The most critical position in most modern defenses, nickel is also where one of Oregon’s biggest rising stars is emerging.

Jamal Hill had a breakout 2020 in his first year as a starter and closed the season particularly strong. He’s one of three returning starters in the UO secondary and one of the most important to the entire defense.

The nickel is asked to handle the greatest variety of matchups in coverage and help in run support and Hill was able to handle that as a true sophomore.

Oregon also has experienced veterans in Jordan Happle and Bennett Williams that are capable of playing nickel and box safety roles and Jeffrey Bassa is beginning his career at the nickel spot.

Post-spring depth chart

Jamal Hill: 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, sophomore

Jordan Happle: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, graduate-senior

Bennett Williams: 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, junior

Jeffrey Bassa: 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, freshman

Mario Cristobal’s take

“He’s going to be an extension of the coaching staff and a really strong advocate. A guy that really implements and enforces the culture of what we do and how we do things. Can’t say enough good things about him. A huge year coming up for Jamal Hill.”

Starter

Hill had 20 tackles with four pass breakups and two interceptions in six games in 2020.

He made 13 tackles in the final three games and both of his picks came in the Pac-12 Championship game against USC. His four PBUs all came against UCLA, which tried to match him up against its tight end.

Hill has the size, speed and instincts to be an effective nickel and the game reps he gained last season should prove invaluable over a regular season with more variety of personnel matchups.

“I feel like my football knowledge is growing every day,” Hill said. “I’m starting to see the concepts easier. I feel like it’s been pretty easy.”

He didn’t play in the spring game so it’s hard to say how much further along he’s gotten in the offseason.

Backup

With Hill out for the spring game, Happle worked with the first-team defense at nickel. He’ll be heavily in the rotation here and free safety.

Against four and five-wide sets, Happle is likely the next defensive back to get called upon, based purely on his skill set.

Next wave

Bennett Williams played nickel with the second-team defense during the spring game. He’s one of Oregon’s hardest hitters and a true box safety. He played Dime last season and probably will again under defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, though we didn’t see that package from UO this spring.

Bassa spent the spring at nickel and had three tackles during the spring game. Of those, two were on runs.

“He has a great feel of the game,” safeties coach Marcel Yates said. “He naturally ends up places where he makes a lot of plays. He’s a stronger guy. When he gets his hands on people he can control guys. He gets off blocks well. He gets on people as well to disrupt routes.”

Summer arrivals

Darren Barkins and Avante Dickerson are arriving at corner this summer. It appears most likely that they’ll end up at outside corner spots though, particularly with Bassa already beginning at nickel.

Quotable

“I love (Hill’s) work ethic. He shows up every day to work. He wants to know the ins and out of the defense. He wants to work technique. We’ve been working on hips and man-to-man coverage and stuff like that with him and he’s getting better each day. That work ethic that he has, I appreciate that. I think he’s a leader in the room. You can’t ask for more.” — Safeties coach Marcel Yates

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