EUGENE, Ore.- Perhaps the team's best position group is a little beaten up, but that shouldn't stop the Oregon secondary from improving upon last year's stellar season.
Entering last season many worried the Ducks defensive backfield wouldn't be up to stopping the high-powered passing attacks in the league, specifically USC. Made up entirely of then sophomores and juniors, the backs surprised most, leading the country with 26 interceptions, three more than the next best mark.
"The one thing we have to do is look to the sky… you can always go up in your performance. That's what we're looking to do," said safety Brian Jackson.
While Oregon returns their top-five players in the group, not all have been full-go this spring. Safety Avery Patterson is still rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in November's win at California and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is in the process of rehabbing two injuries that nagged him for much of the season.
The junior cornerback was named to the Pac-12 all-conference first team last season, despite injuries to both his right shoulder and left hand. Ekpre-Olomu had minor shoulder surgery shortly after the season and has been held out of live drills so far this spring. An injury to his hand was something he barely noticed, he says, but was recently determined to be broke. He currently wears a cast on his hand that will come off Monday.
"They don't want me to do a lot of contact hitting right now because it's just spring ball," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I'm always out there and they'll just tell me to get out."
Ekpre-Olomu says a timetable for return to full-contact or even April 27's spring game will be determined by the coaches, but says he "feels like [he] could go right now".
So what is it that Ekpre-Olomu hopes to improve upon once he's 100 percent?
"Last year was really my first full year ever playing corner of my life. This year it's advancing with that and I'm comfortable with the position, so it's just going to make me better," he said.
Fully aware that national pundits are likely to tout him as one of the country's best defensive players, namely in the secondary, Ekpre-Olomu does not anticipate the added attention affecting his play or his teammates.
"I don't see any pressure, just by how I work every day and prepare for games. I feel like going into games I know what I can do and what I'm capable of and I know what our defensive backfield can do," he said.
Patterson's status is less clear, while Helfrich did disclose Friday that Patterson was amongst a group that is "doing everything but live situations," to what extent that means is unknown. Patterson has turned down interview requests this spring to focus on rehabbing his injury, but Jackson, who nine started games next to him, says he's been impressed with his progress.
"I'm always going to be on his side. Me and Avery came in at the same time. Frankly people used to get the two of us confused a lot. I'm with him every step of the way, he's doing great," he said.
"Avery is one of those players that will never take no as an answer," Ekpre Olomu said. "So--especially with him rehabbing-wise-- he's one of the hardest workers out there. He's shown that on the field, since he came back from a knee injury that fast. That's just something that I have to give him props for doing something like that."
With two members of the Ducks likely starting secondary sidelined, several redshirt freshman have taken the opportunity to improve in their absence. Twins Eric and Stephen Amoako, Reggie Daniels and Oshay Dunmore have all made strides this spring, Ekpre Olomu says.
"They're all getting better in their own ways, whether it's mentally or physically, because they had a lot to work on from last year. I feel like they've been taking it a day-at-a-time. It's just the first week, so we'll see how they progress throughout the full spring," he said.
Ekpre-Olomu singled out Daniel's increased understanding of the defense and Stephen Amoako's "movement and anticipation skills" as points of noticeable improvement. Ekpre-Olomu also said Eric Amoako had been slowed by a hamstring injury.
Lyerla talks Twitter and NFL Draft
Colt Lyerla spoke to the media for the first time this spring, which is noteworthy in part because of tweets he made regarding conspiracies surrounding the Sandy Hook shootings. Lyerla explained Saturday that it was a mistake and that he was sorry for his actions.
"Overall, I feel like I made a mistake getting involved in such a personal matter on such a public platform," he said. "I'm apologetic to my teammates, coaches and the program overall, for doing that.
"But on the same note, I'd never want to discourage anyone for having their own opinions or raising questions like that. But for me specifically, it was a bad idea because of the position I'm in. Like I said, I'm apologetic and hope to learn from this and move on with the season."
Lyerla also says he was surprised by the reaction, but should have been ready for the response.
"It was something I should've been prepared for, but wasn't obviously. I feel like sometimes those things have to happen for you to learn from it. I'm just looking at the silver lining of the situation, and I feel like I learned my lesson for that. "
Considered to be one of the nation's top tight ends and draft prospects, Lyerla was mum on the subject of whether he'd forego his senior season to enter next spring's NFL Draft.
"It's too soon to say. We'll have to see how the season goes. I'm just concentrating on what I can do to win us the most games right now.