Over the next week, before spring practice starts on March 30th, we'll be taking a look at each section of the team, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, and looking at any battles that will be taking place. Today we look at the secondary.
Ah, and now we get to the fun part--the part of the team that could end up determining whether this team is good, or great. The secondary started last season with incredibly high expectations, and failed to live up to them.
There are many reasons for the performance. Injuries and lack of depth played a role, but, in my mind, the #1 contributing factor to last year's poor pass defense was the play from the free safety position. While TJ Ward was able to hit people, he had serious coverage issues. This was deeply apparent in the USC game. After that game, adjustments were made to limit the deep ball, which achieved the desired result, but this opened up crossing routes and a lot of short passing options for opposing quarterbacks.
The overall results of this strategy when you compare 2008 to 2007 are incredibly interesting. Opponent passer rating improved marginally from 114 to 123, due mainly to a decrease in interceptions, while opponent yards per pass attempt stayed at 6.6.
But where this strategy became apparent was in opponent 3rd down conversion, which jumped from 32.5% to 39.4%. Afraid of the explosion plays, Oregon backed off. Without a safety that could cover the field and give help to beat corners, Byrd and Thurmond had to play more conservatively than they had in the past, and that meant giving opposing wide receivers room to prevent the big play.
And while a lot of duck fans want to sit back and bash Aliotti for the defensive deficiencies, last season was simply a case of picking your poison. The secondary did not have the ability to take away all passing options, so they chose to shut down one aspect of the passing game. And that they did rather effectively.
This is all been a long way of saying, that this spring, we must see development of the safeties, or we'll see the same outcome as last season.
Walter Thurmond and TJ Ward are the only sure starters at this point. With an offseason to heal up, Thurmond should be in top form in the fall. And with Ward's ability to stop the run and get the big hit, Chung's absence won't be felt that greatly.
The other spots could be filled by a number of players. Most likely opposite Thurmond will be Talmadge Jackson, who will be a junior. Jackson was the top reserve cornerback last year, and got a lot of playing time. While no Byrd, he can definitely do an adequate job.
However, he will be pushed by a number of other players. Senior Willie Glasper may finally have a shot at winning a starting job. Also, after redshirting in his second year at Oregon, Anthony Gildon could be ready to make an impact. He's 6-1 and has a 35.5" vertical leap, so he has the physical ability to have an impact this year. Redshirt Freshman Kenjon Barner, who impressed on the scout team last year, may get a shot as well. Overall, there is a surprising amount of depth at the cornerback position (before even thinking about incoming high schooler Cliff Harris), and I'm fairly certain we'll get at least adequate play from the position.
However, where the whole secondary rests is what type of play Oregon gets from the safety position. If Oregon goes another year without a safety that can adequately handle pass coverage responsibilities, it will be a long year for the cornerbacks, who will have no room for error.
The top two players fighting for the spot will be junior Marvin Johnson and sophomore Javes Lewis. Johnson should be all recovered from knee surgery in time for practice, so this will be the battle to watch. Redshirt freshman John Boyett may also vie for the position.
While the dropoff should not be all that significant from last season, there is definitely a potential for improvement. But for that to happen, we must see progress from the safety position this spring. Pass coverage by the safeties will be key, and they must be able to help out the cornerbacks when the need arises.
This will be the position unit to watch this spring, and will go a long way in determining just how high this team can go next season.