robinson, who returned to action last week after missing the opener with an injury. 

Redshirt junior safety Khalil Oliver, who started the opening game, missed the Nebraska game due to injury. 

There were no changes to the offensive depth chart. 

 

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 1 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Ten Ducks that must rise in 2017: No. 1 - CB Thomas Graham Jr.

Oregon's quest to improve greatly over last season's 4-8 record will depend on the rapid development of several young and/or previously little-used players. Here is a look at ten most likely to rise to the occasion in 2017.

No. 1: Freshman cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

At the very least, Graham will likely be the team's third cornerback behind senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugo Amadi next season. But don't be surprised if Graham becomes a starter.

Graham lived up to his billing as the No. 12-rated cornerback in the nation (Rivals.com) with a strong spring after enrolling early, enough to likely move senior safety/cornerback Tyree Robinson back to full-time safety.

Graham is a dynamic athlete with corner skills beyond his age. Oregon coach Willie Taggart raved about Graham during spring drills, calling him a competitor and an elite playmaker.  Receivers and quarterbacks went at Graham all spring and he never backed down. His competitive nature and love for football, Taggart said, makes him a threat to be an instant impact player.

Springs and Amadi also had high praise for the four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., both stating in so many words that Graham is the real deal and ahead of where they were as freshmen. 

Oregon has started freshmen cornerbacks in the past with mixed results. Amadi was up and down in 2015. Long-time Ducks fans will remember the struggles of Aaron Gipson and Justin Phinisee back in the day. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrence Mitchell and Troy Hill all made starts in 2011 and took their lumps. 

Nevertheless, virtually all of the above - the jury remains out on Amadi - went on to have great careers at Oregon. 

The Ducks' defense, in complete rebuild mode after ranking 128th in the nation last year, improved greatly in the back end last season but received little help from a weak pass rush. That said, the defense lacked playmakers (just nine interceptions, zero from Amadi and Springs).

Graham could help change that reality while also taking a few lumps here and there.  

The working list

No. 1: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. 

No. 2: Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell.

No. 3: Nose tackle Jordon Scott

No. 4: Freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister

No. 5: Sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland

No. 6: Sophomore linebacker La'Mar Winston.

No. 7: Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Gary Baker. 

No. 8: Wide receivers Ofodile, Lovette and McNeal.

No. 9: Safeties Brady Breeze and Billy Gibson

No. 10: Several freshman must deliver

Taggart wants Oregon players ready to deliver - current events

Taggart wants Oregon players ready to deliver - current events

EUGENE - Oregon's players never know when coach Willie Taggart might pounce. 

It could happen anywhere. At practice. During a workout. At dinner. In the weight room. 

Chances are, it might never come at all. Taking that chance, however, wouldn't be wise. 

"I always want to make sure I have one ready," Oregon receiver Taylor Alie said. "You don't want to be the guy he calls on and then you're scrambling."

One what? A joke? A football play? A dope rhyme? 

No. Taggart at any moment could ask any player on the team to inform him of a current event from around the world. 

"You've got to be ready to be called on," senior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux said. "You never know."

Mixed in with the typical heavy emphasis on Xs and Os, weights, conditioning and academics, Taggart said he wants to motivate his players - often overly engrossed in their athletic careers, video games and dating - to have a greater grasp of the world around them.

"A lot of these guys are so wrapped up in football and school that they don't have a clue what's going on in the world," Taggart said. "This is a way to force them to be aware. Take a few minutes each day to learn something new that's going on."

The only punishment for not being prepared is Taggart's disappointment and some mild humiliation. Nobody wants any of that. So, players stay prepared. 

Senior cornerback Arrion Springs has yet to be called upon.

"Thanks God," he said.

But he says he is always ready, just in case. So is junior cornerback Ugo Amadi. 

"I always have one in my back pocket," he said, figuratively referring to remaining armed with a tidbit.

To stay prepared for a Taggart grilling, many players have developed news consumption habits. Amadi said he receives CNN news alerts on his laptop. 

"It will pop up and I'm like, 'oh, whelp, I've got something,'" Amadi said. 

Mondeaux said many players will check news apps just before entering the team dining room.

"Have to make sure you have something," he said. 

Sports-related news counts, as long as it's something of substance, not merely scores or transactions. But more kudos are received for actual world news. 

"We're paying attention to the news a lot more," Springs said. "There's not much to talk about except the dude in office." 

Sometimes players pool their resources, go over notes, share news discovered and have a plan in case they are called upon as a group.  

