Less than two years ago, Charles Nelson was asked to leave the offense to help Oregon’s struggling secondary by playing safety.
During the early stages of fall camp, Brenden Schooler, a starting safety last season, was drafted by coach Willie Taggart to help the Ducks at wide receiver.
The move speaks to the growth of the secondary and the lack of depth and experience behind Nelson at receiver.
“Schooler is a versatile guy — he can catch, he can run, he can also play defense. He’s going to help on our offensive side,” senior cornerback Ty Griffin said. “I think we have enough depth at safety this year to where we could afford to lose him.”
Senior Tyree Robinson and redshirt junior Khalil Oliver have been the first-team safeties throughout fall camp, with senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugochukwu Amadi in the mix for the starting cornerback spots.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt relies on the secondary to relay the calls to the rest of the unit.
“The way we’re communicating and are on the same page, it’s a lot better,” Oliver said. “There’s more talking after the play, more talking on the sidelines getting everything communicated. There’s no breakdown of, you messed up or it’s your job. It’s let’s go get it done on the next play.
“There’s more accountability also in our group. As far as the ones and twos go, we’re getting it done.”
Oliver said players are calling each other out for mistakes in the film room. Each mental or physical sin requires penance of 25 push-ups.
“Anybody can call you in on 25 push-ups if you mess up,” Oliver said.
That includes the true freshmen who are pushing the veterans — Thomas Graham (cornerback), Deommodore Lenoir (cornerback), Billy Gibson (safety) and Nick Pickett (safety).
“We have a lot of guys that have came in, stepped up and showed that we can depend on them next year,” Robinson said. “Schooler is an athlete. We were limited at wide receiver, coach wanted to try him out one day, he had a great day at receiver, and we’re just going to keep working with him.”
Schooler finished third on the team with 74 tackles and led the Ducks with four interceptions last season. Nelson had 47 tackles and two interceptions after being moved to defense five games into the 2015 season before switching back to receiver last season.
Robinson (53 tackles, one interception) and Oliver (46 tackles, one interception), playing for their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, believe they can solidify the back end of the defense.
The Ducks ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed (41.4 ppg) and yards allowed (518.4 ypg) during a 4-8 finish in 2016.
“Especially for my senior class, we definitely don’t want to go out like we did last year,” Robinson said. “We’re trying to do whatever it takes to get back on top.
“We know what it takes to be on top because a lot of us were on that national championship (runner-up) team. We just have to do the little things to make our team great.”
Redshirt freshman Brady Breeze and senior Juwaan Williams, who both missed some practice time due to injury last week, add more depth at safety. Griffin, who started his career at quarterback, has been getting some first-team reps at cornerback.
“It’s been a little up and down, but I’ve just enjoyed the whole process,” Griffin said. “I’ve really been enjoying our new coaching staff and I think this last year is going to be good.”