Young vet on the rise
Jim Leavitt has a role model for Thomas Graham.
“This year, he expects me to be that No. 1 cornerback coming in like he had on the defenses at Colorado,” Graham said. “He had Chidobe basically guarding the No. 1 receiver and locking him down all day.”
Chidobe Awuzie was a second-team all-Pac-12 cornerback during Leavitt’s second-and-final season as defensive coordinator with the Buffaloes in 2016. He was a second-round NFL draft pick who just completed his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys.
At 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds, Graham enters his sophomore season about one inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Awuzie was during his senior season at CU.
Graham started 12 games as a true freshman opposite senior Arrion Springs, but now he’s the most experienced cornerback for the Ducks.
Oregon’s spring depth chart lists sophomore Deommodore Lenoir starting across from Graham with true freshman Verone McKinley III and junior-college transfer Haki Woods as the backups. The Ducks do not have any other scholarship cornerbacks on the roster.
“Arrion and Tyree (Robinson), all those seniors last year gave me the confidence to do what I have to do this year,” Graham said. “They believed in me, and I thank them for that.”
Graham had two interceptions in his first start last year against Nebraska and added another in the regular-season finale against Oregon State. He closed out the season with eight tackles in a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Graham ranked third on the Ducks with 62 tackles, including 49 solo, and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. He also broke up four passes.
“The biggest difference for me this year is knowing what to expect as opposed to just going out there and learning the feel,” Graham said. “The speed of the game has slowed down dramatically. One reason for that is we got our defensive coordinator back and the other is because I know the defense. Things are already clicking and stuff like that.”
For the first time in three years, Oregon returns its defensive coordinator. While Leavitt is the only person Graham has known in that role, some Duck defenders played for Don Pellum in 2015 and Brady Hoke in 2016 as well.
“This is a big relief because we have been through plenty of coaches on defense,” Oregon senior defensive end Jalen Jelks said. “The spring is a great time for us to sit down and translate and get everything onto the field from the film room. We’re fine-tuning to be better this year.”
Oregon ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in 2016 by allowing 41.4 points and 518.4 yards per game. In Leavitt’s first season, Oregon gave up 29.0 points per game and allowed 369.2 yards per game, fourth in the conference. Oregon was second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed, at 128.5 per game, a little more than half of the 246.5 it allowed the previous year.
In Leavitt’s second season at Colorado, the Buffaloes allowed 74.4 yards per game fewer than his first year. The Buffs also allowed 21.7 points per game, down from 27.5 the year before.
Graham is one of seven returning starters for the Ducks, whose two-deep roster features 13 players who started at least one game last season.
“It’s a lot different,” Leavitt said. “The guys have done a pretty good job, retained quite a bit. It’s always nice to go into your second year.”