Despite injuries to Kayvon Thibodeaux and Justin Flowe, the Oregon Ducks' defense has leveled up this season to lead the country in turnover margin.
While it's a team-effort, two defensive backs have stood out through the Ducks first four victories: Verone McKinley III and Bennett Williams.
"You make a mistake we're going to make you pay for it," said McKinley III following Tuesday's practice.
Pay for those mistakes opposing offenses have with the Ducks leading the nation in turnover margin at +12, four higher than the next closest team in FBS.
Between McKinley III and Williams alone, the pair has snagged seven interceptions. As a team, Oregon leads the nation with nine interceptions, tied with Kent State and Notre Dame.
"We play like on a string almost: we're tied, we're connected so Bennett can go, be free, does what he needs to do and I'm always going to be on top," explained McKinley III. "I'm always going to make sure we're good and nothing's behind us so it allows him to be free and go make plays and do what he does."
That level of trust in his teammates has allowed Williams to excel near the line of scrimmage, making open field tackle after open field tackle. In fact, Williams is tied for the team-lead with Mykael Wright with 16 solo tackles this season.
Early on, Williams' stellar play has been noticed with Mario Cristobal saying he's earned the starting STAR position and McKinley III raving about him on Tuesday.
"Bennett's already played football, he was a Freshman All-American so the mental side is easier that you would think and then of course he has the physical tools as well, just putting that hand-in-hand and him having the opportunity, he's made the most of it," he said.
"Really good ball skills. Super smart. Not afraid to get in the box and make some tackles. That STAR position has been real big and good for him and I think he's done a great job."
The dynamic duo of defensive backs has even turned to one another for some extra competition.
"Bennett got his first at Arizona and he was like 'I'm tied with you,' so I was like 'Oh no, not for long,' so that competition is something you want in the defensive back room and everybody's pushing to beat each other," said McKinley III. "That's what makes it fun, to have that competitive spirit in our room."
But at the end of the day, both players win when getting off the field and McKinley III's football intelligence has been crucial at achieving that goal.
"I'm... the general," explained McKinley III. "I make sure we're all good, everyone knows the play, what we're identifying, what we're looking at. Staying on top of the defense and being able to come down, make tackles and do whatever. That helps us both out."
Williams also shouted out McKinley III following the 41-19 win against Arizona by commending McKinley III's dedication to studying film--- allowing the safety to communicate the upcoming play to the defense, so Ducks like Williams can fully lock into their assignment and wreck havoc.
When Andy Avalos joined the Ducks in 2019, his defense lead the Pac-12 in forced turnovers, but took a step backwards in 2020. Now under new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, Oregon's defense has reverted to its previous form and that all starts with keeping everything in front.
Ducks Preparing to Face B.J. Baylor, Pac-12's Top Rushing Attack
Oregon gave up a season-high 208 rushing yards against Utah and gets another tough challenge Saturday.
"We already said first-thing's first, we aren't giving up any more explosive plays," said McKinley III.
"Last year we didn't do as good of a job [with that,] allowing things to get behind us. Playing with good eyes, playing prepared and making sure we stay on top. Stay on top and being able to come back down the routes, staying aggressive and physical at the catch point helps with getting PBU's and interceptions."
McKinley's growth as a player has also made him the ultimate defensive weapon, giving DeRuyter amazing flexibility in terms of personnel packages and play calls.
"For me, I do everything," said McKinley III.
"I cover slot receivers, I cover tight ends, I blitz, I play in the box, I play single-high. Just being able to play in a defense where we're multiple, we have different sets, different personnels and then the ability to go out and blitz, it keeps people on their toes. They don't know if I'm blitzing, Noah's blitzing, Bennett's blitzing, we may have Mykael blitz. Everybody on the defense has to know how to blitz, we've been saying that. It keeps defenses on their toes because anything can come."
Now, with Thibodeaux expected to be a full participant this Saturday, the Oregon defense should only get better.
"Whenever we have pressure up front and you don't know who is going to give you that pressure, whether it's having to slide to KT and here comes Mase [Funa], try to double-team [Brandon] Dorlus, here comes KT," said McKinley III.
"You have Kristian Williams, you have Jayson Jones who has been doing really well, you have Noah Sewell shooting gaps so it keeps people on their toes. And of course it helps us in the secondary because there's pressure up front so you don't need to cover as long and if you do, there's going to be bad decisions made."
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