EUGENE — Nick Aliotti is going to dial up blitzes from all directions, no matter who the 11 defensive players on the field are.
Oregon's defensive coordinator admits his aggressive style is much less of a gamble with an elite, play-making cornerback like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu blanketing half the field.
"Ifo is just a great competitor. That's the first thing he is," Aliotti said. "I always think great corners allow you to pack the paint and get more guys in the box. Great corners like Ifo have to have a short-term memory and a lot of courage."
Ekpre-Olomu is coming off a spectacular sophomore season in which he finished with 63 tackles, 20 passes defended, six forced fumbles, four interceptions, one fumble recovery and one pick-six. The 5-foot-10 junior from Chino Hills, Calif., has studied the film and plans to be even better this fall as one of the Ducks' defensive leaders.
"You have to have thick skin and understand you're going to be on your own and you have to make the play. It's nobody else's fault," Ekpre-Olomu said of his approach to covering some of the Pac-12's most skilled offensive players. "At the cornerback position, you're always going to be singled out, so you can't make any mistakes. I think it makes you think and stay focused on every play."
Ekpre-Olomu isn't the only UO cornerback capable of surviving alone on a gridiron island. Terrance Mitchell, a 6-0 junior, is also a Jim Thorpe Award candidate.
The Duck duo are two of the 14 non-seniors on the 48-man preseason watch list for the award given out to college football's top defensive back. With quality backups at cornerback and the return of three safeties with significant starting experience — Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Erick Dargan — UO's secondary might be the best in the country.
You certainly won't get an argument from the wide receivers who try to get behind them every day.
"Ifo has great footwork, he's a smart corner, his football IQ is outstanding. There will be times when I can beat him one on one, then there will be times when he can beat me one on one," UO senior receiver Josh Huff said. "We both go back and correct how we can do it better. That's what I love about being on this team is having two outstanding corners in Ifo and Terrance Mitchell. They're the Pac-12's best and the nation's best."
UO was No. 1 nationally in turnover margin in 2012. The defense racked up 26 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries to complement Chip Kelly's hyper-efficient offense.
First-year head coach Mark Helfrich said secondary coach John Neal deserves credit for teaching proper techniques, but Ekpre-Olomu has innate ability to separate running backs and receivers from the football.
"(Ekpre-Olomu) does a great job of putting his face on the ball and being really physical on the ball," Helfrich said. "When any guy is a little incorrect fundamentally with how he's carrying the ball, Ifo gets it out."
Last season, quarterbacks targeted Ekpre-Olomu because they didn't want to throw the ball in Mitchell's vicinity. That game plan didn't work out too well.
This year the throwing windows are going to be small in whatever direction the opposing QB is looking.
"We're just trying to advance on what we accomplished last year," Ekpre-Olomu said.
"With our depth and our rotation, I feel like we're light years from where we were last year."