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Safeties key as UO heads to Stanford

Boyett, Pleasant will have final say in stopping Andrew Luck and Co.
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Oregon Ducks rover Eddie Pleasant celebrates one of his two interceptions in last week’s 34-17 victory at Washington.

EUGENE -

Defensive players have to react. Before a ball is snapped, any notion of where the play is going is all guess work.

Mistakes are bound to happen. A defensive lineman can get blocked, a linebacker can make the wrong read, a cornerback can blow his assignment.

And all of that is OK, as long as the safeties do their job. John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant are the Oregon Ducks' last line of defense. What they do can determine whether a play is stopped or goes for a touchdown.

Boyett and Pleasant have been good throughout the season, which will have one of its biggest moments when Oregon plays at Stanford at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Boyett, a 5-10, 200-pound junior free safety from Napa, Calif., is arguably the Ducks' best defensive player.

Pleasant, a 5-11, 210-pound senior rover from La Palma, Calif., has shown the ability to be a playmaking ball hawk.

'They're playing great,' defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says. 'Everybody makes mistakes once in a while, but they're very good football players. They've been playing good football for us.'

Things are about to get a lot harder for Boyett and Pleasant, because the opposing quarterback is Andrew Luck, the Cardinal's Heisman Trophy front-runner and perhaps the best player in college football.

Before Oregon's win over Stanford last season, Ducks secondary coach John Neal joked: 'Whenever a good quarterback comes to town, everyone always wants to talk with me.'

Neal has refused to do interviews this season. But Pleasant says he and Boyett will have to be at their best against Stanford.

'He is a great quarterback,' Pleasant says, of Luck. 'One of the best players in the nation, so we know what we've got in front of us. He does a great job of isolating the corners on the receivers. He does a great job of reading people off. He's just an all-around smart quarterback. We'll try to disguise (the coverage), but he's a great player. He knows all the tricks of the trade. But we'll be ready.'

With the Cardinal power run game, the two safeties also will be called upon to come forward and make tackles. That is Boyett's forte. He is second on the Ducks with 54 tackles this season -one tackle behind linebacker Dewitt Stuckey.

'I have good anticipation and instincts of where the play is going to go,' Boyett says. 'That just comes with the territory of playing a lot of football. I've been around a lot of football my whole life. When I trust my instincts, I'm usually pretty successful.'

It may not seem like the best scenario for the free safety to be one of the team's tackle leaders. But Boyett's tackle numbers may say more about him than it does about the failure of the defensive line and linebackers to make the tackle before the ball carrier gets to Boyett.

'I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing,' Boyett says. 'That's just the way things have gone, I guess. When I see run, I just come up flying. I just want to be able to give it all for my team every game. That's just a statistic. That really doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is the wins and losses.'

Playing rover has been an adjustment for Pleasant. When he first came to Oregon, he was more of a running back than a defensive player. In 2007, he saw action at tailback in practice due to injuries to teammates.

Pleasant was switched to strong-side linebacker, where he played for the next two seasons. In 2010, the Ducks moved Pleasant to the secondary.

'Eddie has great speed and is good in space and can really run,' Aliotti says. 'The fact that we had (strong-side linebackers) Boseko Lokombo and Josh Kaddu, we thought that allowed us to put Eddie back there, and it has. He's really grown at that position.'

Boyett's deep knowledge of Oregon's defensive scheme has helped Pleasant with his transition.

'That's one of my best friends,' Pleasant says of Boyett. 'Me and Johnny, we go way back. He's a great football player. He does some great things for this program.

'He's been playing safety almost his whole life. He's got a good understanding of a lot of things. He's one of the players who helps me out understanding it a lot more.'

While he adjusted to the position, Pleasant was rather pedestrian in his first year at rover. But, with another year of experience and Boyett's help, he is starting to come into his own.

During the past two games, Pleasant has had three interceptions. Against Washington State and Washington, he had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and capitalize on quarterback mistakes.

With the indefinite suspension of cornerback Cliff Harris, who led the Ducks in interceptions last season, Pleasant's ability to come up with a pick is even more important. Especially against a quarterback like Luck.

'Turnovers win games. We know that,' Pleasant says. 'We all know that we need turnovers to win games.'

Playing together for the last two seasons, Boyett and Pleasant, both Californians, have continued to develop their chemistry. Aliotti compares the two to the Miami Heat's 'Big Three' of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

'With time, it's gotten better and better, just like the Heat,' Aliotti says. 'Those three guys, they played with each other more and more, and they got better. It's the same thing for us. The more that Eddie and John are together, the better the chemistry gets.'

Pleasant says there is something special about standing on the field with Boyett, staring down quarterbacks and knowing that the two of them cannot falter.

'Having guys run at you full speed, and playing backward, there's a lot more action (than at other positions),' Pleasant says. 'I've got to protect everything deep, and I have guys running at me full speed. You can be a lot more physical at linebacker, but playing safety you've got to be a lot more under control. Because if you do mess up, it's a touchdown. I'm the last line of defense.'