John Neal exhorts his defensive backs in practice, “Way to compete. Always be competing.” He instills a warrior mentality in his group, and the hard work he demands has paid huge dividends not only for the Oregon defense but for those individual players on NFL draft day. Pat Chung, Walter Thurmond, Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward are all playing and succeeding in the league, and none of them were bound there when they came to Eugene. Neal, and their own hard work, made them into NFL prospects.
Neal too is always competing. Coaching the last line of defense for a team that runs 80 plays and puts up 50 points a game on offense, the Duck secondary has to be prepared for an onslaught every week, especially in the pass-happy and offense-rich PAC-10. Three future NFL first-round draft picks will take snaps in the conference next season, likely overall number one Andrew Luck, the NFL prototype Matt Barkley, and gunslinger Nick Foles of Arizona. Add in Jeff Tuel, Ryan Katz, Brock Osweiler, plus a conference full of fast, talented receivers, and it’s no easy task to coach secondary in this conference. The Ducks have won 32 games in the last three years, and stellar secondary play is one big reason.
Yesterday Neal was handed a new challenge. An unexpected and unwelcome one, when Cliff Harris, the most gifted and instinctive lockdown cover corner Duck fans have ever seen, became a displinary casualty. Hope remains that Harris will earn his way back into the lineup, but until he does, John Neal has to shuffle his rotation and drill and instruct until these young Ducks are ready to guard Juron Criner, Robert Woods, Marquess Wilson and rest of the onslaught of fleet, glue-fingered nightmares the schedule will line up across from them.
To start with, they’ll have to try to contain an LSU offense that hung 41 on Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Terrence Toliver, their leading receiver from that game, is gone, hoping to catch on in NFL free agency after being the Offensive MVP at the Cotton, five passes for 112 yards and three touchdowns. His quarterback Jordan Jefferson seemed to find himself in that game, passing for 157 yards and the three scores, adding 67 yards and another touchdown on the ground. Some Tiger observers think Jefferson will blossom as a senior the way Dennis Dixon did. He’ll be eager to show it against Oregon’s now-young and untested secondary.
Untested, but not untalented. If Anthony Gildon can do a capable job at one spot, it remains for one of several talented, highly-touted and promising young players to lock down the other one. The competition among them should sharpen them all. Here’s a look at one of the candidates:
#27 Terrance Mitchell 6-0 183, redshirt freshman, Burbank High School, Sacramento, CA
Mitchell is an exciting prospect, one of the two young Ducks (along with linebacker Michael Clay) that Spencer Paysinger tabbed as a likely future star. Duck fans haven’t seen much of Mitchell yet, but they have to like what he’s shown so far: he enrolled early to participate in the Spring Game 2010, picked off Darron Thomas and ran in it in 46 yards for the game’s first touchdown. Spring Game 2011, five solo tackles, including one for a loss, and another interception. The production is very Cliff-like.
Mitchell was a 3-star recruit coming out of High School, but he sounds like a classic John Neal over-achiever. As a senior, he produced 2,360 all-purpose yards on 106 rushing attempts and 48 catches, 24 total touchdowns, while doubling as an All-State defensive back with six interceptions. High school coach John Heffernan told oregonianlive.com’s Lindsay Schnell, “The bigger the challenge, the better he performs,” Heffernan said. “He always played his best games in our biggest games. He’s not afraid of the big stage.” Also sounds very Cliff-like, without the traffic tickets.
Mitchell consistently stood out in practices and workouts, and he has the confidence and athletic ability to be an exceptional cornerback. The plus side? He’s bigger and more physical than Harris, and he has better hands.