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Quacking the Roster: Sorting out Safeties

Breaking down the college film on #10 DB Steve Stephens, #19 DB Jamal Hill, and #32 DB Jordan Happle

NCAA Football: Nevada at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

To wrap up this series’ breakdown of Oregon’s candidates in the secondary, here’s a reminder of the situation going into the 2020 season: there are three spots in the two-deep to fill due to opt-outs; the other seven defensive backs whom Oregon most recently fielded in the Rose Bowl will return to the program. Here’s a visualization with returners in green and opt-outs in yellow:

As contenders to replace those spots, I’ve previously reviewed #15 DB B. Williams last week, and in an earlier article in this series I reviewed #2 CB Wright and #12 CB James.

Longtime Duck rover #17 WR/CB Davis has switched back and forth between the offense and defense, I think fans are already familiar with what a trouper he is for his team. There will be three other scholarship members of the secondary on the 2020 roster - Oregon doesn’t hesitate to play freshmen at DB, so I believe each will be in the mix to win positions in the two-deep, but they’re all freshmen and I don’t have any college film on them to review. They’re listed below with links to their Hudl film and their 24/7 composite rating:

This article will review the college film we do have: that of Oregon’s 2019 backup safeties, #10 DB Stephens and #19 DB Hill, plus the recent grad transfer from Boise St, #32 DB Happle.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Oregon at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Stephens was a 4-star recruit (.9430) in 2018 and redshirted his first year. In 2019 he played in every game on special teams (the kickoff unit), and in five games as the second-string field safety behind #23 DB McKinley during garbage time. He also played several meaningful drives in the first half against Arizona, rotating with #25 DB Breeze at boundary safety due to #16 DB Pickett’s ejection in the second half of the previous game.

That’s pretty limited film. I’ve watched every snap he’s taken and selected clips that are representative of what he’s put on tape, but I don’t have enough to make a conclusive evaluation. From what I’ve seen I think his physical gifts are obvious — he’s quick, fluid, and hits hard even as a freshman — and certainly merited his high rating in the talent composite, and so far I haven’t seen any notable errors in diagnosing the play and knowing where to be:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to watch in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - The interception itself isn’t representative — it’s his only one to date and he’s just playing center field on an overthrown ball — but I chose it because it’s the clearest film we have of Stephens running in the open field. The athleticism here should be obvious, particularly the smooth motion in his lower body.
  2. :35 - Stephens is between the hashes, and he’s playing field safety just as you’d like it - good backpedal, quick reversal to come down on the play, squares up on the ballcarrier without overcommiting to either side, gets low to make the hit without diving. The only thing I’d like to see is more of a wrap up, but with four other Ducks around the ball he’s not going anywhere. (The pass completion is on the ILB, who’s drifting inside instead of getting in the throwing lane.)
  3. :51 - Here’s man coverage, Stephens is over the tight end split out between the hashes. With the offense in 6-man protection, the dumpoff over the middle is the QB’s final option when the pressure gets home, but he doesn’t dare throw it with Stephens stuck to the TE like glue so he has to scramble and take the sack.
  4. 1:07 - The offense is in a bunch to the boundary during the half when Stephens switched to boundary safety, on the numbers. He carries their best receiver deep but is still tracking the pass going to the running back on a wheel route (the ILB gets hung up, leaving him open). Stephens breaks off and hustles over, and hearing his footsteps clearly contributes to the drop - the RB’s eyes come off the ball to see the incoming hit.

Stephens’ stint at boundary safety gave us a promising stretch of tape of him in run support, since that position simply has more opportunities to run the alley and hit the back in Avalos’ defense than field. I liked what I saw in the reps we have:

