The Oregon Ducks may be better known for offense but for the second year in a row it could be a defensive player who earns the highest grade from NFL scouts.
Junior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu would have to give up a year of eligibility to be in contention for the honor of following up hybrid pass rusher Dion Jordan a year ago but against rival Oregon State Friday night, he showed the versatile skill-set talent evaluators are looking for at cornerback in today's NFL.
Ekpre-Olumu played a key role in the Ducks' keeping OSU's best player, wideout Brandin Cooks, out of the end zone in the Ducks' 36-35 victory in the 117th edition of The Civil War. Cooks, the nation's leading receiver with an average of 141.8 receiving yards per contest, was held to 110 on 10 catches, numbers which sound better on paper than they proved in this contest.
At times, Ekpre-Olomu was asked to provide man to man coverage against Cooks, a dynamic athlete whose frame and game remind scouts of Seattle's Percy Harvin. Often, Oregon kept a safety back to keep OSU's star wideout from beating them vertically.
This was the case when the Oregon cornerback ended the Beavers' first drive of the game with an interception in the end zone. The play came on 4th and 1 and on a play-action pass from quarterback Sean Mannion.
Scouts are always appreciative of ball-hawking cornerbacks and Ekpre-Olomu has certainly shown the ball-skills to earn that designation with Friday night's theft his seventh over the past two seasons.
While interceptions are nice, it is Ekpre-Olomu's physicality which stands out in comparison to most of the other highly regarded cornerbacks across the country.
Ekpre-Olomu was unofficially credited with 14 tackles against the Beavers, consistently knocking back OSU ball-carriers with sound, physical hits. Many of his stops were due to his aggression in fighting through blocks and a testament to his recognition against quick screens and the run.
One particularly impressive tackle came midway through the third quarter with the Ducks clinging to a 24-20 lead.
Mannion found running back Terron Ward on a quick dump-off pass on 3rd and eight from the Ducks' 11-yard line. Ward appeared to have an easy lane for the first down and perhaps a score. Instead, Ekpre-Olomu fought through a block to meet the back chest high, driving him out of bounds to set up 4th and one. Ward was stopped for a loss of one a play later, giving the Ducks back the ball and, just as importantly, momentum.
The ability to create turnovers and play the run are critical to earn a high grade from NFL scouts but the most important skill for any cornerback, of course, is coverage ability.
Expre-Olomu has fluid hips and light feet, which give him the ability to change directions quickly. He is an instinctive, alert defender who reads the quarterback and receiver well, often getting a break on the ball, as a result. These traits helped Ekpre-Olomu break up four passes Friday night, including a potential touchdown early in the game and the Beavers' two-point conversion attempt with just 1:38 remaining in the game that would have given Oregon State a seven-point lead.
Instead, Marcus Mariota led the Ducks on a game-winning touchdown drive moments later.