Do-it-all Nelson will concentrate on offense
EUGENE — John Neal is ready to let go of the rope.
The tug-of-war for Charles Nelson appears to be over.
Neal, Oregon’s longtime secondary coach, is confident his deeper and more experienced group will be able to thrive without the football Swiss Army Knife that is Nelson, who has returned to wide receiver this spring.
“What we asked Charles to do last year was really a team sacrifice,” Neal said. “He did it, but it’s not easy to do. Of all the guys on our team that could do it, he’s the one guy that could actually pull it off and have success on both sides of the ball.
“But then at the end of the season, it’s such a grind.”
With the return of versatile standout Tyree Robinson, a healthy Reggie Daniels and emerging backups Juwaan Williams and Khalil Oliver, Neal feels good about the safety spots.
Nelson moved over to defense four games into the 2015 season and finished with 47 tackles and two interceptions. Now he’s providing quarterbacks Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen with another electrifying option at receiver.
“It’s very refreshing because he’s a very dynamic offensive player,” Neal said of Nelson, who was trending as a potential all-Pac-12 safety after the Ducks’ 9-4 campaign. “We can win championships with him the way he plays. So we’re very fortunate we’ve been able to get two or three guys back that are really going to help our team.”
Robinson led the group with 64 tackles and three interceptions last season. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior moved from strong safety to cornerback as Neal searched for answers.
After losing reliable starters Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargan and Troy Hill to graduation, Oregon finished 126th in passing defense (306.5 ypg) out of 128 FBS teams.
“Last year everybody wanted to pick on us just because our defense was young and stuff, but that’s not an excuse this year,” Robinson said. “Everybody’s got to bring more intensity and everybody’s got to be ready to play. …
“I think we’re all looking much better than we were before. We’re not great, we’re not there yet. We’ve got to come in every day and work on things that we’re not perfect at.”
Chris Seisay, the most experienced returning cornerback last year, missed eight games because of injury. Daniels and Williams also missed time, which forced Neal to lean on Nelson even more as cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Ugo Amadi were enduring growing pains as first-time starters.
“They are young in some regards and there are some guys that have played a lot of snaps,” defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said of the secondary. “They really are the ones who have to set the tempo every day. We’re pushing those guys to do that because once they start doing it, then we’ll be pretty good.”
Amadi, Springs and Oliver each had interceptions to seal wins during Oregon’s second-half run last season. Redshirt freshmen Jihree Stewart and Malik Lovette should add even more athleticism and play-making ability to the rotation this fall.
“We’re playing a lot faster, more confident, and coach Neal has said there’s no excuse this year,” Oliver said. “We’re not young. We’re ready and we’re hungry. It’s all about playing as fast as we can and hitting as hard as we can.”
Dylan Kane, a redshirt freshman, also moved from safety to wide receiver this spring. Austin Daich, a walk-on who got some playing time in the Alamo Bowl, left the program to focus on academics in Oregon’s architecture school.
Jhet Janis, who competes in javelin for the track and field team, has joined the competition at safety. Neal is also developing hard-hitting sophomore Foto Leiato and awaiting the arrival of prize in-state recruit Brady Breeze.
“I just think it means our whole team is well-rounded,” Oliver said of Nelson moving back to offense. “It means everybody is ready to go at a certain time and everybody has their role. Nobody needs to be stretched more than they have to be.”
Although the secondary is well ahead of where it was a year ago, Neal knows there is a lot more room for growth, from top to bottom.
“Is there improvement? Yeah, I think so. But it’s not where we want it to be to play this level of football,” Neal said. “So it has been intense in a real positive way. We’re trying to be as good as we can be right now and not waiting.
“Maybe I made a mistake last year and wasn’t as thorough and sharp a coach as I would have liked to have been. So I think I’m really trying to take myself back and say, ‘What do I have to do to be better?’ Then I can pass that off to the players.”