Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Secondary – Oregon Ducks

By Sam Saig, August 25, 2009 11:05 am

This is an important season for Nick Aliotti (defensive coordinator) and his Oregon defense. There are high expectations in Eugene, and in all likelihood, the Ducks offense will do its part.

But for Oregon to play in Pasadena twice this season (once being at UCLA), the secondary will have to step up in a big way.

Aliotti’s defenses are known for achieving great success through aggressive man-to-man defense, and for the most part, they played that way in 2008 even though the numbers seem to tell a different story.

The defensive backfield finished 111th nationally in pass defense, and last in the Pac-10. There were a number of reasons for this, ranging from the UO offense’s time of possession (last in nation at 25:11), to the run defense being so strong (23rd nationally, 2nd in Pac-10).

Still, in two of the Ducks three losses (against USC and Boise State), the secondary allowed an average of 414.5 yards passing, and repeat performances against the Broncos and Trojans will be unacceptable.

Walter Thurmond III runs it in for the score

The unit must replace two NFL talents, in cornerback Jairus Byrd (2nd round pick of Bills) and rover Patrick Chung (2nd round pick of Patriots). While it won’t be easy, the shelf is still pretty well stocked.

Secondary coach John Neal has a ton of skill to work with even after the losses of Byrd and Chung, including an all-conference cornerback ready to end his Ducks career with a special senior season.

Cornerbacks

Senior Walter Thurmond III enters the 2009 season as one of the most decorated cornerbacks in the Pac-10. He was named to the Jim Thorpe (Top DB in Nation) watch list, and voted pre-season First Team All-American by a variety of publications.

Thurmond has become a mainstay in the Ducks secondary, starting 37 of the last 38 games, and garnering some form of post-season honors in each of the last three seasons.

Last year, he finished tied for first in the Pac-10 with five interceptions despite missing time with injuries, and totaled 66 tackles and 13 pass breakups as well. In addition to his role in the secondary, Thurmond returned a team-high 21 kickoffs for 527 yards (25.1 avg. including a 91 yard return against Oklahoma State). In 2007, he finished second on the team with 103 tackles and five interceptions, while also breaking up a conference-high 23 passes.

At 6-0 180 pounds, Thurmond possesses an elite combination of size and speed (4.3). He is a true game-changer at cornerback who loves to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way (see 40 yard INT TD in Civil War). Thurmond can be left on an island against almost any receiver in the conference, making him the perfect Aliotti style defender. He has also demonstrated excellent run-stopping ability, which is a rarity at his position.

Thurmond enjoyed a particularly good spring even by his standards, and he’s looked sharp in fall practice as well. The West Covina (CA) native will be counted on to provide the Ducks D with a true shutdown cornerback in 2009.

The likely starter at CB alongside Thurmond will be senior Willie Glasper.

The experienced Glasper has played in 39 games (most of any player on defense) during his career as a backup CB and primary special teams contributor. Last season, he finished with 21 tackles, but he figures to increase that total quite a bit in 2009.

At 5-11 188 pounds, Glasper is a true cover-corner, with great speed (4.4) and polished technique. He breaks well on the ball and has good overall awareness. Glasper is not the dynamite athlete that Thurmond is, so teams may therefore attack his side of the field if he starts this season. Nonetheless, he is a gifted and experienced number-two caliber cornerback who appears up for the challenge.

The Pittsburg (CA) native was given 4-star recognition by both Rivals and Scout.com, while also garnering Parade All-American honors after a stellar prep career at De La Salle High School (CA). Glasper had a pelvic injury recently this fall, but he has looked 100% over the last few days of camp. His presence will be very important in the secondary, and he has a great chance to start in 2009.

Redshirt freshman Scott Grady and sophomore Anthony Gildon are also options at corner.

The 5-11 180 pound Grady spent last season with the scout team, and has impressed John Neal with his off-season progress. Grady has looked stronger, faster and more confident than the coaches anticipated, and he appears ready to contribute this season.

He plays with great anticipation and has the size to jam receivers (plays bigger than 5-11 180). He also has great ball skills and can help out on run support. The Tigard (OR) native will be a key reserve at corner this season.

The 6-1 175 pound Gildon appeared in nine games as a true freshman in 2007 (one tackle), and redshirted last season. He is a superior athlete with tremendous leaping ability (36.5 inch vertical), great speed (4.45), and impressive fluidity. His size should allow him to flourish in Aliotti’s physical defensive scheme, as he is perfect for press man-to-man defense. Rivals.com gave Gildon 4-star recognition while he was at Oaks Christian High School (CA).

The Simi Valley (CA) native should see considerable action in 2009.