What's obvious is that more UO players have become more aware of the world they live in. 

"That's really important because you don't want to be ignorant to what's going on," Amadi said. 

And they don't want Taggart to embarrass them if they don't. 

"The fear of getting called has driven (players to research), which I think is a smart tactic," Alie said. 

If Taggart calls upon a player that happens to be unprepared, sometimes teammates will help them out by whispering to them an event to report.

"Teammate help each other out, which is fun to see," Alie said. "Guys have done well. There's a lot of interesting things I've learned that I didn't know was going on. So, it's cool."

And that, Taggart said, is the point. He wants his players to be better informed individuals. 

"It's our world," Alie said. "We've got to know what's going on."

Oregon cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi vital to an improved defense

Oregon cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi vital to an improved defense

EUGENE  - Oregon senior cornerback Arrion Springs intercepted a pass thrown by sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert during the team's scrimmage Saturday at Jesuit High School and began to run it back. 

Alas, he said fatigue prevented him from taking the pick all the way to the end zone, plus he couldn't resist making contact with a good friend in pursuit - wide receiver Charles Nelson. 

"I should have cut it back but I was too tired," Springs said following Monday's practice. "Then I saw Charles so I had to take advantage of the opportunity to stiff-arm him."

By all accounts, Springs is taking advantage of opportunities this spring to finally reach his potential. The same could be said about junior cornerback Ugo Amadi. They'd better because each is staring the future of the position in the face, and that future could be now. 

Oregon freshman corner back Thomas Graham has received great reviews during spring practices from players and coaches. He indeed sounds like he is going to be an impact player. Yet and still, he alone can't change the fortunes of UO's much-maligned secondary and defense. 

For that to happen, the Ducks need Springs and Amadi, who have shown flashes of elite ability, to finally live up to the hype under new coach Willie Taggart.

For both, it's about being more consistent in everything they do on the field. Springs has gotten himself in trouble at times by not staying in the proper coverage and/or losing proper technique.

"Be more consistent, trust my technique a bit more and just make more plays on the ball," Springs said. 

Amadi has experienced similar setbacks. Consequently, both have been in and out of the starting lineup during their careers. 

Helping both improve, and the entire secondary for that matter, is the employment of two defensive backs coaches. Charles Clark handles the cornerbacks while Keith Heyward is coaching the safeties. It's a departure from having just one, John Neal, who coached the defensive backs for 14 seasons with mostly great success. 

Having two secondary coaches, Taggart said, should improve overall techniques and communication in the secondary. The first benefit is greater emphasis on technique by position. 

"Coach Clark is really good at focusing on, like, press techniques, so we've gotten a lot better," Springs said. "I feel like, individually, I've gotten a lot better than last year."

Communication problems in the past often led to some defensive backs simply not knowing what they were supposed to do in relationship to the rest of the secondary leading to blown coverages. 

Springs said defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is taking care of that problem. 

"He's putting a spotlight on guys so they can't just sit and hide anymore," Springs said. 

Amadi said communication has improved greatly because awareness has increased. 

"First off, you've just got know what you're doing before you can communicate," Amadi said. "When you know something, be confident in what you say."

Defensive players, Amadi said, know that they had better know their assignment if they want to play. 

"Now we have people dialed in who want to learn the playbook and want to get on the field," Amadi said. "Coach Taggart's thing is that if you don't know what you're doing we can't put you out there."

That brings us back to Graham. Physically, the four-star recruit and No. 12-rated cornerback in the nation coming out of high school, has been impressive, according to Taggart. Nevertheless, Graham still has a lot to learn, just like Springs and Amadi did as young players.

Both veteran players see the great potential in their younger teammate. 

"He's good," Springs said. "We've got to keep him calm at times. He gets a little ahead of himself...He's a lot better than I was my freshman year." 

Said Amadi: "He kind of reminds me of myself, coming in hot. You've just got to keep it rolling, be confident in yourself and keep making plays."

If he does, and Amadi and Springs finally reach their potential, the Ducks' cornerback situation could be the least of UO's problems on defense next season. 

UO Spring Notes: Freshman CB Thomas Graham makes strong impression

UO Spring Notes: Freshman CB Thomas Graham makes strong impression

One player who has certainly made an impression on new Oregon coach Willie Taggart is freshman cornerback Thomas Graham, a four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. 

During winter workouts, Taggart said Graham tore it up and displayed a level of both talent and passion for the game that could translate into great success. However, Taggart added that he wanted to see Graham perform in a true practice setting before passing judgment. Taggart has had a few days now to watch Graham in action and he's come away even more impressed. 

