Last week, both of Oregon’s 2019 starters at cornerback, Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir, announced they would opt out of next season. Both were high 4-stars, the highest two in Oregon’s 2017 class, and have played extensively since their true freshman year.
One of them will almost certainly be replaced by #2 CB Wright, another high 4-star who played extensively in his true freshman season in 2019. On my tally sheet he played on about a third of all Oregon defensive snaps (inclusive of garbage time), so much experience that one might almost consider him a third starter at the position.
Corners are the hardest for me to evaluate with broadcast angles, but this summer I’ve been able to review all-22 film of Oregon’s 2019 season, and I found that I was underselling Wright in my in-season articles last Fall. Wright looked better in his true freshman season than either Graham or Lenoir did in theirs two years prior, and has all the makings of a lockdown cornerback. Pro Football Focus raves about him as well – grading him an exceptional 82.7 with the third best passer rating allowed nationally when targeted, and considering him the second most valuable Pac-12 true freshman and the nation’s fifth best returning CB in combined grades and wins above average.
Here’s Wright in pass coverage (reminder - you can right-click or long press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed):
- :00 – Wright’s only pick of the year, though given his excellent PBU numbers turnover luck was probably working against him a bit. Typical for Wright he’s mirroring well and playing tight in man coverage, and check out how quickly his head comes up and he tracks the ball when the receiver loses his footing.
- :20 – This was the worst rep I could find Wright taking, and I had to scour the all-22 for it. He gets his hips flipped on the double move and when the (now NFL) receiver turns a sluggo into an out route he has to come around the long way to make the tackle.
- :35 – By contrast, here’s the prettiest rep Wright took. Gorgeous fluidity running with a future NFL receiver who tries and fails to put a double move on him.
- 1:01 – Smart play in match coverage here and he’s almost rewarded with a pick for it. The Beavs are running a smash concept, the outside WR on a quick hook and the inside WR on an intermediate out. Wright knows he can pass his man off to the nickel, #8 DB Holland, and fall back to the deep third to help the high safety, #23 DB McKinley, get this PBU.
Oregon’s corners in DC Avalos’ system are expected to have outside run responsibilities as well. I don’t have nearly as much film on Wright in this regard, since the majority of his reps were later on in games when many teams had started to abandon the run, so I don’t have any good film on poor reps to suss out where he needs to improve. Here’s a representative sample of what I do have:
- :00 – The Huskies had been killing the Ducks in the first half with this pitch play that uses the backers’ aggression against them. Avalos switched the defensive response to them at halftime to push these runs farther outside and ultimately spill them to the DBs, who absolutely must maintain their leverage. Wright does his job well here to not let the back get around him.
- :13 – Nice job here switching roles, from man coverage to fighting off a block to getting in on the tackle.
- :34 – Here’s a three-TE play with a big shift pre-snap (no surprise from Utah’s OC Ludwig). Oregon’s defense of it is really made by proper flow of the inside backers reading the RG’s pull to maintain their numbers advantage, forcing the back further outside. Wright reads it well and comes down hard to make the quick tackle.
Wright has pretty good tackling form as well – he wraps up and uses his limbs to pull the ballcarrier down, instead of the big hit or flying at the ankles styles that I often see out of DBs. I’d like to see him add some more muscle mass though, to bring guys down even faster:
- :00 – This isn’t an easy tackle to make when the receiver has inside leverage, two inches, and 15 lbs on you. But Wright gets a good wrap and takes the ballcarrier off his feet to throw him down.
- :16 – Wright gets a little too far outside on this tackle. We’re seeing the same technique here – wrap and throw down – but he’s not squared up and that lets the ballcarrier drag him an extra three yards.
- :24 – Great recognition here again; Wright passes his man off to the safety, reads the QB’s eyes, and comes down very quick on this screen pass. Good wrap and lift to get the TFL.
If both Graham and Lenoir do in fact leave for the pros as they indicated, figuring out the new starter opposite Wright isn’t easy. The most likely of the returning corners who got significant playing time in 2019 is fellow true freshman #12 CB James. He appeared in 13 games, but got far fewer actual reps from scrimmage than Wright did, and almost entirely in garbage time. Further limiting the film I have on him is the fact that on multiple occasions he got flagged for a major penalty (two DPIs and an unsportsmanlike) and was immediately taken back out of the game.
I think it’s clear that by the end of the 2019 season he wasn’t as far ahead as Wright was, though as a true freshman that’s hardly dispositive. I just can’t offer a good prediction about where he’ll be next season because I don’t have much to go on, just a few good or bad plays here and there:
- :00 – James is just a beat late to recognize that this is an outside run and he needs to let his receiver go to get back out to the runner. Still, he almost makes the tackle with good speed, if only the back hadn’t pulled off that leap.
- :15 – There’s a number of things going wrong here: the STUD isn’t in the throwing lane, the inside backers have totally bit on the run aspect of the RPO, and the safety is taking a poor angle to help with the tackle. James staying outside and forcing the receiver back in is playing within the structure of the defense. He loses his footing and the receiver races past him before he can recover.
- :32 – This time it’s good recognition of the run, and I love the force of this hit – the back is completely stopped in his tracks.
- :43 – Textbook PBU here; James reacts instantly to the route and gets his hand in to break up the pass with perfect timing to avoid the flag.
At the risk of reading too much into playing time, I would guess that James will be in a serious battle with incoming 5-star recruit from the 2020 class, Dontae Manning. The Ducks have certainly shown that they aren’t shy about playing true freshman at corner.