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Dargan delivers on defense for Ducks

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Erick Dargan, Oregon Ducks safety, answers questions from the media in Dallas.DALLAS — While he is laying in bed Sunday night, Oregon safety Erick Dargan will run through the national championship game against Ohio State in his mind. He will fall asleep to images of playing lockdown defense on the Buckeyes' receivers, making tackles, defending passes and maybe even making an interception or two.

“It’s all about your mental preparation,” Dargan says. “I imagine balls coming my way. The deep balls. I think about how I want to play it. When the game comes, it’s like I’ve been there before.”

Ducks secondary coach John Neal says Dargan’s mental preparation for Monday's 5:30 p.m. PT title game, along with his physical attributes, have made him the team’s best ball hawk and one of the Ducks' most valuable defensive players.

“He was probably making plays when he was 9 years old,” Neal says. “But as a college football player, he’s really smart. He understands the game very much at the same levels as I do as a long-term coach.

"When a player can see (the game) as both a coach and a player, a high IQ football player has the tendency to be in the right place at the right time. He’s smarter than most players are. Plus, he’s got great skills. He’s got good size and he can tackle. He can catch the football and finish, which is the next part.”

Dargan leads the Ducks in tackles (57) and interceptions (seven) and is second on the team in passes defended (13) and pass breakups (six).

The 5-11, 210-pound redshirt senior also is a regular on all four of Oregon’s special teams units and is second on the team on kickoff and punt coverage tackles with 9.5.

“I’m just around the ball,” Dargan says. “I understand the defense. I understand where the ball might go on certain calls, and I make plays when they present themselves to me.”

Dargan and the rest of Oregon’s secondary will face their greatest challenge of the season against Ohio State’s talented receivers.

Michael Thomas is the Buckeyes' go-to receiver, with 50 catches for 746 yards and nine touchdowns. Devin Smith is even more dangerous, though, with 32 catches for 886 yards and 12 TDs, and Jalin Smith has 33 catches for 447 yards and six TDs.

“The receivers can really get up the field, and they’re able to make plays on the deep ball,” Dargan says. “It’s the best receiving corps we’ve seen all year. They’re well-coached receivers. They run double moves. They’re ballers. You’ve got to respect them and come ready to play.”

Ohio State will start Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes’ third-string quarterback at the beginning of the season. Jones will be making just his third career start. But he has been impressive in his previous two starts.

“He can throw the ball from hash to hash, and he’s got a deep ball,” Dargan says, of Jones, who has been lauded for his cannon of an arm. “Anytime you’ve got a quarterback who can throw the ball hash to hash and throw the ball down the field, you have to get ready for him. They’re going to let him play free. When you’ve got a quarterback like that, you’ve got to come to play.”

Jones has not run much, but he is difficult to bring down.

“He’s tough, physical, he’s able to run to the sideline and get up the field vertically,” Dargan says. “You’ve got to hit him and wrap up. He’s more dangerous than people give him credit for. He can run. He’s not scared to take off. He’s not sliding. He’s going to try to deliver the blow.”

Dargan’s performance this season may have earned him a shot at playing on Sundays. Neal says Dargan will need to work on his speed but believes the safety will get a chance in the NFL.

“He’ll get a shot,” Neal says. “At that level, speed is so big. That’s probably something they’ll be a little reluctant on. He has the speed for the pros. It’s just that when you put people next to each other, they can choose (the faster player). But nowadays in the NFL, intelligence and accountability and playmaking ability are really important. It’s not just foot speed and size. They’re looking at other characteristics. That’s why he’ll get a shot.”

Dargan will think about the NFL later. For now, his bedtime thoughts will be filled with the national championship game against the Buckeyes.

“Right now, all my focus is on this game,” Dargan says. “I want to go out there and give it my all. Leave it on the field with the rest of my teammates.”

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