For the better part of the last decade, Oregon has been a veritable clearinghouse for NFL-caliber defensive backs. The likes of Jarius Byrd, T.J. Ward, Walter Thurmond III, Patrick Chung, Eddie Pleasant, and more recently, John Boyett, are all former Ducks now cashing checks from teams in the NFL. Assistant Coach John Neal gets kudos for recruiting defensive backs extremely well, then coaching them up once they arrive in Eugene.
In fact, though Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson have used up their eligibility and Terrance Mitchell has decided to forgo his senior season and prepare for the NFL draft, Coach Neal has been cited as a big reason Duck fans can breathe a sign of relief that there isn’t even greater turnover to overcome in the secondary. Bottom line: Don’t be surprised if Oregon’s secondary continues to be a strength in a conference that still likes to air it out.
Here are some reasons why:
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu Locks $@#% Down.
The windfall from John Neal opting out of consideration for that head job at Alabama-Birmingham may very well start with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Would he have been less-inclined to remain at Oregon for one more year had Coach Neal bolted? Perhaps. At any rate, he’s ba-a-a-ck. And to intercept words made famous by Cliff Harris, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is here to lock $@#% down.
Duck fans, to say nothing of Duck coaches, had to be ecstatic when Ekpre-Olomu spurned the riches of a near-certain first-round NFL contract for another crack at a “Natty” (ghost of Cliff Harris again), and more importantly, the degree he promised his parents he would earn. We don’t know yet who’s going to start at the other corner for the Ducks, but if he likes jumping the route, he’s going to get a lot of chances this fall because throwing at No. 14 is not smart.
Speedy Dior Mathis.
On a team that prides itself on a “next man up” mentality, former U.S. Army All-American Dior Mathis was exemplary throughout 2013 as one of the first men up when it came time to spell an Oregon cornerback. The former 4-star recruit from Detroit has speed to burn, and even splits time in the spring between football and sprinting for Oregon’s seven-time Pac-12 champion track team.
Against Virginia, he took an interception from three yards deep in the Ducks’ endzone all the way to the Cavaliers’ three-yard line. It goes down in the record books as the longest non-scoring interception return in Oregon history at 97 yards, but given the serpentine route Dior took down field, he may have run closer to 150 yards before being forced out of bounds. Dior! You were so close!
This fall, he’ll attempt to take one back all the way against one of the many schools that offered him out of high school: Michigan State.
Erick Dargan from Hittsburg.
Former coach Nick Aliotti loved Erick Dargan’s grit and toughness. Dargan and his former d-backfield mate, Avery Patterson, were kids from Aliotti’s home stomping grounds: Pittsburg, California. We can only hope the pipeline from Pittsburg continues to flow because these kids bring the proverbial wood. Dargan is the kind of sure-tackling, wrap ’em up, open-field stopper every team needs to field an effective D.
His absence was noticeable in the Alamo Bowl, even if the Ducks’ defensive effort was stellar, nonetheless. At 5-11, 212 pounds, Dargan has the brawn to come to the line of scrimmage in run support. Yet he exhibits outstanding ball skills as well, as evidenced by his two picks in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl. 2014 will be Erick Dargan’s turn to shine and develop into the kind of hard-hitting safety Oregon has enjoyed in recent years.
Issac Dixon: Linebacker Trapped in a Safety’s Body.
This is what I like most about Issac Dixon: He played linebacker in high school. More to the point, he played linebacker in Florida. Of course, Florida high school football is among the most competitive in America. If Dixon is good enough to become a coveted linebacker prospect amid those Friday Night Lights, I’m sold.
And Oregon has the 5-11, 193-pound Dixon at safety. He’s got the speed and quicks to cover, and, like Dargan, possesses the size and toughness to lay a lick. Oregon is known for its swarming defense. Get used to seeing No. 5 in the middle of that mayhem in 2014.
The Skinny on Troy Hill.
Voted (by me) least likely to ever star on The Biggest Loser, Troy Hill is lean and mean. He’s one of Oregon’s taller defensive backs at nearly 6-0, yet he weighs just 168 pounds. That’s what you call lanky, and when you add in his 34-inch vertical hops, one begins to appreciate the potential pass breakups wrought by the Youngstown, Ohio, native.
Hill enters his fifth-year senior campaign with a chance to contribute to a special season. He’s seen a lot of winning in his Oregon career and his experience in the secondary and on special teams, is yet another reason to feel good about the Ducks’ depth.
Waiting in the Wings.
As noted earlier, the Ducks recruit this position group exceedingly well. And as such, there’s a plethora of talented, highly-touted players from the past couple of recruiting classes who have been waiting for their chance. These include, in no particular order, Reggie Daniels, Eric and Stephen Amoako, Tyree Robinson, Chris Seisay and Juwaan Williams. Who will rise from this group? Odds are good that more than a couple will.
The 2014 recruiting cycle delivered J.C. standout Dominque Harrison and prep Blue Chippers Arrion Springs (ESPN 300), Matttrell McGraw (ESPN 300), Glen Ihenacho and Kahlil Oliver. All of these players had offers from other top programs around the nation.
As with the defensive line, there are key players to replace from the 2013 secondary. But given the success Oregon has had stockpiling talent year in and year out, the sky is hardly falling.
Top photo by Kevin Cline