On Tuesday, Oregon football ramped up its Spring practice with the first day of full pads.
From last season's group of defensive backs, the Ducks lose Deommodore Lenoir and Daewood Davis at cornerback, and Nick Pickett from the safeties. Additionally, Brady Breeze, Thomas Graham Jr. and Jevon Holland, who all opted-out of last season, will move on to the NFL Draft.
Oregon's defensive coaching staff underwent massive changes during the offseason. In addition to a new defensive coordinator in Cal’s Tim DeRuyter, Marcel Yates takes over as the new safeties coach.
Yates, a former defensive coordinator at Boise State and Arizona, was the safeties coach under DeRuyter last season at California.
Here is a look at who will be vying for playing time in the secondary as position battles are underway.
At safety, Oregon returns five players who played in at least three games last season in Verone McKinley III, Bennett Williams, Jordan Happle, Jamal Hill and Steve Stephens IV.
McKinley III, the defense's third leading tackler in 2020 (41), is expected to again be a leader on defense after a breakthrough in that department last season.
"He's taken his level up another notch or two," head coach Mario Cristobal said. "The way he's been pushing himself and pushing others, it's contagious."
Yates recruited Mckinley III while at Arizona and the pre-established relationship is helping McKinley III to foster trust between Yates and the other safeties.
"The guys really gravitate towards him and understand what he's talking about, and we've been doing our best to implement it on the field," McKinley III said. "He's a great coach."
Hill, who shined in the Pac-12 championship by picking off USC's Kedon Slovis twice on the way to an Oregon victory, has emerged as the solidified number two.
"Jamal [Hill] is more comfortable now," McKinley III said. "He knows what he needs to do, so now it's about taking that next step for him to be dominant."
Alongside McKinley III and Hill will be veterans Williams and Happle, who each played in every game last season and combined to make 43 total tackles.
DeRuyter mentioned that converted wide receiver Bryan Addison, who has lined up at cornerback in the past, has switched to safety early on in spring practice.
"I think that's probably more of a natural fit for him," DeRuyter said. "I'm excited to watch him put the pads on."
Freshmen Daymon David and Jeffrey Bassa have received praise for their early performance this spring, with David earning ”Defensive Player of the Day" at Oregon's first practice. The pair fill out the bottom end of the depth chart at safety, for now.
Mykael Wright, Dontae Manning and DJ James all return at the position and will likely headline the group.
Wright will look to build off of last season when he was honored as a First Team All-Pac-12 Defense selection — leading the conference with nine pass breakups in his first season as a starter.
James, who played in all seven games last year, is likely to be a mainstay in the secondary along with Manning, a former five-star recruit who was limited last season due to injury.
"I've been excited by the young talent that we have," DeRuyter said. "With Dontae [Manning], watching him get out there and run, he's got a different gear than most… so getting him in the mix and not being dinged up, he's been fun to watch out there."
A duo of freshmen round out the cornerback rotation in Jaylin Davies and Trikweze Bridges, two former four-star recruits.
Overall, Oregon enters 2021 with considerable depth in a unit that felt the loss of opt-outs during the 2020 season. With Wright sure to earn the start on one side, it remains to be seen who locks down the other entering the summer.
"This group is special," McKinley III said. "We have guys who have played a lot of football and a lot of young guys that are stepping up and look like they can make an impact this upcoming season."
Oregon will play its annual Spring game on May 1 in Autzen Stadium.