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Jim Leavitt’s Starting 11: Thomas Graham Jr., Cornerback

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The first freshman finds his way into starting lineup

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon true freshman Thomas Graham Jr. will start at cornerback for Jim Leavitt’s defense this season. Since arriving in the spring, the No. 6 cornerback prospect has been a mainstay with the No. 1 defense. If everything remains the same, he will be starting a month from now.

We are just 31 days away from Oregon’s first game against Southern Utah on Saturday, September 2 at Autzen Stadium.

Here are my projections for the defensive and offensive starters of Willie Taggart’s 2017-18 team. Let’s get caught up with what you missed:

JIM LEAVITT’S 11

SAFETY - Brenden Schooler (Monday)

CORNERBACK - Arrion Springs (Tuesday)

LINEBACKER - Troy Dye (Wednesday)

DEFENSIVE TACKLE - Scott Pagano (Thursday)

DEFENSIVE END - Henry Mondeaux (Friday)

DEFENSIVE END - Jalen Jelks (Saturday)

LINEBACKER - Jimmie Swain (Sunday)

LINEBACKER - A.J. Hotchkins (Monday)

CORNERBACK - Ugo Amadi (Tuesday)

STARTING CORNERBACK, THOMAS GRAHAM JR.

If you've been paying attention, then you noticed Graham as the third cornerback in the Duck starting 11. That was on purpose. Finding your best unit is about maximizing the talent on your team.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice
Not only does the true freshman have great instincts, but his hands are above average for a defensive player. Thomas Graham Jr. is looking to start with the first team defense when the season starts in 31 days.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoyed watching Colorado’s defense last season. In fact, their secondary was my favorite to watch in the country. The Buffs’ Pac-12 Championship Game defense was built around their defensive backfield, alongside a tough defensive line that created havoc up front.

Leavitt’s 2016-17 unit was highlighted by three current NFL cornerbacks: Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon. Leavitt basically tossed out his second safety, enabling his three cornerbacks the freedom to roam with his free safety.

With UO free safety talent Brenden Schooler, the possibilities are endless for Leavitt. He can place Schooler in the defensive backfield as his lone safety valve, literally. Not to mention, Leavitt transferred play calling duties from the linebacker position to the safety spot over the spring.

It would be great to see Leavitt incorporate his Colorado approach to the Ducks. Arrion Springs, Ugo Amadi, Graham, Deommodore Lenoir and Tyree Robinson possess special qualities that could lead to a nice pay day down the road. Leavitt will mix-and-match all five throughout the season until he finds the right fit. Regardless, they’re all playmakers.

For now, Graham can line up where a strong safety would usually settle pre-snap. This placement would allow Graham the opportunity to cover the slot, thus keeping Troy Dye inside to maintain the middle of the field and the run game. Plus, the freshman would be defending a No. 2-3 receiving threat instead of a No. 1 option.

Last season, Dye was forced into open space with skill players far too often, leading to major lapses for the Oregon defense. Graham can now help the strong side linebacker bracket a wide receiver or tight end in the slot, which should limit the big plays.

This will increase the strength of Oregon’s cover 2, cover 3 and especially their cover 4. Leavitt ran a majority of his defensive sets like this last season and it worked to great success.

The problem with Brady Hoke’s defense, among other things, was matching up against three-plus receiver sets. He usually didn't adjust the 4-3 defense, placing linebackers on skills players when the addition of a nickel back would have helped.

Technically, Graham would be the fourth defensive back in this set. Even a 3-3-5 defense would work at times for Oregon with their plethora of athletic DB’s.

“I’m really excited to see those guys compete with the older guys,” said Taggart of his freshmen. “I think they’re ready and they are athletic enough to do it. I’m excited to watch them.”

At the end of the day, it’s not the team you start with but the one that finishes the game. I believe in playing your best players, regardless of position. The great athletes always find a way to adjust so they can be on the field.

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice
Jim Leavitt turned around the Colorado football program in just two years. With the Ducks, the defensive coordinator will be looking to make a greater impact in a place with untapped potential.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Ducks have a few players that are good enough to start but will come off the bench instead. Clearly, that is a good problem to have and one that was lacking last season, especially on defense. Instead of forcing someone like Khalil Oliver into the strong safety spot, I’d rather take a chance on the player with a higher upside. We’ll see if Leavitt agrees.

THE FINAL VERDICT

Welcome to the Pac-12, freshman! Graham will conclude his first collegiate season with a solid performance. He will record 29 tackles, 10 pass deflections, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one sack. Everyone around Eugene has been impressed by this young man. That will only continue after he starts to produce on the football field.

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