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Corners lack experience, but not swagger

Young Ducks know opponents plan to put them to the test
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (right), one of the Oregon Ducks’ young cornerbacks, checks Oregon State receiver Markus Wheaton in the Civil War at Autzen Stadium. The UO corners were forced to play more than expected this season, due largely to the absence of Cliff Harris, and opponents have tried to pick on them.

Before the Oregon Ducks convened for the 2011 season, cornerback was one position they seemingly did not have to worry about. They had a well-seasoned veteran in fifth-year senior Anthony Gildon and a dynamic ball hawk in junior Cliff Harris. Things change. Gildon’s playing time was limited by injury, and Harris’ time in a Duck uniform came to an abrupt end because of off-field actions. Three young cornerbacks with no major-college experience were thrust into the spotlight. Redshirt freshmen Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill and true freshman Ifo Ekpre-Olomu still are often looked at as the weak link of the defense. They have been preyed on by quarterbacks several times, most notably in the Ducks’ loss to USC. But the three also have come up with big plays and occasional lockdown coverage. Through it all, the young trio brings a swagger to the field that is beyond their years. “You’ve got to have that mindset of knowing you can’t let anybody catch the ball,” Hill says. “You know people are going to test us because we’re young, so we’ve got to come in with that swag like, ‘can’t let anybody do that.’ ” Hill, a 5-11, 165 pounder from Ventura, Calif., has made 34 tackles this season, picked off one pass, broken up six passes and defended seven passes. “I’m just learning from the process,” Hill says. “As the time went on, I got a little better each game. It’s just football, really.” Mitchell, a 6-0, 190-pounder out of Sacramento, has 40 tackles, two picks, 10 breakups and 12 passes defended. He also might be at the top of the Ducks’ tattoos-collected list. His upper body is covered with tats. He started collecting tattoos near the end of his senior year in high school. He says he doesn’t know how many he has, but will keep adding the ink. “I try to say that I have one big (tattoo) just all over,” Mitchell says. “I still have to keep going. I have stuff to finish on my stomach.” Ekpre-Olomu, 5-10, 180 and from Chino Hills, Calif., has 32 tackles, eight breakups and eight passes defended. He was thrown into the hailstorm of Pac-12 quarterbacks even earlier in his career than Mitchell and Hill. But, during the short time they played with Harris before he was suspended from the team, Ekpre-Olomu says that he and the other corners learned a lot about the mentality a cornerback must have to be a playmaker. “Cliff gave you that mentality that no one’s going to beat you,” Ekpre-Olomu says. “We took that from him, and it helped us out so much.” The young cornerbacks will face one of their biggest challenges of the season in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson has been tremendous this season, completing 206 of 284 passes for 2,879 yards, and with 31 touchdowns and three interceptions. Ekpre-Olomu says that the biggest challenge Wilson poses, though, is the ability to scramble and keep a play alive. “He extends plays,” Ekpre-Olomu says. “Usually, you stay in coverage for about four or five seconds. But with him, you might have to stay for eight seconds.” The Ducks’ youth at the corners is a strength as Oregon looks to next season and beyond. “I love being young,” Mitchell says. “We’re all balling out right now. We’re just freshmen, so the future is really bright for us.”