Going into last season, the Oregon secondary was widely regarded as the strongest unit on the team.
Self-proclaiming themselves as “D-Boyz,” the unit had an up-and-down season.
Last summer, they had to deal with tragedy when safety Todd Doxey drowned during a summer team outing. While playing with heavy hearts, the unit took turns wearing Doxey’s No. 29 jersey for all the home games and the Holiday Bowl.
On the field, the unit had a solid year. They played a lot of man-coverage, allowing the defense to stack the box to shut down opponent' rushing attacks.
Despite missing a couple of games due to injury, Walter Thurmond III tied teammate Jairus Byrd for the Pac-10 lead in interceptions. At safety, Patrick Chung made plays all over the field, and T.J. Ward led the team in tackles.
To be fair, the unit did allow more passing yards than expected. These statistics can be a little misleading, as blowout victories and a strong run defense forced opponents to throw the ball more against the Ducks.
After the season, Jairus Byrd decided to bypass his senior season for the NFL Draft. His selection early in the second round by the Buffalo Bills proved that his decision was justified.
Patrick Chung was also chosen in the second round by the Patriots, leaving the Ducks with the daunting task of replacing two quality starters.
The good news for the Ducks fin '09 is that they do return their top cover corner in Walter Thurmond III, as well as heavy-hitter T.J. Ward.
Thurmond, a six foot, 180-pound senior cornerback, has been a starter throughout his career at Oregon. He made an immediate impact and was named a freshman All-American in '06. Thurmond can be mentioned in the same breath as Rashad Bauman, Alex Molden, and Cliff Hicks when describing the best Ducks to ever play the position.
Thurmond punishes opponents on out routes, either by stealing the ball and taking it to the house, or by displaying the philosophy of “whap-whap.”
This term, introduced by Chung to describe Oregon’s defensive backs willingness to hit opponents, became the trademark of senior T.J. Ward’s game.
On '04 National Signing Day, the Ducks made a splash by signing all four blue-chip recruits from De LaSalle HS (Concord, CA)—Cameron Colvin, Jackie Bates, Willie Glasper, and the late Terrance Kelly. No one would have predicted that a fifth senior from that high school would have the biggest impact at Oregon.
T.J. Ward, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 205 pounds, decided to join his buddies and enroll at Oregon before the '05 season as a walk-on. By the end of his red-shirt freshman year, he had made his presence known and earned a scholarship.
A converted corner, Ward has the speed and ability to cover receivers, but his ability to hit opponents like Jack Tatum makes him a natural at free safety.
There are several candidates for the corner position opposite of Thurmond.
Leading the way is Talmadge Jackson III. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior played in all 13 games last season, including starts versus Boise State and Washington State, when Thurmond was injured. Jackson is also versatile enough that the coaches may move him over to compete for the starting rover position.
Another corner with starting experience is senior Willie Glasper, who comes in at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. Glasper was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and was expected to immediately contribute to the Ducks.
Though he may not be the future All-American that Duck fans envisioned on signing day, he has had a solid career—playing in all 39 games during his three years of competition at Oregon.
There are several other candidates for the starting position.
Kenjon Barner, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound red-shirt freshman, figures to challenge for both the corner and rover positions this fall. A natural athlete, Barner even filled in at halfback this spring, impressing the coaches and onlookers.
Also in the mix is sophomore Anthony Gildon (6-foot-1, 175 pounds), who red-shirted last season after playing as a true freshman in '07. Another blue chip recruit coming out of high school, Gildon stuck with his commitment to Oregon despite a strong push by Pete Carroll and USC for his services.
Oregon also signed three cornerback recruits this season: Brian Jackson (Hoover, AL), Avery Patterson (Pittsburg, CA), and Cliff Harris (Fresno, CA).
Harris (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) highlights the class. He played in the US Army All-American Game, during which Scout.com analyst Brandon Huffman labeled him as “the best cover corner in the country.” He could play immediately.
Javes Lewis enters the fall as the favorite to start at rover for the Ducks in '09. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound sophomore backed up Chung last season, and played well when he was on the field.
His top challenge could come from 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior Marvin Johnson. Johnson’s biggest impact will probably still come on special teams, where he made a name for himself on kickoff coverage.
There are several other defensive backs on the roster who could play their way onto the field—John Boyett, Scott Grady, Brian Butterfield, Will Wallace,and Chad Peppars are examples—but will most likely be factors on special team units in '09.
Oregon has had a history of solid play from defensive backs.
Playing strong man-to-man defense, allowing the Ducks to attack the box, has been the trademark of Nick Allioti’s teams during his tenure in Eugene.
This year figures to be no different.