Ball Hawk: Jevon Holland cements himself in the secondary

In the third quarter of the week-five matchup between Oregon and Cal, the Golden Bears were charging toward the red zone, looking to decrease the 18-point deficit. Oregon’s defense was in need of a play when Cal quarterback Chase Garbers took a shot into the end zone. True freshman safety …

In the third quarter of the week-five matchup between Oregon and Cal, the Golden Bears were charging toward the red zone, looking to decrease the 18-point deficit. Oregon’s defense was in need of a play when Cal quarterback Chase Garbers took a shot into the end zone.

True freshman safety Jevon Holland read the deep pass, intercepting the potential touchdown in the end zone.

“One of us on the team was gonna make it and it just happened to be me,” Holland said. “The interceptions, they come and go, but when you’re in a position to make one, you have to make it. My team needed me, and I came through.”

One quarter later, with the game well out of reach, Holland intercepted Cal’s other quarterback, Brandon McIlwain, to shut down the Golden Bears for good.

Holland has established himself as an essential piece to the Oregon defense thanks to big interceptions and a “forever-improving” mindset.

“He plays with confidence,” safety Ugochukwu Amadi said. “He’s eager to always want to learn more and do extra.”

Holland has earned his “ball hawk” reputation, something that signals an elite safety. His first career pick came in week three against San José State. On the Spartans’ first drive of the game, Holland intercepted quarterback Josh Love to set up an eventual Oregon touchdown.

In the postgame press conference, Holland waited in silence as defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins were asked questions regarding the game.

Finally, on the last question, Holland was asked about his interception.

After describing every detail from the play with a straight face, as if this first pick was actually his 50th, the freshman finished with a nod and a smile. The veterans helped him out, adding in some much-needed color.

“Big-time play,” Hollins said.

“And he’s a freshman,” Jelks added with a smirk. “Just saying.”

Although seniors Amadi, Hollins and inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu are in the midst of career years, Holland has turned a lot of heads in his first campaign.

“Jevon’s stepped up big time,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “He’s done a tremendous job. … As people can see, he’s out there having fun.”

Holland was not originally a starter. Sophomore Nick Pickett began the season alongside Amadi, but Holland’s knack for finding the ball made it too tough for the coaches to leave him off the field. The coaches decided to switch Pickett and Holland on the depth chart.

“It really didn’t make any difference,” Holland said. “Nick said ‘next man up.’ He wants to see me shine. I want to see him shine. It was a lot of support from both sides.”

The freshman got his opportunity in his first career start against then-ranked No. 7 Washington.

“I was nervous,” Holland said. “I just wanted to make sure that I helped my team. … It felt good, but to get a first start, especially against Washington, it gave me pride and gave my family pride, too. It was exciting.”

Oregon has been spoiled with true freshman riches.

Two seasons ago, Dye led the defense in tackles (91), tackles for loss (13) and sacks (6.5) as a true freshman. That same season, Brenden Schooler led the team with four interceptions as a true freshman safety.

Last season, true freshmen Thomas Graham Jr. (team-leading four interceptions) and Deommodore Lenoir (one interception) started at both cornerback spots. Jordon Scott dominated the line of scrimmage at nose tackle.

In 2018, once again a freshman is contributing. Holland is tied for the team lead in interceptions with three and his 25 tackles are sixth on the team.

Making this big of an impact as a true freshman is rare. The gap in talent between the high school and college levels is major, and newcomers often struggle to realize they can no longer get away with sheer talent. They must do what Holland deems most important: thinking.

“The biggest thing from high school to college is just making sure you know what the situation is,” Holland said. “You have to really make sure that you think and go through the process of what you need to do while you’re in coverage.”

Coaches and teammates aren’t the only ones taking notice of Holland’s early success. Holland has earned a spot on 247Sports’ midseason true freshman All-American list and multiple Pro Football Focus Pac-12 team-of-the-week spots.

Despite the hot start to Holland’s career, there is still room for improvement in both tackling and in coverage.

“I need to make sure I come down more patiently, make sure I wrap up, make the tackle — the secure tackle,” Holland said. “That’s the biggest thing for me, just making sure my tackling is OK. I feel like my coverage can always get better. That’s forever improving.”

Players can only learn so much from coaches, which makes an experienced teammate’s advice even more valuable. That’s where Amadi comes in. In his first full season as a safety, Amadi is the leader and most experienced of the defensive backs.

The younger guys look to him for example, and Holland is no exception.

“[Holland]’s still learning on the defense, but he just keeps playing,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Keith Hayward said. “What I see is him getting with Ugo in there studying and watching film. He’s just following that lead. He’s taking a lot of coaching and just focusing on technique and fundamentals.”

Holland and Amadi have combined to form a formidable safety tandem. The two, alongside Lenoir, are tied with Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins for the Pac-12 lead in interceptions (three).

As a sophomore defensive back, Lenoir went through what Holland is currently experiencing and, like Amadi, is passing on what he learned.

“We’ve all been through it before,” Lenoir said. “We remember from when we were freshmen. We are able to help Jevon out. Tell him that big plays are gonna happen. You’ve got to have short term memory and push to the next play.”

The two might be tied with picks, but Amadi has something Holland doesn’t — touchdowns. Given his ability to find the ball, it should only be a matter of time until he finds the endzone.

“If I was just out there running around, some people would be satisfied with that, but I always want to commit more and do the most that I can,” Holland said. “As a defensive back, getting an interception, that’s the biggest thing you can do besides a pick-six, which frankly, I wish I could have got one.”

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