EUGENE — For one intense evening last fall in Berkeley, Reggie Daniels thought he was about to become the next "next man in" for Oregon.
Daniels, a former four-star recruit from Arizona, was one of four defensive backs who redshirted with the Ducks in 2012. Those four face another season spent largely on the sidelines in 2013, based on all the talent returning in the UO secondary, but Daniels' experience a year ago illustrates the importance of staying ready to play at a moment's notice.
At the end of fall camp last August, Daniels was told he'd be redshirting. But first John Boyett and then Avery Patterson were lost for the season with injuries.
Daniels was on the travel squad for the game at Cal in which Patterson was injured, and stood next to position coach John Neal late in the game, ready to burn his redshirt that November night had there been another injury.
"It was pretty exciting," Daniels said following a recent UO spring practice, the final three of which will be this week. "It was a little bit (disappointing not to play), but I understood the decision."
Daniels won the right to be in that position by earning a promotion to the travel team for practices, and then proving he would perform with veteran teammates.
He and his classmates will try to do so again this season, despite the presence of seven veterans at the four spots in the secondary.
At safety, Daniels and fellow redshirt freshman Oshay Dunmore have Patterson, Brian Jackson and Erick Dargan in front of them. At corner, twins Eric and Stephen Amoako are fighting for reps with starters Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, and veterans Troy Hill and Dior Mathis.
"They're veterans, they've been there, been in some huge, championship games," Dunmore said. "So we trust and we listen to them, and it's just like having six or seven coaches out there."
As the Ducks found out at several positions in 2012, however, rookies can quickly become members of the rotation when injuries happen. While Daniels managed to preserve his redshirt at Cal, Alex Balducci was pressed into action that night, becoming the third true freshman to play on the line.
And Daniels kept himself at the ready for the remainder of the season. While the other three redshirting freshman defensive backs were on the scout team for Fiesta Bowl practices, Daniels was preparing to face Kansas State if necessary.
"If I could go in and contribute to the team winning, that would have been good," Daniels said, though he admitted too that it was a bit of a relief not to burn a season of eligibility for one game.
The experience of getting so close to the field but not breaking through has motivated Daniels to earn a shot this season. He wants to win a spot on the kickoff coverage unit, at least, and Stephen Amoako also said special teams play can be a carrot for the young defensive backs playing behind all those veterans.
"It's about being internally motivated," he said. "Just because we have good guys in front of us doesn't mean you can't be good yourself."
That's the exact attitude Neal wants to instill in all his young players.
"They can't compete thinking they're going to be (backups)," Neal said. "... Now they're eligible. So don't come out there and settle for second, or they'll never be good."
For Dunmore and the Amoakos, this spring provides the first chance to review Oregon's defense on the field since August, because they were with the scout team during the season, emulating foes. All feel more confident in their knowledge since last season, although putting it to use on the fly rather than just studying diagrams is a major step.
And they're being tested to learn new positions — Daniels at some cornerback, Neal said, while the Amoakos are familiarizing themselves with the safety spots.
"You realize, these are reps, this is an opportunity to improve," Eric Amoako said. "You can feel the improvement as you go. If I want to play, I need my role to expand, so I might as well go as hard as I can. My time will come."
For Daniels, that time nearly came in November. All four redshirt freshman say they'll be similarly ready if called up in 2013.