Talented but young corners take over at UO
Walter Thurmond and Jairus Byrd team up after Ducks lose Bates
EUGENE -Walter Thurmond glides. He doesn't dart or sprint necessarily. He doesn't levitate - yet.
The redshirt freshman cornerback just glides. Just watch him try to contain Oklahoma receivers in Saturday's highly anticipated game pitting the Oregon Ducks and Sooners at Autzen Stadium.
Thurmond stepped up and became the starting cornerback opposite Jackie Bates in spring ball, before suffering an injured foot.
When training camp started, he again proved himself to be the most valuable cornerback among the contenders to start opposite Bates.
On Saturday, however, he will step up and be the man, because Bates suffered a broken leg against Fresno State and will be out for a lengthy period, possibly the season.
'Me and the other corner, Jairus Byrd, are ready to take on the role,' says Thurmond, referring to his fellow redshirt freshman. 'I know we're both young, but we're ready to step up and make plays.'
If you follow the Ducks, you may remember 2002, when true freshmen Aaron Gipson and Marques Binns played cornerback. That didn't turn out too well. Each Pac-10 team took its turn ripping apart the UO's secondary.
Thurmond and Byrd have been in the system for a year, however, and 'having a redshirt year is a lot different,' secondary coach John Neal says.
'We've been setting them up for this moment,' Neal says. 'These guys have trained for it, they're high-conditioned guys who work hard and act like guys ready to go.'
Neal says the Ducks wanted to keep three starting secondary players intact - Thurmond, rover Patrick Chung and free safety J.D. Nelson - rather than move Chung to corner and Byrd to rover. Hence, Byrd gets the nod, with Willie Glasper and Jameel Dowling also expected to play.
Another redshirt freshman, Terrell Ward, who had arthroscopic knee surgery after contending with Thurmond to start, will be back in the mix by the Arizona State game in two weeks.
'I'm going to play him as a role player; he's like a (true) freshman because he's lost all this training time,' Neal says.
The 6-foot (stretching it), 175-pound Thurmond was one of the fastest California prep sprinters when he attended West Covina High. He also runs for the UO track and field team and says he would lose to Bates in a foot race, 'but I'd get him now because of his ankle.'
Thurmond played with some success against Stanford and Fresno State, although he got whistled for two pass interference penalties against the Cardinal.
'Coaches say they'd rather take a 'PI' than a touchdown,' he says.
He glides, and his long arms allow him to cover receivers well, including on the end-zone fade pattern.
'He's going to continually get challenged every game,' Neal says. 'He's a real confident kid. When bad things happen, he's not going to get down. He'll respond. He's very competitive.'
The 5-11 (stretching it), 205-pound Byrd has been playing at corner, rover and strong safety/outside linebacker to provide the Ducks versatility in coverages. He's a physical player, and normally the Ducks' designated fifth defensive back.
'We created a number of positions for him, and he's playing about 60 percent of the games,' Neal says of Byrd, a native of Clayton, Mo. 'He's just a good football player. It's not a big transition for him. But I've also got to remember that he hasn't played (much at corner).
'He has a chance to be a special player. He understands things. He gets it.'
Losing Bates hasn't worried Neal, especially with the presence of Nelson and Chung in the secondary.
'I'm sleeping at night,' he says.
On the Web
Read Jason Vondersmith's report on the Oregon-Oklahoma game on Saturday afternoon at www.localnewsdaily.com.
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