"He's stood out the last two days," Taggart said on Saturday. "He's really stepped up and made some plays for us."

Oregon returns its top three cornerbacks from last season: senior Arrion Springs, redshirt senior Tyree Robinson and junior Ugo Amadi. But it appears that Graham, the No. 12-rated cornerback in the nation by Rivals.com, could crash that party. 

"He was working with the ones yesterday," Taggart said. "That was great. I'm sure you'll see more as spring goes on."

Taggart called Graham a "playmaker" and the Ducks could certainly use some of those everywhere on defense after extremely poor play in all areas in 2015 and 2016. 

Get lined up, kid: New systems bring new expectations that begin with the little things such as lining up correctly. However, one big aspect of how the former staff practiced remains. Taggart, like former coaches Mark Helfrich, Chip Kelly and Mike Bellotti, wants his team to practice fast on the field then correct mistakes later in the film room. 

"First, we've got to be able to lineup," Taggart said. "First and foremost. But, more importantly - learning how to practice. Learning the way that we want them to practice. Practice at full-speed and not worry about making mistakes. Understanding that we can correct those mistakes on film, but we want guys flying around playing with a lot of energy and passion."

So far, Taggart says he is seeing steady improvement.

"We're not where we need to be, but it's good to see that we're making improvement," Taggart said. "We always talk to our guys about getting one percent better each day, and after two days I feel like our football team is two-percent better."

Darrian McNeal has been impressive: Oregon is in desperate need of some wide receiver depth and so far it appears that freshman Darrian McNeal, a three-star recruit out of Florida that Taggart stole from Arizona, could provide that depth. 

"For a guy that just got here last week, and come in and do some of the things he's done in the first couple of practices has been really impressive," Taggart said. "He's very athletic."

McNeal is a 5-foot-10, 175-pound receiver in the mold of current senior receiver Charles Nelson and former UO running back/wide receiver De'Anthony Thomas. 

Taggart has said that McNeal doesn't have the pure speed that Nelson and Thomas have, but he is as elusive in space. 

Oregon returns just two productive wide receivers: seniors Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson. Sophomore Dillon Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Alex Ofodile have a chance to start. After that, UO will look to a group of six incoming freshmen receivers for depth. 

McNeal, who enrolled early, is getting a head start at being an impact freshman. 

Opening practices to the media/public: In 2011, Kelly decided to create a fortress of solitude around his program by closing practices to fans and the media. His successor, Mark Helfrich, did the same thing when he took over in 2013. 

New coach Willie Taggart has loosened things up a bit, allowing the media to see the first 30 minutes of all practices, and by inviting fans and the media to view two full practices this spring.

"We always ask our fans to pay their money and come out and watch during the season, I think it's fair to allow them to come out and see their football team a little bit [during practice]," Taggart said. "Especially with a new staff, they want to see what's going on."

 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DBs - Graham and Lenoir could push for instant playing time

How Oregon's recruits fit in: DBs - Graham and Lenoir could push for instant playing time

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsWide receivers/tight endsOffensive line, Defensive lineLinebackers

Today: Defensive backs.

New Ducks: Cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. (6-0, 175, Rancho Cucamonga H.S., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) and safeties Deommodore Lenoir (5-11, 183, Salesian H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.), Nick Pickett (6-1, 187, Salesian H.S., Los Angeles, Calif.) and Billy Gibson (6-1, 185, Miami Southridge H.S., Hialeah, Fla.). 

Projected starters: Cornerbacks Arrion Springs, Sr., (5-11, 205) and Ugo Amadi, (5-10, 195). Safeties Brenden Schooler, Soph., (6-2, 190) and Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205).

Key backups: Cornerbacks - Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205),  Malik Lovette, RSo., (5-11, 200) and Jihree Stewart, RSo., (6-0, 182). Safeties - Khalil Oliver, RJr., (6-0, 205), Juwaan Williams, RSr., (6-0, 200), Brady Breeze, RFr., (6-1, 205), Mattrell McGraw, RJr., (5-10, 195) and Fotu T. Leiato II, Jr., (6-1, 200). 

The situation: Oregon's landed two potentially elite defensive backs in Graham and Lenoir. Both should push a secondary that certainly didn't play impressive football in 2016. 

Graham, a four-star recruit rated by Rivals.com as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation, has a chance to push Springs and Amadi for a starting cornerback job. Lenoir, a four-star recruit rated as the top athlete in the nation, definitely could start at safety or be moved to cornerback.