  1. :00 - This play is a holdover from former coach Rodriguez’s playbook; it’s designed to isolate the safety one-on-one with the back. Stephens comes down hard and maintains outside leverage to force the back inside where he’s got help - if the back were allowed to cut outside there’d be no one left till the endzone.
  2. :12 - Similar concept but to the field this time. Hill is in at nickel and he’s obligated to deal with the TE, meaning the help is again to the inside so Stephens has to wrap up from the outside and force him back to it. (I think the reverse angle shows the back was down before the LTG but the zebras aren’t going to video review in garbage time.)
  3. :25 - Stephens is at boundary but everybody else is occupied in coverage when the QB scrambles to the field side, so he’s really got to book it. This QB is an extremely explosive runner so Stephens has to get his angle just right to intersect him; he does, so the QB cuts into the CB’s tackle. Too shallow or too wide and this is a touchdown.
  4. :43 - The boundary corner plays this inside at first (he shouldn’t, he should be getting outside and trusting the safety to come down inside); Stephens sees it and adjusts by getting to the sideline to stop the play.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Oregon at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hill was a high 3-star recruit (.8755) in the 2019 class who played right away as a true freshman, in the backup nickel safety position behind #8 DB Holland. While he played in every game on special teams (kickoffs and punt returns), his film from scrimmage comes on the same garbage-time reps in five games as Stephens’ does, but without any drives during meaningful play. So unfortunately, we have even less tape to review on Hill.

Coach Cristobal certainly believes that Hill was underrated as a recruit, recently calling him a gem of a prospect and praising an interception during Saturday’s scrimmage. This coaching staff’s track record with players like fellow 2019 3-star #97 DT Dorlus is that they only burn a true freshman’s redshirt if they think such a rating was a miss by the recruiting services.

Hill’s film shows a natural nickel who fits the unique role of that position in Avalos’ structure, particularly being able to play in the box, cover short routes from inside receivers, and break off from one to the other should the play change:

  1. :00 - Hill is playing on the line of scrimmage here, towards the top of the screen and taking on the left tackle. Impressively, he beats the LT (who outweighs him by 100 lbs) and gets into the backfield and would have helped with the TFL if #47 STUD Funa hadn’t already done it.
  2. :08 - Here he’s over the split out tight end on the hash marks. Hill backs into coverage but keeps track of the play, switching into run support against an outside zone rush. He properly maintains outside leverage until the back bounces inside (the end of the play is ugly because he gets tripped up from behind by the X-receiver, but this is irrelevant).
  3. :23 - Hill is over the slot receiver towards the top of the screen. He correctly identifies the play pre-snap and starts to move down, getting great leverage on the blocker. Good show of strength on this screen pass - Hill drives the blocker back seven yards and completely cuts off the back, then gives the receiver a final shove to free himself and help with the tackle.
  4. :31 - The offense is in trips to the field, with Hill lined up over the number 3 (inside-most receiver), just to the left of the ILB. Another screen pass, but this time Hill needs to play with inside leverage because that ILB rushes the passer - he doesn’t have help if the ballcarrier cuts inside of him. He does his job and forces the ball to where the defense has numbers - Stephens and the CB vs just one blocker.

Finding film of Hill in intermediate and deep pass coverage was much harder; I just don’t have enough of it to show anything conclusive. What I have demonstrates good field awareness and playing his assignment, but while he’s been reported to be the fastest DB on the roster, I don’t have any great clips in live ball to show his speed off. Here’s a representative sample of his game film:

  1. :00 - Hill is just about dead center of the screen at the snap, inside the hash marks to the field side. It’s zone coverage and the play goes to the boundary so this isn’t a thrilling clip, but this is just how you want the three DBs on that side of the field to play zone over two receivers crossing each other - Hill knows just how that outside receiver is going to bend his route and is always exactly in the throwing lane, like he has eyes in the back of his helmet.
  2. :09 - Over the number 2 receiver this time, with a pretty big cushion because their top concern is the go route to the endzone with no help over him. The DE drops into coverage and should be widening more into the short throwing lane so the pass is completed. Hill reverses to make a strong tackle, but I’d like to see him react and burst upfield quickly enough to prevent the 1st down.
  3. :23 - I like the pre-snap communication here in man coverage; when the receiver goes in motion, Hill and the CB switch assignments. The offense is running a mesh concept which is one way of beating man, because it creates a natural rub and it requires potentially breaking off to take the other receiver as they start to cross. So leaving a little separation to watch the play is appropriate, but I’d still like Hill to stay closer in pursuit.
  4. :34 - This was the most common route I saw Hill cover - a simple slant, which given his position he’s supposed to stay on top of in case it turns into a sluggo. Here he’s over the offense’s best receiver in the slot, on the hashes towards the top of the screen, and stays on him perfectly, even following in position during the scramble.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Boise State vs Oregon Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Happle was a low 3-star recruit (.7991) in the 2016 class. He was recruited to Boise St by then-DC Avalos, under whom he played his first three years on campus in the same defensive structure that Avalos now employs at Oregon.

