Posted on April 17, 2021
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.
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 Holland, Thomas 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.
And though the Ducks boasted the return of Mykael Wright, Verone 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Steve Stephens IV, Bennett Williams, and Jordan Happle are the veteran candidates to earn snaps at safety this year, while freshmen Daymon David, Jeffrey 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.
—Previously in this Spring Storylines Series—
• Who gains the inside track at starting quarterback for Oregon?
• How concerning is Oregon’s lack of health at running back?
• What impact will Oregon’s highly-touted newcomers have at WR?
• Does a leader emerge at tight end for Oregon?
• How much growth will we see from Oregon’s offensive line in 2021?
• How well-equipped are Oregon’s young DL to take over?
• Is Oregon’s LB corp the deepest position group on the roster?
—Recent Chris Courtney Stories—
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon Spring Game
- Courtney: Is the Linebacking Corp Oregon’s Deepest Group?
- Courtney: Are the Young Duck DL Ready to Take Over?
- Courtney: How Much Will Oregon’s OL Grow in 2021?
- Courtney: Does a leader emerge at tight end for Oregon?
- Courtney: How Much Impact Will New Duck Receivers have?
- Courtney: How concerning is Oregon’s health at RB?
- Courtney: Who gains inside track at starting QB for Ducks?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Stephon Johnson?
- Courtney: What are Ducks getting in Trejon Williams?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Tanner Bailey?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Percy Lewis?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Landon Hullaby?
- Courtney: Tyler Shough transfer adds QB intrigue for Ducks
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Avante Dickerson?
- Courtney: What are the Ducks getting in Byron Cardwell?
- Courtney: Ducks follow Familiar Theme with DeRuyter Hire
- Courtney: Postmortem Takeaways from Oregon’s Loss to Iowa State
- Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Fiesta Bowl vs. Iowa State
- Courtney: The Case for (and against) Tyler Shough as Oregon’s Starting QB
- Courtney: Post Mortem Takeaways from Oregon’s Championship Win over USC
- Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Pac-12 Championship vs. USC
- Courtney: Oregon Football Early Signing Day Postmortem
- Courtney: Major Storylines Converge for a Wild week at Oregon
- Courtney: What Christian Burkhalter’s Flip to UCLA Means for Oregon
- Courtney: Postmortem Takeaways from Oregon’s Loss to Cal
- Courtney: How does Jadarrius Perkins’ Decommitment Impact 2021 Duck Class?
- Courtney: Burning Week 5 Questions for Oregon at Cal
- Courtney: How Kyron Ware-Hudson’s Decommitment Impacts Oregon’s 2021 Class
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon’s Loss to OSU
- Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Week 4 at Oregon State
- Courtney: Improvement for Ducks on Defense Hinges on Health of Noah Sewell
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon’s Win over UCLA
- Courtney: Burning Week 3 Questions for Oregon vs. UCLA
- Courtney: Analyzing Unexpected Preseason Role Reversal of UO Offense, Defense
- Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon’s Win over Washington State
- Courtney: Burning Questions for Oregon Entering Week 2 at Washington State
- Tyler Shough’s rate of development critical to Oregon’s success in 2020
- Courtney: Postgame Post Mortem—Takeaways from Oregon’s Win over Stanford
- Courtney: Burning Questions for Oregon Entering Week 1 vs. Stanford
Courtney: Postgame Takeaways from Oregon Spring GameA trio of freshmen quarterbacks are vying to push Anthony Brown for potential starting reps - May 1, 2021
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 - April 17, 2021
Courtney: Is the Linebacking Corp Oregon’s Deepest Group?The seventh in a series of the prevailing storylines at each position group for the Ducks - April 15, 2021