Remember when Budda Baker got away from Oregon in 2014 and landed at Washington? Lenoir is his potential equivalent as an athletic safety. None of Oregon's returning safeties is a lock to start. Robinson, Schooler, Williams and Oliver could all be surpassed by Breeze, who redshirted last season. Add Lenoir to the mix and new safeties coach Keith Heyward will have a serious mess to sort through. 

Gibson and Pickett, both three-star recruits, don't figure to be candidates to push their way through a crowded field of safeties, but one never knows for sure until they start practicing. 

At cornerback, Springs and Amadi are the favorites to start with Robinson potentially remaining at cornerback. Experience will heavily favor the returners but none have lived up to their potential as of yet. That will open the door for Graham to make a move, especially as an early enrollee.   

The verdict: The secondary battles are going to be fun to watch. Unless Gibson or Pickett turns out to be a big surprise, both should redshirt behind a host of capable and more experienced safeties.  It would be a disappointment, however, if both Graham and Lenoir do not at least see time as backups in 2017. 

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DBs: Secondary will rise if Ducks' pass rush improves

Oregon 2017 Outlook - DBs: Secondary will rise if Ducks' pass rush improves

Oregon's worst season (4-8) since 1991 (3-8) led to a coaching change. Yet, the Ducks' cupboard is hardly bare for new coach Willie Taggart. We will take a position-by-position look at what the new coaching staff will have to work with while trying to turn things around in 2017.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsTight ends, Wide receivers, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers

Today: Defensive backs.

Key losses: Reggie Daniels was an impact player in 2014 before falling off later in his career.   

Projected starters: Cornerbacks Arrion Springs, Sr., (5-11, 205) and Ugo Amadi, (5-10, 195). Safeties Brenden Schooler, Soph., (6-2, 190) and Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205).

Key backups: Cornerbacks - Tyree Robinson, RSr., (6-4, 205), Malik Lovette, RSo., (5-11, 200) and Jihree Stewart, RSo., (6-0, 182). Safeties - Khalil Oliver, RJr., (6-0, 205), Juwaan Williams, RSr., (6-0, 200), Brady Breeze, RFr., (6-1, 205), Mattrell McGraw, RJr., (5-10, 195) and Fotu T. Leiato II, Jr., (6-1, 200). 

What we know: Oregon's secondary has gained loads of experience over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, a lot of that involved chasing wide receivers into the end zone. 

But let's be fair. While there's no doubt that the secondary was atrocious in 2015, this group did demonstrate improvement in 2016. However, they were often hung out to dry by a weak pass rush. 

The 2015 defense, led by Pac-12 defensive player of the year, defensive end DeForest Buckner, ranked second in the conference with 38 sacks. The 2016 defense, led by true freshman linebacker Troy Dye, ranked tied for seventh with 25 sacks. A feeble pass rush, coupled with a horrible run defense that made life easier for opposing passing games, adversely impacted Oregon's secondary. 

Nevertheless, the overall pass coverage in 2016 was better than it was in 2015 when a young secondary was routinely exposed. Springs, Amadi, Robinson, Williams and Oliver all should benefit from experienced gained and be ready to take the next step. Factor in the emergence of Schooler and the potential of Breeze, and others, and the secondary could actually be quite good in 2017. On the other hand, improved play by the defensive backs won't be noticed unless new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is able to increase the heat on opposing quarterbacks.

Shifting from having one position coach (John Neal) to two, with Charles Clark coaching the cornerbacks and Keith Heyward handling the safeties, could help accelerate the secondary's improvement.

What we don't know: How this secondary shakes out will be interesting.

If Robinson starts at cornerback that would mean that either Amadi or Springs failed to take that next step or that another safety emerged as a player the coaches couldn't keep off of the field.

There certainly will be plenty of options at safety that could force Robinson to cornerback. Williams and Oliver have started there in the past. Breeze has a ton of potential while Schooler will enter spring drills as a starter.

Depth won't be an issue and could be bolstered by four-star cornerback recruit Thomas Graham, who will be on campus in time for spring drills. But be leery. Most freshman defensive backs struggle no matter how highly touted they are coming out of high school. 

Final word: We would have seen dramatic improvement from the secondary last season had opposing quarterbacks not had all day in the pocket. With improved play expected from the front seven (how could it possibly be any worse than what we saw in 2016?) this secondary could finally blossom.

That said, this group needs an attitude adjustment in some areas. Stories have become legendary of some diva tendencies within this group. That must change.

Position grade: C. This unit could earn a B if it matures both physically and mentally. The talent and the depth are there.