Safeties

Besides Thurmond, senior T.J. Ward is the biggest superstar in this defensive backfield. The punishing free safety has made a habit of producing highlight-reel hits.

Last season, he led all Oregon tacklers with 101 stops (tied for fifth in conference) and also added eight pass breakups (2nd on team) and 5.5 tackles for loss on his way to honorable mention All-Pac 10. The former walk-on enters this season on a variety of pre-season all-conference teams.

At 5-11 201 pounds, Ward is an exceptionally powerful athlete, and he demonstrated his strength this off-season as a member of the Oregon Iron Club with a combined 1,083 pounds in the clean, squat, and bench press. He plays the free safety position like a true intimidator, using a combination of good speed (sub-4.5), excellent instincts and aggressive pursuit angles to blow up offensive plays at will.

The Antioch (CA) native will be one of the key performers on the defense this season.

Patrick Chung’s replacement at rover will be junior Talmadge Jackson III. Jackson has played in 26 straight games since arriving in Eugene as a true freshman in 2007. Last season, he totaled 30 tackles, six pass breakups, and two interceptions (3rd on team), while also starting at CB when Thurmond was injured against Boise State and Washington State. Additionally, he returned five kickoffs for 59 yards on special teams.

At 5-10 182 pounds, Jackson is a versatile athlete with great speed (sub-4.5) and excellent quickness. He’s a great fit for the rover position because of his ability to cover, play in the box, and contribute in nickel situations. His size may not suggest that he can play safety, but Aliotti believes he plays in space better than any other candidate at rover. Jackson has also practiced at corner, and could play there again if injuries mount in the secondary.

Regardless of where he plays, Jackson will be a primary contributor for the Ducks in 2009. The Murrieta (CA) native was limited to non-contact drills during spring because of injury, but he has responded nicely during the fall.

Junior Marvin Johnson will be Jackson’s main backup at rover. Last season, Johnson was a key reserve and special teams contributor, making 14 tackles and one fumble recovery in 11 games, but also missing a lot of time with an injury.

At 5-11 199 pounds, Johnson has a very good combination of size and speed, but also a history of knee problems. When healthy, he is one of the hardest hitters in the secondary and one of the best overall athletes on the team (reportedly throws the football 75 yards).

The Compton (CA) native must prove that he can stay healthy, as his presence is very important for the depth at safety.

Sophomore Javes Lewis should be a key backup for Ward at free safety. Lewis played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, accounting for 19 tackles and three pass breakups as a reserve DB. At 6-1 185 pounds, he is an explosive athlete who loves to hit, and could become a mainstay at safety once Ward graduates, but he is prone to giving up some big plays. For now, the Tustin (CA) native will likely play a limited role in the secondary, but he has a bright future with the program.

Other players competing for time are: seniors Titus Jackson and Pono Kam, junior Brian Butterfield, sophomore Will Wallace, freshmen Kenjon Barner (may spend time at RB) Tyrone Radford, and Brian Jackson

* Freshman Cliff Harris is still awaiting clearance from NCAA so his status is unclear, and freshman Avery Patterson is out with foot surgery. Neither player was listed on the latest fall roster.

My Take

Half of this Oregon secondary (Thurmond and Ward) is as good as any in the conference, but it is the other half that will determine the Ducks fate at the third level. It’s hard for me to imagine this unit without Byrd (started 37 consecutive games) and especially Chung (51 consecutive games started in a row; most in school history for UO defensive player). But, the show must go on in Eugene, and there are some capable replacements.

Obviously the headliner will be Thurmond, who has next-level ability and could even work his way into the first round of the draft this coming April if he has another strong year. There are very few playmaking corners like Thurmond, and it is a pleasure to watch him play.

His partner looks like it will be Glasper, who arrived at UO with great expectations and may finally get the chance to reach them. As mentioned earlier, I expect teams to attack Glasper early, but I also believe he has the cover skills necessary to handle it.

At safety, Ward should add a few more Sportscenter hits to his resume, while also continuing to be ultra-productive at FS. Aliotti defenses are known for flying all over the field, and Ward personifies that philosophy.

I am most interested in the rover position, where Talmadge Jackson is looking to replace a legend (coaches jokingly called the position “The Chung” for four years). Head coach Chip Kelly believes Jackson is very similar to Byrd, possessing the versatility to play corner and both safety spots. I agree, and that’s why I’m excited to see how he does this season.

There are certainly question marks within this Oregon secondary, and the answers could come in Boise, Idaho week one.

Ultimately, I expect the unit to generate a ton of turnovers as it has in the past, while also giving up some passing yards in the process.

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