Photo by Scott Boldt
Oregon Football

Position Preview: Safeties

July 21, 2020

Safeties don't generally get the publicity that cornerbacks do, but if they're not doing their jobs the defense will be gashed for big gains in both the run and the pass. This position group has gotten better continually over the last few seasons, relying on both the growth of some multiyear starters and an influx of new talent.

The position has evolved rapidly over the past decade; guys may be listed at free safety or strong safety, but seldom do they play the same role every snap. So what better way to start off this rundown than with a player whose versatility is one of his greatest strengths.

Jevon Holland (8), Junior

The 6-1, 200-pounder built on an already impressive freshman year and thrust himself into the national spotlight. There's talk of him being a top-10 NFL draft pick after this season.

The skill sets Holland brings to the table are incredibly rare at any level of football. Oregon used him frequently as a slot corner in 2019, especially against the Pac-12's many pass-happy teams. Slot receivers can be tricky to cover, but Holland not only can stick with the target but break up the attempt once the ball arrives.

And as a true safety? Time and time again, Holland just seemed to be in the right spot to make a play on the ball or to complete a tackle.

Holland's instincts and reaction times are fantastic, and that has helped him tremendously in coverage. In just two years, he’s already racked up an impressive 9 interceptions and 10 pass deflections.

Holland may not be a “true” safety, but who says that's a bad thing?

Brady Breeze (25), Senior

The 6-foot, 198-pounder had an incredible two-game stretch during the 2019 postseason.

In the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl combined, he had 20 tackles, 1 interception, 2 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery for a touchdown that swung the momentum back to Oregon. And what a time for the Lake Oswego native to step up; in the previous three seasons, he recorded just 1 interception and 3 pass deflections

Some of that success, of course, was being in the right place at the right time. But his football instincts were always sharp, whether he was crashing down to help in the run game or making up ground in deep coverage.

If Breeze keeps playing at such a level, it’ll be hard to keep him off of the field. But realistically, certain guys catch fire for a couple of games before returning to their usual level of play.

Breeze needs to prove that his performance after November is the new normal if he wants to play a big role in this talented position group.

Nick Pickett (16), Senior

The 6-1, 199-pounder has seen lots of snaps over the past two seasons and has improved a lot of little things, amassing 104 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 pass deflections and 1 forced fumble. Some fans have griped about his pass coverage, but Pro Football Focus analysts would argue that criticism is unfounded.

In 2019, Pickett played 414 coverage snaps and his longest gain allowed was 11 yards. He yielded just 6.5 yards per catch, the fewest in the nation among returning defensive backs, and he allowed a reception on just 3.4 percent of his total snaps.

In addition to being really consistent against the pass, he’s also made some big-time tackles in run support. Still, with the emergence of Breeze and the potential for some underclassmen to emerge, Pickett might not see as many snaps as he has previously.

Bennett Williams (15), Junior

Oregon added the 6-0, 206-pounder in the last recruiting cycle, signing him out of junior college. As a freshman at Illinois, Williams racked up 64 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 pass deflections and 1 forced fumble and was selected as a freshman all-American.

But in 2018, Williams was booted from the Illini for violating team rules. He ended up at College of San Mateo, where he sufficiently impressed ESPN and Rivals to be ranked as the No. 1 JUCO safety.

It won't be easy for Williams to just walk in and start, but expect him at least to see the field and compete for early snaps. There’s a lot to like from his tape at Illinois, where he was a great ball hawk with an even-better ability to diagnose the action and put himself in the right position to make plays.

I don’t think Williams will be a Week 1 starter, but he’ll likely climb the depth chart if he can demonstrate that he’s still the player he was at Illinois.

Jamal Hill (19), Sophomore

The 6-1, 205-pounder played in five games last year as a true freshman. He didn’t exactly fill up the box score, recording just 6 tackles, but he certainly showed that he could become a key contributor down the road.

Hill is one of the guys that I watched a lot at camp last year, and he really impressed me. He's not monstrous, but he plays bigger than 6-1. He’s a good athlete who can use his length to make up ground toward the boundary and even across the middle.

It’s one thing to flash ability in practice and quite another to execute in a game, but the staff clearly was confident enough to let Hill burn his redshirt. The addition of Williams makes Hill's path to playing time all that much steeper, but he should compete for rotational snaps.

If Hill continues to improve, he figures to be in the mix for a starting spot once Breeze and Pickett graduate – especially if Holland turns pro after this season.

Steve Stephens (7), Sophomore

The 6-0, 195-pounder played in seven games last year, but like Hill his snaps were limited. He finished with 7 total tackles.

Stephens is an interesting prospect, someone I was particularly high on coming out of high school. He showed great range of motion and appeared to have all the tools to develop into a versatile contributor.

Stephens is more of a free safety, as he’s a long and tracks the ball better than most strong safeties. While it seems unlikely he'll see the field a lot this season, he should be right in the thick of things when it comes to allocating backup time.

JJ Greenfield (24), Freshman

The 6-0, 181-pounder enrolled in January, giving him time to get familiar with the team before fall camp. And while COVID-19 disrupted spring and summer activities, he still had an opportunity to practice with the team that handful of times.

With so many bodies ahead of him in the rotation, I didn’t get to him in action much. But when he was on the field, he seemed pretty comfortable at his position.

Some guys look a bit overwhelmed in their first college practices, but Greenfield seems to have great confidence in his game. He looked to have pretty decent range of motion, but he needs to fill out his frame a bit.

Greenfield may end up redshirting this season if only due to the sheer amount of bodies in front of him on the depth chart. But once the position room thins out a bit, look out.

Tags: Football, Oregon
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