As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Happle broke into the rotation as a backup field safety, getting more playing time as the year went on and culminating with the Broncos’ win against the Ducks in the Las Vegas bowl, in which he recorded his only career interception. An injury kept him out of the first six weeks of the 2018 season, but he won the starting field safety job in four games in the second half of that year. In 2019 he was again limited by injury to just five games at the end of the year, but started all of them.

All told, Happle has played meaningful time in 21 games over his career at Boise St, comparable to what #15 DB B. Williams has played in his career over the same 2017-2019 timeframe prior to transferring to Oregon. It’s been reported in the media that Happle played boundary safety as well, but in the game film available to me I only ever saw him at field. He recorded 61 tackles, 1 INT, and 3 PBUs. Those stats are lower than Williams’, but since unlike Williams he wasn’t really playing in the box that’s to be expected. Happle’s tackles per game are about the same as McKinley’s, Oregon’s starting field safety last year.

I think Happle is a good option to have at safety. He knows the system backwards and forwards, so well that he’s frequently on tape correcting other defenders’ alignment. The majority of his reps, over 80% on my tally sheet, are positive ones, and where I see issues it’s simply with the athleticism that you’d expect from his recruiting rating:

  1. :00 - Nice job tracking the play, great form in tackling that keeps the QB from leaping out of the sack.
  2. :16 - Going low is the right call here, since the other DB has to be high it effectively cuts the ballcarrier down.
  3. :31 - Happle is at his best on this type of play, which requires immediately diagnosing the screen from the alignment and the QB’s posture.
  4. :38 - This play gets both sides of the coin - Happle sees the backer is misaligned and gets him corrected before the snap so he’s in position to handle this play, but when it gets by him Happle just isn’t quick enough to catch the Power-5 receiver.

Happle struck me as quite competent each year in run support, which can’t always be said of freshmen. I think these clips are fairly self-explanatory, and show the typical range of Happle’s athleticism. I included all the pre-snap movement on the last clip (at :22) which shows the DBs properly reacting to each shift.

Pass coverage is where Happle’s relative strengths are most obvious. He’s a smart guy; he knows how the defense is structured and where he’s supposed to be. In the film I had on him over three years of play I never once saw him lost on an assignment. But in actually getting there and making the play, it’s a less than perfect record - the tape shows a lot of good coverage, but also some athletic limitations in speed and tackling power:

  1. :00 - The nickel is misaligned here, leading all the other DBs to try to correct him … Happle is the one pointing to the TE on the hashes the nickel should be over. Happle adjusts and covers the TE the whole way, earning the PBU and avoiding a DPI flag by turning to play the underthrown ball.
  2. :11 - Boise St is blitzing with no deep safety, and Happle has to use the sideline as his friend without any other help so the alignment is proper, but still he just can’t handle this receiver’s speed off the break.
  3. :18 - This is the right coverage, he comes down square, he wraps up … but he just can’t bring the big man down.
  4. :35 - Plays like these show off how Happle compensates - he’s figured this play out early and re-adjusts his feet just as the outside receiver breaks in and the QB turns (watch this one in ¼ speed to catch it); that gives him the head start he needs to get there and make the TFL.

If I had to make the call based solely on their game film through 2019, I would select McKinley, Pickett, and Williams as the starters - either Williams as the starting nickel replacing Holland, or move McKinley over to nickel and have Williams replace him at starting field safety. I’d keep Hill as the second nickel, move Stephens to the second boundary safety behind Pickett, and have Happle replace Stephens as the second field safety.

Of course, I don’t have any insider information on how they’ve developed over the offseason or their progress in Fall camp, and it may be that one or more of these guys has taken a big leap that we won’t see until game time. If the depth chart lists different first- and second-stringers than I’ve predicted, I’ll take it as a pleasant surprise - particularly if Hill and/or Stephens beats out Williams for a starting job, because getting ahead of a two-year starter with an extra season of experience is a very high bar to clear. Oregon’s staff, unlike some in this league, has not shown that they favor seniority over quality.

Previous entries in this series: