A Rich Tradition at Cornerback

Oregon has featured a lot of lock-down cornerbacks over the years. Chris Oldham was named All American in 1989 and selected by Detroit in the fourth round of the 1990 NFL draft. Muhammad Oliver earned a starting job in his senior year at Oregon in 1991, which propelled him to Denver in the eighth round of the 1992 draft.

Then came the fabled "chaos and mayhem" tandem, Herman O'Berry and Alex Molden. Both were All Americans, O'Berry in 1994 and Molden in 1995. Both were also drafted by the NFL, O'Berry in 1995 in the seventh round by St Louis and Molden in 1996 in the first round by New Orleans. What was also amazing about these two special Ducks was that they both earned starting roles as freshmen, O'Berry as a redshirt and Molden as a first-year player.

There are few positions in college football where a high school kid can come in and play in his first year much less start. Generally, players must first gain strength and weight and a feeling for the speed of the game, not to mention learn a complicated playbook. However, cornerbacks who primarily must go one-on-one with receivers can sometimes overcome the wait relying on sheer athleticism and an uncanny instinct for the game. O'Berry and Molden were of this ilk as well as a couple of other later Ducks.

Of course there is no forgetting Kenny Wheaton, who endeared himself as a redshirt freshman to Duck fans forever by returning a 97-yard interception in 1994 to close the door on Washington in the final minute and preserve Oregon's march to the 1995 Rose Bowl. Wheaton was the first player in the history of the school to leave early for the NFL getting drafted in the third round in 1997 by Dallas. Wheaton had the lock-down corner instinct and played so well against the opposition that after his first year teams habitually started throwing away from him.

In the second game of the 1997 season, a diminutive true freshman named Rashad Bauman started for Oregon at cornerback against Nevada. Bauman went on to record nine tackles that day and an interception. He finished the year as the Duck's fifth leading tackler garnering four interceptions including a 61-yard return for a touchdown against USC. As a senior in the Holiday Bowl, Bauman will always be remembered for coming back into the game with cramps to intercept Chris Simms in the waning moments to ensure the Oregon Victory. Washington selected Bauman in the third round of the 2002 NFL draft. Bauman's counterpart, Steve Smith wasn't too shabby in his own right at cornerback, getting drafted in 2002 in the seventh round by Jacksonville.

In one hundred and eight years of Oregon football only 20 Ducks have been tabbed first team All Americans. Excluding any two-way players, four were Oregon cornerbacks including Jim Smith in 1967, Oldham, O'Berry and Molden.

In 2002, Oregon started another true freshman at cornerback, 5-8 Aaron Gipson. During his 11 starts, Gipson made many plays with flair including earning Pac-10 Conference defensive player of the week after his two-interception performance in a narrow 31-30 victory over UCLA. As with Bauman, Gipson showed the tenacity to make heroic tackles in space such as at the line of scrimmage during a screen pass. But, Gipson also had his hands full many times playing against the tall premier Pac-10 receivers that have recently come in vogue with many opponents making a point of getting him isolated for the big pass plays deep in the secondary. As a sophomore in 2003 Gipson played mostly as a nickel back as Oregon struggled to get out of the statistical cellar of Division I schools for pass defense.

In 2004, the Ducks have had a remarkable turnaround in passing defense. With six games under its belt Oregon is ranked a respectable 23rd among Division I schools in passing defense allowing only an average of 174.5 yards per game.

At left cornerback, the Ducks have started none other than Gipson who is tied at 13th in nation in interceptions with three after six games. Gipson appears to be back on track with all the learn-by-adversity lessons behind him. He is playing with the same tenacity he showed as a true freshman at the line of scrimmage and with the confidence he didn't have before in deep coverage.

But if Gipson wasn't enough of a pleasant surprise to Duck fans this year, consider true freshman Jackie Bates who received his first start against Arizona. The 5-10 De La Salle High School product finished the day with four solo tackles, tied for third among Duck defenders, two pass break-ups, and one interception – his first as Duck. Arizona didn't complete a pass on Bates' side of the field. Bates has all the earmarks to carry on the rich Oregon tradition of lock-down cornerbacks. In addition to medium height and terrific leaping ability, Bates has been clocked running the 100 meters in 10.7 seconds. It is that kind of speed that will enable him to shadow opposing receivers on deep post and crossing routes and allow the Duck defense the luxury of stacking the line of scrimmage. This has been the Duck ticket to success for all the great Oregon teams since the 1995 Rose Bowl.

Gipson and Bates, they may not yet be chaos and mayhem, but they earned starts as true freshman, and six games into the 2004 season appear to be making a positive impact as the team and the defense has had to dig deep to recover from a 1-3 start.

Listen to Jackie Bates discuss his first career interception, by clicking here.

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