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Ducks cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. (4) warms up. Oregon Ducks football takes on the Montana Grizzlies at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. on Sept. 14, 2019. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Thomas Graham Jr. has never been one to shy away from the spotlight.

In his first career start as a true freshman in 2017, he picked off two passes and recorded seven tackles against Nebraska. From that point forward, Graham made it known that he was here to stay, and he isn’t hesitant to let opponents know about it. 

“I have a lot of fun,” Graham said. “You guys see me … I talk a lot of mess. I back up my teammates.”

Talking has always come with being a cornerback. The nature of the position — being isolated, lining right up in the face of the receiver — it’s something most great cornerbacks do. Combine that with the fact that Graham is a smaller cornerback at just 5-foot-11, and it’s almost a necessity. It’s part of what makes him successful against pass catchers that often have three or four inches on him.

“Number 84, at the start of this week, he said that we’re not bigger than the UCF DBs; we’re not faster; we’re not stronger,” Graham said of the Stanford tight end’s pregame comments. “We don’t have to be bigger, we don’t have to be stronger, we don’t have to be faster, but we’re gonna shut you down.”

And that’s exactly what the Oregon secondary did. K.J. Costello, an All-Pac-12 Second Team selection in 2018, completed just 16 of his 30 pass attempts on Saturday and was held to a season-low 120 yards. But Costello wasn’t the only victim of Graham and this Oregon secondary: the Ducks, through four games, rank in the top 20 nationally in opponent completion percentage, passing yards per game, yards per attempt and interceptions. 

But for Graham, being in the spotlight is about more than just what he does in front of tens of thousands of people on Saturdays. It starts in the locker room and on the practice field. It’s being a leader and preparing the younger defensive backs so that when the spotlight is on them, they can shine just as bright as he has.

“Doing this is just a starting step to where we want to take this program,” Graham said. “Create our standard of excellence and dominance from here on out. Not just for me, but for the next generation of Ducks.”

Now, as a junior and a leader of a historically good defense, Graham and the rest of the Oregon secondary aren’t going to sneak up on teams anymore. They’re at the top of every team’s scouting report, and there’s nowhere to hide. But Graham embraces that role. It’s part of the same mentality that compels him to talk trash to a receiver half a foot taller than him.

“It’s our time,” he said. “We’re no longer young pups.”

Follow Brady on Twitter @BradyLim619

Brady Lim is a sports reporter, currently covering the beat for Ducks football and the Eugene Emeralds. Brady is originally from San Diego, California and is a senior at the University of Oregon.