Courtney: Are People Sleeping on the UO Secondary in 2021?

The eighth in a series of the prevailing storylines at each position group for the Ducks

Posted on April 17, 2021

Chris Courtney
  By Chris Courtney of WFOD for SportsPac12

With spring practices underway at Oregon, I’m taking the time to examine the prevailing storylines at each position group, while exploring how these questions could impact the Ducks entering the fall.

Today, our Spring Storylines series continues with a look at the secondary.

Oregon cornerback Mykael Wright |Oregon Athletics

If the 2019 season provided a model example of what a strong and impactful defense looks like at Oregon, then the 2020 campaign offered an example of a group that appeared hollowed out and listless for much of a COVID-shortened year.

Certainly some blame can be attributed to the pandemic for the way the Ducks regressed defensively last season, but perhaps more impactful was the fact that Oregon lost three key members from a defensive backfield that in 2019 ranked second in the Pac-12 in passing defense (220.1 yards/game) and second nationally in interceptions (20).

Indeed, the decisions from Jevon HollandThomas Graham, and Brady Breeze to opt out of the 2020 season proved to be a far more significant blow to the Oregon secondary and the Oregon defense, at large, than most expected.

Wright

And though the Ducks boasted the return of Mykael WrightVerone McKinley, and Deommodore Lenoir (who had initially opted out), it was clear that the group sorely missed the leadership and playmaking ability of three players who likely would have made the Duck defensive backfield one the best in the entire country had they remained with the program.

Instead, Oregon slipped to seventh in the Pac-12 in passing defense a season ago (236.3 yards/game) and ranked tied for fourth in the conference in interceptions (5). In fact, the five interceptions the Ducks recorded in 2020 came in just two of seven games, underscoring just how feast-or-famine Oregon was when it came to generating turnovers last year.

However, as disappointing as the 2020 group was at times, there is good reason for optimism as attention shifts to the upcoming 2021 season. Though Lenoir is off to join Holland, Graham, and Breeze in the NFL, the Ducks welcome back Wright and McKinley, two players who are expected to serve as linchpins for this unit entering their second seasons as full-time starters.

Oregon defensive back Verone McKinley | Oregon Football/Twitter

Of the two, McKinley may be the most important figure in the Ducks’ defensive backfield. After tying for the team lead in interceptions (4) and notching 46 tackles as a part-time starter in 2019, McKinley notched one interception and tallied nearly the same number of tackles (41) in 2020 despite playing in half as many games.

Perhaps more impressive, however, is McKinley’s leadership qualities and football intelligence, as the Dallas-area native has flourished in the role he’s assumed as the central nervous system in the Oregon secondary after taking over for Holland.

Wright, meanwhile, looks to rebound from a 2020 season that had its share of ups and down for the now third-year sophomore. Tabbed as a Freshman All-American following a standout debut season in 2019, Wright was slow to regain his form over the first half of last season.

James

Yet, he closed the year strong, demonstrating his well-rounded skill-set by finishing first in the Pac-12 with nine pass breakups, while also ranking as the highest-graded cornerback against the run (84.2) according to Pro Football Focus.

Expected to start opposite Wright when the Ducks kick off the 2021 season on September 4 is fellow third-year sophomore DJ James.

Having appeared in 20 games over the course of his young Oregon career, James has taken his fair share of lumps over the past two seasons, but began to emerge as a foundational member of the Ducks’ rotation at corner alongside Lenoir and Wright towards the end of last year.

This spring, James has reportedly taken his game to another level, solidifying himself with the first-team defense and positioning himself for a breakout season later this fall.

Joining him as a breakout candidate in 2021 is another third-year sophomore in Jamal Hill. After earning a reputation in practice as a consistent playmaker as a true freshman, Hill parlayed those promising first impressions into a strong first season as a starter, which was capped off by career-highs in tackles (5) and interceptions (2) vs. USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Featured at nickel for much of last season, it’ll be interesting to see how Hill’s role might shift in first-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s defense, as the Rex (Ga.) native has the versatility and physicality to have somewhat of a freelancing role in this defense.

Oregon defensive back Jamal Hill | Oregon Athletics

Offering tantalizing depth at corner is a trio of freshmen in Dontae ManningJaylin Davies, and Trikweze Bridges.

A former five-star recruit, Manning arrived in Eugene last year with the expectation of having a Wright-like impact on the cornerback position. Instead, Manning was hobbled by injury for much of the fall, effectively derailing his true- freshman season. Blessed with tremendous speed and athleticism, look for Manning to make a splash in 2021.

Davies

He is joined by Davies and Bridges, who are expected to vie for the other backup cornerback position opposite Manning. A four-star recruit from SoCal high school powerhouse Mater Dei, Davies is on campus this spring and has shown the potential to be a contributor this upcoming season.

Bridges has flashed in a similar fashion, though is bigger (6-foot-3 to Davies’ 6-1) and more experienced as he enters his third year with the program.

This group will be joined by true freshmen Darren Barkins and Avante Dickerson later this summer.

Several individuals are competing for reps at safety this spring with hope of garnering reps with the first-team, or as regular members of the rotation later this fall.

Stevens

Steve Stephens IVBennett Williams, and Jordan Happle are the veteran candidates to earn snaps at safety this year, while freshmen Daymon DavidJeffrey Bassa, and JJ Greenfield are joined by converted wide receiver Bryan Addison to push the upperclassmen.

David, Bassa, and Greenfield are especially intriguing as the season approaches, as all three have shown the capacity to potentially leapfrog the vets ahead of them despite their limited time on campus.

This story also appears at wholeflockofducks.com and is syndicated with permission. Follow WFOD on Twitter @_WFOD and Chris Courtney @csquared02.



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